I just finished reading All About Tesla – How Nikola Tesla Invented the 20th Century by Michael Krause. I have heard much about the scientist and it was good to read a complete biography of him. His picture graces the 100 RSD note and the airport is named after him. The book is a bit dry, but Krause does a good job of covering the details of his life as well as mixing in his personal experience during the research on his life.
I would compare Tesla to Steve Jobs of today, but with bad business sense and a bit of autism/depression in the mix. He was one of the superstars of a new technology, electricity, and fortunes were made as the young industry got its start. It would have been amazing to live at that time, and the book captured the sense of society’s first reaction to electric light. Like the internet and computers of today, it fundamentally changed the way we lived. Before reading the book, I was under the impression that it was Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla to determine if direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) would become the dominate form of electrical circuitry. But in reality, there were many more people involved than just those two. Tesla’s contribution was producing a motor that George Westinghouse used to become rich and have AC be the current of choice. Tesla’s big mistake was selling Westinghouse the patent and not collecting royalties. The generator allowed Westinghouse and then others produce enough power to transport the current over distances. Like Jobs, Tesla was famous for his presentations. He gave lectures all over the world that were known for his showmanship. He wowed crowds with his demonstrations of wireless transfer of electricity to light early fluoresent light bulbs.
Tesla is a “rags to riches” story. His father was an Orthodox priest in a small village in Croatia. Tesla barely got into university in Austria. His uncle pulled some strings and he got in on a military scholarship. Like many peasants in the late 1800s, Tesla fled the Austro-Hungarian Empire (my ancestors did a few years after Tesla left) to go to the US to make his fortune. He eventually became a world-class inventor and scientist, and also a huge celebrity. He lived large, living in luxurious hotels his entire life, and gave lectures demonstrating all sorts of electrical phenomena, like flourescent light bulbs lighting without being plugged in. He was good friends with Mark Twain and other famous personalities. Due to his extravagant living, it was constantly a boom and bust for Tesla. Many venture capitalists like J.P. Morgan, invested in his research and development laboratories, but because he as a wacko and didn’t focus on products that could be sold for a profit, he lost a lot of people a lot of money. The lectures and his articles for New York journals, made him quite a celebrity. He lived life large!
Tesla did come up with many patents and his ideas were ahead of his time. His ideas contributed to someone else making money in the fields of radio, x-rays, hydro-electric power, remote-controlled submarines, etc. As he got older, he got more out there, focusing all of his experimentation on impossible schemes. He was obsessed with a tower in his lab in New Jersey. He had the idea of a super tower that could send electricity across the world, as well as being a weapon, kind of like a laser death-ray of science fiction. Indeed, many of his ideas were used by science fiction writers of his time. In comics in the 1940s, some writers based their “evil scientist” character on Tesla.
I loved his idea of tapping into the cosmos’ energy, kind of like being able to power devices on cosmic rays or dark matter or the collective consciousness of living beings. Maybe someday this will be a reality.
He had many strange quirks. He was celibate his entire life. He worked insane hours with little sleep (10:30 AM – 5:00 AM) and avoided all sunlight. This led to periods of exhaustion and depression. He had to put pieces of rubber under his bed for a time, because of his hyper bat-like senses wouldn’t let him sleep because he detected the friction of the bed posts and the floor.
He was also proud to be a Serbian and in his later years, the Yugoslavian government supported him. I learned from the book that his name may be Ukrainian, because Tesla is not a typical Serbian surname. He was a fascinating fellow to say the least and Serbia and Yugoslavia should be proud of his contributions to the human race. I really want to go see his museum here in Belgrade. I’ll do a post on my visit there.
If you want to read more about Tesla, there is a lot about him on the internet. This is a link to a New York Times’ article about his New York laboratory, “Wardenclyffe”, which is for sale.