By now, we all know his name. Elon Musk paid homage by naming his revolutionary electric car company Tesla Motors, but not many know the real story of the life of Nikola Tesla. This is the story of the world’s first mad scientist.
Nikola Tesla was born on July 10th, 1857 in Smiljan, Austrian Empire, what is today Croatia. He was a gifted student, capable of performing integral calculus in his head and he had a photographic memory.
By 1875, he enrolled at Austrian Polytechnic in Austria on a scholarship. He was an astounding student, never missed class, earned the highest grades possible, and passed twice as many exams as were necessary. The dean would say to his father, “Your son is a star of first rank,” but also that he would work himself to death if he wasn’t removed from school. Tesla claimed he worked from 3 a.m. to 11.p.m. every day of the week and on holidays.
However, by his third year Tesla became addicted to gambling, lost his scholarship, tuition and allowance money, and by his senior year dropped out of the school and never spoke to his family again.
Tesla met Thomas Edison in 1884 and began working for his company, Edison Machine Works. Recognizing his genius, he was offered the task of redesigning Edison’s inefficient generators, to which Edison allegedly said, “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you—if you can do it.”
After several months, Tesla did it, went back to Edison about the money, and Edison trolled him saying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Edison instead offered Tesla a $10 raise, which he refused, and the livid Tesla immediately quit, igniting the lifelong arch-rivalry between Edison and Tesla.
By 1886, Tesla had been screwed over in some bad business deals, lost valuable patents in the deal and was forced out of his company, Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. He worked as a ditch digger for $2 dollars a day, making that year a time of “terrible headaches and bitter tears.”
Fast forward a couple years and a new company, the Tesla Electric Company, was founded and Tesla’s work on alternating currents became licensed to George Westinghouse for $60,000 in cash, $2.50 per AC horsepower, and Tesla was making $2000 per month as a consultant for Westinghouse. He was making bank.
With his money, he moved to Colorado Springs and created a lab where he experimented with crazy electrical inventions and went into studying how to harness the power of the Earth’s magnetosphere.
In 1900 he built the Wardenclyffe tower, a massive Tesla coil that would have been able to transmit radio signals and wireless electricity, but it was never finished because J.P. Morgan bailed on him.
Later on back at his lab on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, Tesla created a steam-powered mechanical oscillator. In the same way an opera singer can use their voice to break glass, this machine created destructive resonance frequencies. Tesla switched it on and it started generating an earthquake so powerful it nearly destroyed three buildings and Tesla had to destroy it with a sledgehammer as the cops broke into his lab to stop him. He later claimed he could generate a frequency that could destroy the world.
Later on in his life, Tesla developed schematics, and allegedly tested, a device that could shoot particles and destroy anything it was fired at, affectionately called the “death ray.”
“[The nozzle would] send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.”
He was the world’s first mad scientist; he is most remembered for creating the electrical systems we use today, but also for being the arch-nemesis of Thomas Edison, inventing wireless electricity, creating a device could theoretically destroy the world, and boasted of inventing a “death ray” many times more powerful than the atomic bomb.
As a super genius, minus the evil, Tesla learned to speak up to eight languages, owned around 300 patents, had an obsessive compulsive disorder, became overly obsessed with pigeons, and suffered from nervous breakdowns. He claimed to never sleep more than two hours at a time. He also allegedly stayed a virgin his entire life so he could concentrate on his work.
Unfortunately, as a scientist that only wanted to give the world his incredible creations, Tesla died in 1943, broke and in debt from his experiments, and by himself in The New Yorker Hotel. What is left of Tesla’s work is lost, confiscated, or died with him, and we are barely scraping the surface of his work today. Tesla’s story is one of hard work, amazing creations, and shows that even the legacy of true geniuses live on.
“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success… such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”