Born on July 10, 1856, in Smiljan (now Croatia), Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor, engineer, and physicist. Tesla is most famously known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current electricity system.
Though he died poor in 1943, his reputation and inventions have caused a recent popular culture resurgence, where he’s now being depicted in movies, graphic novels, music and video games.
In 1960, the General Conference on Weights and Measures introduced the term “tesla” to the International System of Units for the SI unit measure for magnetic field strength.
Here are 10 facts about Nikola that you may not have known:
1. Tesla was an environmentalist
The inventor was concerned about people quickly consuming the Earth’s resources and was an advocate of renewable fuel. He researched methods of using natural energy from the ground and the sky to minimize the human impact of fossil fuel consumption. In fact, Tesla created artificial lightning in his own lab.
2. Tesla was born during a lightning storm
Quite fortuitously, Tesla was born during a particularly violent lightning storm. Reading this as a bad omen, the midwife asserted that this meant Tesla would be a “child of darkness.” Tesla’s mom, probably affronted by this woman’s assertion, immediately replied: “No. He will be a child of light.” Go, Tesla’s mom!
3. Tesla was a humanist
As a humanist, Tesla believed in improving the quality of human life but not for financial gains. And this is why, despite his many inventions and contributions to society, he died poor.
4. Tesla thought of wireless internet… in 1901
Tesla had an excellent imagination but didn’t put all of his ideas into practice. While developing transatlantic radio, he envisioned a system of collecting information, encoding it and broadcasting that information to a hand-held device – what we now have as mobile Internet on our phones. Tesla also imagined, but never created, the technology for radio astronomy, a particle beam “death ray,” radar and X-rays.
5. Tesla had a strong capacity for memory
Tesla’s memory was eidetic, which means he could recall entire books and images in great detail. He allegedly used his potent imagination to temper the vivid nightmares he had as a child.
6. The U.S. Government has classified Tesla’s stuff
When Tesla died, the Office of Alien Property seized all of his possessions. It eventually released most of his possessions to his family, and a few items were donated to the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. Curiously, Tesla died in 1943, yet some of his personal documents still remain classified to this day by the U.S. Government.
7. Tesla may have had obsessive compulsive behavior and insomnia
Tesla claimed that he needed only two hours of sleep a night. But it’s unclear whether this was because he wanted to or because he actually couldn’t sleep any more than that.
Tesla was also obsessed with the number 3, and used 18 napkins (a number divisible by 3) to clean his dining room before eating his evening meals. He detested round objects, jewelry, and touching hair.
8. Edison and Tesla were not arch-nemeses
It would be delightful to imagine Edison and Tesla as bitter enemies, constantly one-upping each other with their latest inventions. However, in actual fact, they collaborated in designing direct current generators before Tesla quit to pursue his dream of the alternate current induction motor. Perhaps, a more accurate description of their relationship is as ‘business rivals.’
9. Tesla helped relieve renowned author Mark Twain of some… issues…
On his quest to create more efficient electricity, Tesla believed he had created an earthquake machine, which shook his building and his neighborhood in Manhattan whenever he conducted his experiments. He later found out that he had actually created a high frequency oscillator, where a piston beneath a platform built into his lab fluctuated quickly with movement.
Friends with the digestive-challenged Twain through their gentlemen’s club, Tesla invited him to stand on the platform while the oscillator was switched on. After 90 seconds, Twain quickly dashed off to void his bowels.
10. You can get free Wi-Fi from Tesla
An Indiegogo campaign was launched by web comic creator Matthew Inman to raise funds for The Tesla Science Center. Raising $1.37 million, which was matched by a grant from New York State, the Tesla Science Center was purchased in May 2013.
Possibly building on the astonishing results of this campaign, a separate crowdsourcing campaign was launched to create a seven-foot-tall statue of Tesla in Palo Alto, California, in May 2013. Raising $127,000 from 722 backers, the statue was erected in December 2013 with a time capsule and a Wi-Fi hotspot free for anyone to use.