The boy spent much of his early childhood enduring Serbian traditions, including an overabundance of sloppy kisses from two wrinkly old aunts, one of whom had “two teeth protruding like the tusks of an elephant,” Nikola Tesla wrote in his autobiography. So one day, when his mother asked him which of the two aunts he thought was prettier, Tesla thoughtfully mulled it over, declaring, “This here is not as ugly as the other,” and thus revealing an early and wicked sense of humor.
Tesla, the forefather of the internet and the man who essentially invented the 20th century — with everything from modern electrical engineering advances such as the electric motor to X-rays, remote controls, radars and radio — didn’t just have a remarkable mind; he also had a witty one. Recognized as one of the greatest inventors of his time, his celebrity status saw him hobnobbing with the likes of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison and J.P Morgan.
THERE WERE MOMENTS WHERE HE WOULD BE THE TOAST OF THE TOWN AND MOMENTS WHERE HE SEEMED TO WANT TO SIT IN A DARK HOTEL ROOM AND BE BY HIMSELF.
“It’s a word that is overused, but he really was a genius and a star among the stars,” says Marc Seifer, author of the biographical account of the engineer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. The darling of the 20th century, best friends and acquaintances alike were regularly subjected to Tesla’s sense of humor. Arthur Brisbane, a newspaper editor for the New York World, once asked Tesla how he could have such light eyes and be a Slav (he was Serbian-American), and Tesla said that “using his mind a great deal had made them many shades lighter.”
But behind that exceptional brain was a dark secret. His obsessive mind, helped by an eidetic memory that focused the direction of his experiments, would often give way to overwhelming mania that some historians say resembled the chronic symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. He rarely slept, claiming to only need two hours a night, but he admitted to dozing occasionally to recharge. He hated the feel of jewelry and wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women” and that “the sight of a pearl would almost give [him] a fit.”
He would not touch another person’s hair, he wrote, unless he was “perhaps, at the point of a revolver,” and he could contract a fever just by looking at a peach. At Tesla’s most extreme, he was reportedly obsessed with a white pigeon he believed was communicating with him. “There were moments where he would be the toast of the town and moments where he seemed to want to sit in a dark hotel room and be by himself,” says W. Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.
But his innate brilliance and persistence in advancing humanity’s access to technology led one of his greatest inventions: wireless communications and limitless free energy. As early as 1893 he made pronouncements on the possibility of wireless communication with his devices, building a wireless-controlled boat and a wireless telephone, says Seifer, a full 70 years before wireless telephones went into circulation. Yet, he threw those ideas aside for the ill-fated, unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project in Long Island, a station aimed at providing intercontinental wireless transmission. Though the project was primarily backed by financier J.P. Morgan, who recognized there was likely profit to be made with wireless power, when Tesla asked for more money, Morgan refused.
Tesla’s main problem, Seifer says, was that Morgan couldn’t conceive of how to make money from something invisible like radio. “Morgan was used to simply putting a meter on and bringing money in that way,” Seifer said. “It was a whole new paradigm.” In 1904, Tesla, determined to see his idea come to fruition, wrote with absolute certainty that “when wireless is fully applied, the earth will be converted into a huge brain, capable of response in every one of its parts.” But the lack of cash proved the project’s death knell, leading to the ultimate downfall of one of the greatest inventors of our time — a megalomaniac who believed in all or nothing. “That was one of his character flaws,” says Carlson. “His illusions got ahead of the practical engineering.”
But he could be forgiven for his imperfections. After all, he also invented the hydroelectric system, a renewable clean energy system that for the first time ever slowed global warming, according to historians. In terms of relative foresight, Elon Musk, who named his automotive and energy storage company after Tesla, pales in comparison to the firm’s namesake. Yet Tesla himself was riddled with insecurity, especially over never managing to get his big tower project off the ground.
At the age of 86, Tesla died alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. He had been a lifelong bachelor, remaining single and boasting that his chastity helped him focus on his work. The success of the American economy will always depend on “a mix of the visionaries and the engineers,” says Carlson. But as Tesla learned, in a democratic society, it’s not enough to just come up with a product or idea. “You have to figure out how to scale it, or it doesn’t change the world,” Carlson adds.