10 Interesting Facts About Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla 1895

Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American physicist and inventor known for his showmanship. Obsessed with electrical engineering since childhood, he moved to the US where his alternating current inventions helped George Westinghouse outperform the direct current technologies of Thomas Edison’s company. Later, he started his own ventures and held numerous public performances. His most famous inventions include an AC-powered induction motor, a bladeless turbine, and the Tesla coil, most widely used today for entertainment. In this article, we will bring up 10 interesting facts that you probably do not know about the great Serbian American inventor.

1. Nikola Tesla wanted to make self-driving cars in the 19th century.

Tesla's radio controlled boat
The first radio-controlled boat, built by Tesla in 1898.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tesla loved making predictions, especially in his later years. And though some of them are still hard to imagine, such as the wireless transmission of power or flying cars, others have already become a reality. In 1926, he envisioned a world where people could see and hear from a distance through devices that they carry in their pockets. He also claimed that in 1898, he proposed to one manufacturer to create an automobile that would think for itself.

2. Tesla had a photographic memory and a passion for languages.

Nikola Tesla in his lab 1891
Nikola Tesla and with his equipment, 1891.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Accrediting it to his mother’s genes, Tesla allegedly had an eidetic memory, being able to memorize books as a child and later visualize his inventions as an adult. Although his English accent might not have been as American as depicted in the last season of Doctor Who, he could speak many languages. Of course, this is quite natural for someone who grew up in rural Croatia, studied in Graz and Prague, worked in Budapest and Paris, and finally moved to New York well into adulthood.

3. Despite his brilliance, Nikola Tesla never acquired a college degree.

Milutin Tesla, the father of Nikola Tesla, died soon after his son’s return home in 1879.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While it may not sound very surprising for a 19th-century inventor, Nikola Tesla had once been on track to becoming an accomplished scholar in Graz, Austria. He reportedly studied 20 hours a day and had excellent grades in most of his classes. This did not last, however, as Tesla developed a gambling addiction and did not show up at his third-year exams in 1878. He lost his scholarship and never received a formal education.

4. As a lifelong workaholic, Tesla preferred to stay away from romantic relationships.

Nikola Tesla 1890
A widely circulated portrait of Nikola Tesla, c. 1890.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During his many interviews, Nikola Tesla, a self-proclaimed celibate stated that inventors, unlike men of other vocations, cannot marry if they want to be truly successful. While he always idolized his mother and all other women, in 1924 he described the newly emancipated women competing with men as breaking men’s spirits and undermining progress. His nephew suggested that love affairs played a role in him dropping out of college at age 21.

5. Tesla strongly disagreed with theories of contemporary science.

Nikola Tesla 1896
Nikola Tesla reading “A Theory of Natural Philosophy” (R. Boscovich, 1758), which was influential but largely outdated at the time, 1896.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although Tesla was known to dabble in poetry, only one of his poems from the 1920s was later made public. In the “Fragments of Olympian Gossip”, he brings up the shifts in science – from the overturning of Archimedes’s ideas by Isaac Newton to the later reversal to Albert Einstein’s new theories, and finally hinting at himself disproving Einstein in the future. He brought this up repeatedly, such as in an interview in 1935. What is even more shocking, the master of electricity chose to believe in the medieval ether as the source of electricity instead of electrons, which were discovered in 1897.

6. Nikola Tesla was friends with a Nazi and a proponent of eugenics.

George Viereck
Portrait of George Viereck, 1922.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons// Public Domain

Tall and slender, Tesla had an elegant style and demeanor, but he also despised those who did not dress well or were overweight. Not unpredictably, among his many friends, there was one George Viereck, the original recipient of the aforementioned poem and a Nazi propagandist, whose views Tesla at least partially endorsed. In 1937, Tesla claimed that sterilizing criminals and the mentally ill was not enough and called for restrictions on marriage based on genetics.

7. Nikola Tesla’s career as an inventor unraveled as quickly as it started.

Wardenclyffe station
The infamous Wardenclyffe station that was never completed, Shoreham, New York, 1904.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Four years after arriving in the US, Tesla made enough money with his AC patents to build his first lab, while decidedly defeating Edison in the war of the currents. Just a decade later, in 1901, he began the construction of the never-completed Wardenclyffe Tower, an outrageously expensive project which he first marketed as a wireless cross-continental communication system to compete with Marconi’s radio and later announced to be used for wireless transfer of electricity. It was an all-around fiasco with the first market crash in 1901, the subsequent refusal of the main investor J. P. Morgan to fund the changes, and the killing of the tower’s architect in 1906. By the 1920s, Tesla found work as a consulting engineer, but his suggestions were rarely implemented. 

8. Fragile since adolescence, Tesla’s mental health took a toll when his fortunes diminished

Tesla's thought camera
Tesla’s hypothesized thought camera – a device that would project images directly from the mind, 1933.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There were signs of Tesla having had a progressing mental illness throughout his life. While he might not have slept 2 hours a day as he proclaimed, he did suffer from insomnia. This might have been the cause for his supposedly regular hallucinations, but does not explain his obsession with number 3, his hatred for jewelry, or his extreme germaphobia. But he might have permanently injured himself with electricity by experimenting with electrical brain stimulation he pitched for use in New York schools in 1912. Meanwhile, he also developed a strange love for pigeons, which he fed daily and treated for injuries. One of these was reportedly the love of his life, and upon the vision of her death in 1922, he concluded that his life’s work was finished.

9. Nikola Tesla lived like a rich man even after his financial ruin.

Nikola Tesla and King Peter II of Yugoslavia
Nikola Tesla and the young King Peter II of Yugoslavia, New Yorker Hotel, 1942.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons  // CC BY-SA 4.0

The beginning of Tesla’s downfall coincided with him moving into a luxurious New York hotel Waldorf-Astoria, where he ended up living for 15 years, and dining at high-end restaurants with his many potential investors and journalists. By 1915, his finances were so bad that he had to sell the Wanderclyffe property to pay his hotel bill, later moving from one hotel to another leaving without payment. From 1933 and until he died in 1943, Westinghouse picked up the tab for his stay at the New Yorker Hotel. He continued to keep a neat but old-fashioned look in his senior years, as well.

10. Tesla is either underrated and overrated, depending on whom you ask.

Nikola Tesla superimposed to the three coil circuit 1899
Nikola Tesla superimposed next to his three-coil circuit, Colorado Springs, 1899.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Many consider Tesla’s contributions to modern technology to have been vastly underrated, particularly in comparison to Edison. Some even call him a “modern Prometheus”. Others criticize him for his unfounded claims and highlight that his 300 or so patents worldwide were mostly small steps rather than great technological leaps. And there is indeed a prevalence of myths surrounding his innovations. In the end, we can safely say that Tesla’s name will not be forgotten any time soon.

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