Nikola Tesla was born during a lightning storm on July 10, 1856; a prophetic beginning for a man whose life would be devoted to studying and manipulating electrical energy. With over 300 patents, Tesla was a prolific inventor, and his work helped create the modern world. You know alternating current? The form of electricity that’s being used to power your house? Tesla pioneered that.
Unfortunately, Tesla was also the forerunner of a picture all too common today: A genius easily exploited by powerful, business savvy companies. He was one of the greatest minds of his generation, but for well over half a century after his death, he was treated as a sideshow curiosity. His inventions were stolen, mismanaged, copied and discredited, even as others made their fortunes off of them. Today, there is hardly a person alive whose life isn’t transformed by Tesla’s brilliance every day. All that and five bucks would have bought him a bus ticket. Perhaps the only person since Tesla whose existence has not been dramatically improved by his inventions was Tesla himself. His legacy has only recently started to be rescued from obscurity. He’s not alive to see it, but that doesn’t make him any less deserving.
He spoke eight languages and memorized entire books, which he could recite at will. His memory was so powerful, in fact, that it caused him trouble at school (his professors thought he was cheating because he could do integral calculus in his head).
In his first year of school, he earned the highest grades possible and passed nine exams (more than double what was required). However, by the end of his second year, Tesla lost his scholarship while nurturing a budding gambling addiction. This addiction blossomed during his third year as he gambled away all his tuition and allowance money. Though he managed to win back all the money he lost and returned it to his family, he never managed to finish school and spent several years in a self-imposed exile.
By 1884, Tesla made his way to the United States and worked for Thomas Edison. Though he started with basic electrical engineering, he quickly moved to more challenging work, ultimately redesigning the direct current generators the Edison Company used to generate electricity.
The budding partnership didn’t last. Accounts of why differ, but Tesla believed there was a significant cash reward in it if he could redesign Edison’s generators. So, Tesla resigned in protest and started Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing with the help of several investors.
Things looked up, but only briefly. In short order, Tesla was forced out of the company bearing his name. The passion of his invention didn’t line up with the investors’ vision of creating a utility company. Tesla was broke and didn’t even own the patents to his work. He’d filed them through the company bearing his name.
This would become the ongoing story of Tesla’s life: a ping pong match between his brilliance and his illness. He was repeatedly exploited by others for his abilities but manipulated into terms that left him without income or control over his creations.
Later in life, Tesla built an oscillator that started to shake the ground with the intensity of an earthquake. He started work on a massive tower that could transmit power and communications across the Atlantic but ran out of funding before he could test it at full power.
Following this failure, Tesla’s brilliance is hard to distinguish from his madness. He claimed he’d perfected wireless power distribution and communications, as well as a means to detect minerals in the Earth. He claimed to produce a “death ray,” a directed energy weapon that could “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 lived in a hotel, broke, and eating milk and crackers. He was obsessed with caring for wild pigeons. In one of his last interviews, he confessed falling in love with one of the birds and said he saw beams of light come from her eyes. Where does Tesla’s genius end and his delusions begin? His accomplishments are too great to ignore, but society was more intrigued by his delusions.
So, while many of his contemporaries found success and prominent mentions in our history books, the complicated “mad scientist” that was Nikola Tesla died lost and alone, and was quickly forgotten.
We credit Thomas Edison with modern power, but Edison was on the wrong side of the “current wars.” So it is Tesla with whom we must give credit for x-rays, radar, neon lights, and even the fundamental technologies that lead to the transistor — and with it, computers. Tesla’s contributions to all of these are well documented, but Tesla’s name has only recently returned to public awareness.
Nikola Tesla shines a light on the darker corners of the American technology industry. Many companies are built on the brilliance of young engineers and researchers whose work is consumed and claimed by more business savvy leaders. How many “household names” and seven-digit bank accounts owe their success to the geeks most content to toil away in a lab?
We all write off strange and eccentric characters without realizing their potential. It’s human nature. But Nikola Tesla reminds us how myopic our view of those outside the margins can be. And if the recent surge in his name awareness is any indication, he’s also a reminder of how difficult it is to quantify our own influence. Tesla died alone and forgotten. Today, almost half a century later, his name is being used as the banner for what might just be today’s most inventive, progressive car manufacturer.
There is more to life than being a genius. Tesla is proof of that. But there is also more to life than just your life. No one can accurately judge their own legacy because our legacies remain fluid long after our own deaths. Tesla is proof of that too, and while he may not be around to enjoy the fruits of his labor, there’s little doubt that if he were, he’d feel vindicated.