Beasts of Ephesus

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Profile: Nikola Tesla

Posted by jase on July 10, 2009

Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was an inventor and a mechanical and electrical engineer. Tesla was an ethnic Serb born in the village of Smiljan, Vojna Krajina, in the territory of today’s Croatia. He was a subject of the Austrian Empire by birth and later became an American citizen. He is frequently cited as one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, a man who “shed light over the face of Earth”. He is best known for many revolutionary contributions in the field of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tesla’s patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern alternating current (AC) electric power systems, including the polyphase power distribution systems and the AC motor, with which he helped usher in the Second Industrial Revolution.

After his demonstration of wireless communication (radio) in 1894 and after being the victor in the “War of Currents”, he was widely respected as one of the greatest electrical engineers who worked in America. Much of his early work pioneered modern electrical engineering and many of his discoveries were of groundbreaking importance. During this period, in the United States, Tesla’s fame rivaled that of any other inventor or scientist in history or popular culture, but due to his eccentric personality and his seemingly unbelievable and sometimes bizarre claims about possible scientific and technological developments, Tesla was ultimately ostracized and regarded as a mad scientist. Never having put much focus on his finances, Tesla died impoverished at the age of 86.

The Nobel Prize and Edison

Since the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Marconi for radio in 1909, Thomas Edison and Tesla were mentioned as potential laureates to share the Nobel Prize of 1915 in a press dispatch, leading to one of several Nobel Prize controversies. Some sources have claimed that due to their animosity toward each other neither was given the award, despite their enormous scientific contributions, and that each sought to minimize the other one’s achievements and right to win the award, that both refused to ever accept the award if the other received it first, and that both rejected any possibility of sharing it.

In the following events after the rumors, neither Tesla nor Edison won the prize (although Edison did receive one of 38 possible bids in 1915, and Tesla did receive one bid out of 38 in 1937). Earlier, Tesla alone was rumored to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize of 1912. The rumored nomination was primarily for his experiments with tuned circuits using high-voltage high-frequency resonant transformers.

In 1915, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Marconi attempting, unsuccessfully, to obtain a court injunction against Marconi’s claims. After Wardenclyffe, Tesla built the Telefunken Wireless Station in Sayville, Long Island. Some of what he wanted to achieve at Wardenclyffe was accomplished with the Telefunken Wireless. In 1917, the facility was seized and torn down by the Marines, because it was suspected that it could be used by German spies.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Critiques

Before World War I, Tesla looked overseas for investors to fund his research. When the war started, Tesla lost the funding he was receiving from his patents in European countries. After the war ended, Tesla made predictions regarding the relevant issues of the post-World War I environment, in a printed article (20 December 1914). Tesla believed that the League of Nations was not a remedy for the times and issues. Tesla started to exhibit pronounced symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the years following. He became obsessed with the number three; he often felt compelled to walk around a block three times before entering a building, demanded a stack of three folded cloth napkins beside his plate at every meal, etc. The nature of OCD was little understood at the time and no treatments were available, so his symptoms were considered by some to be evidence of partial insanity, and this undoubtedly hurt what was left of his reputation.

Tesla was critical of Einstein’s relativity work, calling it:

…[a] magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king … its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists …[76]

Tesla also argued:

I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view.[77]

Tesla also believed that much of Albert Einstein’s relativity theory had already been proposed by Ruđer Bošković, stating in an unpublished interview:

…the relativity theory, by the way, is much older than its present proponents. It was advanced over 200 years ago by my illustrious countryman Ruđer Bošković, the great philosopher, who, not withstanding other and multifold obligations, wrote a thousand volumes of excellent literature on a vast variety of subjects. Bošković dealt with relativity, including the so-called time-space continuum …’.

Tesla’s Death Ray

Later in life, Tesla made remarkable claims concerning a “teleforce” weapon. The press called it a “peace ray” or death ray. In total, the components and methods included:

  • An apparatus for producing manifestations of energy in free air instead of in a high vacuum as in the past. This, according to Tesla in 1934, was accomplished.
  • A mechanism for generating tremendous electrical force. This, according to Tesla, was also accomplished.
  • A means of intensifying and amplifying the force developed by the second mechanism.
  • A new method for producing a tremendous electrical repelling force. This would be the projector, or gun, of the invention.

Tesla worked on plans for a directed-energy weapon from the early 1900s until his death. In 1937, Tesla composed a treatise entitled “The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media” concerning charged particle beams. Tesla published the document in an attempt to expound on the technical description of a “superweapon that would put an end to all war”. This treatise of the particle beam is currently in the Nikola Tesla Museum archive in Belgrade. It described an open ended vacuum tube with a gas jet seal that allowed particles to exit, a method of charging particles to millions of volts, and a method of creating and directing nondispersive particle streams (through electrostatic repulsion).

His records indicate that it was based on a narrow stream of atomic clusters of liquid mercury or tungsten accelerated via high voltage (by means akin to his magnifying transformer). Tesla gave the following description concerning the particle gun’s operation:

[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.

Personal Life

Tesla was fluent in many languages. Along with Serbo-Croatian, he spoke seven other languages: Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.  

Tesla may have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had many unusual quirks and phobias. He did things in threes, and was adamant about staying in a hotel room with a number divisible by three. Tesla was also noted to be physically revolted by jewelry, notably pearl earrings. He was fastidious about cleanliness and hygiene, and was by all accounts mysophobic.

Tesla was obsessed with pigeons, ordering special seeds for the pigeons he fed in Central Park and even bringing some into his hotel room with him. Tesla was an animal-lover, often reflecting contentedly about a childhood cat, “The Magnificent Macak.” Tesla never married. He was celibate and claimed that his chastity was very helpful to his scientific abilities. Nonetheless there have been numerous accounts of women vying for Tesla’s affection, even some madly in love with him. Tesla, though polite, behaved rather ambivalently to these women in the romantic sense.

Tesla was prone to alienating himself and was generally soft-spoken. However, when he did engage in a social life, many people spoke very positively and admiringly of him. Robert Underwood Johnson described him as attaining a “distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity, and force.” His loyal secretary, Dorothy Skerrit, wrote: “his genial smile and nobility of bearing always denoted the gentlemanly characteristics that were so ingrained in his soul.” Tesla’s friend Hawthorne wrote that “seldom did one meet a scientist or engineer who was also a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink.”

Nevertheless, Tesla displayed the occasional cruel streak; he openly expressed his disgust for overweight people, once firing a secretary because of her weight. He was quick to criticize others’ clothing as well, on several occasions demanding a subordinate to go home and change her dress.

Tesla was widely known for his great showmanship, presenting his innovations and demonstrations to the public as an artform, almost like a magician. This seems to conflict with his observed reclusiveness; Tesla was a complicated figure. He refused to hold conventions without his Tesla coil blasting electricity throughout the room, despite the audience often being terrified, though he assured them everything was perfectly safe.

In middle age, Tesla became very close friends with Mark Twain. They spent a lot of time together in his lab and elsewhere.

Tesla remained bitter in the aftermath of his incident with Edison. The day after Edison died the New York Times contained extensive coverage of Edison’s life, with the only negative opinion coming from Tesla, who was quoted as saying:

He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene  … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.

Shortly before he died, Edison said that his biggest mistake had been in trying to develop direct current, rather than the vastly superior alternating current system that Tesla had put within his grasp.


Tesla died of heart failure alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel, on 7 January 1943. Despite having sold his AC electricity patents, Tesla was destitute and died with significant debts. Later that year the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s patent number, in effect recognizing him as the inventor of radio.

Immediately after Tesla’s death became known, the government’s Alien Property Custodian office took possession of his papers and property, despite his US citizenship. His safe at the hotel was also opened. At the time of his death, Tesla had been continuing his work on the teleforce weapon, or death ray, that he had unsuccessfully marketed to the US War Department. It appears that his proposed death ray was related to his research into ball lightning and plasma, and was imagined as a particle beam weapon. The US government did not find a prototype of the device in the safe. After the FBI was contacted by the War Department, his papers were declared to be top secret. The personal effects were seized on the advice of presidential advisers; J. Edgar Hoover declared the case most secret, because of the nature of Tesla’s inventions and patents. One document stated that “[he] is reported to have some 80 trunks in different places containing transcripts and plans having to do with his experiments […]”.

Tesla’s Pigeon

According to John J. O’Neill, author of Prodigal Genius, the Life of Nikola Tesla, Tesla told him this story in the presence of William L. Laurence, the New York Times science writer.

Tesla had been feeding pigeons for years. Among them, there was a very beautiful female white pigeon with light gray tips on its wings that seemed to follow him everywhere. A great deal of rapport developed between them. As Tesla confessed, he loved that pigeon: “Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me.” If the pigeon became ill, he would nurse her back to health and as long as she needed him and he could have her, nothing else mattered and there was purpose in his life.

One night as he was lying in bed, she flew in through the window and he knew right away that she had something important to tell him: she was dying. “And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes – powerful beams of light”. “…Yes,” “…it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.”

Tesla admitted to O’Neill that when that particular pigeon died, something went out of his life. Before that time, he could complete the most ambitious programs he could ever dream of but after the pigeon flew into the beyond, he knew his life’s work was done for good.


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