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July 11, 2019

12 Interesting Facts About Nikola Tesla You Probably Didn’t Know

Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and futurist who is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Throughout his life, Tesla registered more than 300 patents and envisioned many more inventions.

Nikola Tesla in his 20s, and later in his 70s.

In honor of Tesla’s 163th birthday, we gathered a list of 12 interesting facts you probably never knew about the inventor.

1. He Was Born During a Lightning Storm

In perhaps the best foreshadowing in history, Tesla was born around midnight during a fierce lightning storm in Serbia. The midwife thought it was a bad omen and that he would be a child of darkness, but Tesla’s mother prophetically said, “No, he will be a child of light.”

Nikola Tesla's family: his father Milutin, his mother Duka, his older brother Dane, and his three sisters, Milka, Angelina and Marica. Nikola sits alone on the far left.

2. He Had an Obsessive Personality

Playing into his stereotype of a mad scientist, Tesla suffered from many characteristics that today would likely be classified as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was obsessed with the number three and detested jewelry, round objects, and touching hair.

He was particularly wary of pearls and wouldn’t talk to women wearing them; he even sent his secretary home when she wore pearl jewelry. He was also an insomniac and claimed he only needed two hours of sleep at night, though he often took afternoon naps.

3. He Was a Germaphobe

After a near-fatal case of cholera as a teenager, Tesla became obsessive about germs and cleaning everything. He has an extensive and rigid personal hygiene routine, used 18 napkins to wipe his dining room every night, and wore white gloves to every dinner.

Nikola Tesla aged 23, circa 1879.

4. He Was Really Funny

Most people don’t know that Tesla had a terrific sense of humor. For example, after dining with writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, he wrote this in a correspondence to a close friend:
April 1, 1901
My dear Mrs. Johnson,
What is the matter with inkspiller Kipling? He actually dared to invite me to dine in an obscure hotel where I would be sure to get hair and cockroaches in the soup.
Yours truly,
N. Tesla

5. He and Edison Were Rivals, But Not Sworn Enemies

Many have characterized Tesla and inventor Thomas Edison as enemies, but this relationship has been misrepresented. Early in his career, Tesla worked for Edison, designing direct current generators, but famously quit to pursue his own project: the alternating current induction motor. Sure, they were on different sides of the so-called “Current Wars,” with Edison pushing for direct current and Tesla for alternating current.

On a rare occasion, Edison attended a conference where Tesla was speaking. Edison, hard of hearing and not wanting to be spotted, slipped into the back of the auditorium to listen to the lecture. But Tesla spotted Edison in the crowd, called attention to him and led the audience in giving him a standing ovation.

Thomas Edison

6. We Can Credit Him for the Idea of Wireless Internet and Smartphones

Believe it or not, in 1901, Tesla actually had the idea for a wireless way to gather information, code it in his lab, change the frequency, and broadcast it to a hand-held device—nearly exactly how our smartphones work today. Like many of Tesla’s great ideas, it was never created or tested.

Nikola Tesla, with Rudjer Boscovich’s book Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis, in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer at his East Houston St., New York, laboratory, circa 1896.

7. He Had an Amazing Memory

Tesla had the power to memorize entire books and pictures with great detail, which is assumed to be part of the cause of his terrible nightmares as a child. He also had visions of numerous inventions filed away in his brain, many of which never made it onto paper. One of Tesla’s most unique attributes was the ability to visualize in 3D, allowing him to see all sides of an invention before it was created.

8. Mark Twain Owes Him for Shaking His Constipation Issues

Tesla was constantly looking for more efficient energy sources and built a high-frequency oscillator, known as an earthquake machine, which shook his Manhattan neighborhood when he conducted experiments. Tesla invited his friend Mark Twain, who was known to have constipation issues, to stand on the machine’s platform while he turned it on; within minutes, Twain was running to the bathroom to relieve his problem.

Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s lab, March 1894.

9. He Lived in Multiple Manhattan Hotels

Throughout his life, and especially towards the end, Tesla lived in a long line of Manhattan hotels. At the height of his career his lived in the Waldorf Astoria, which is part of the reason he had so many famous friends, including conservationist John Muir and bankers Henry Clay Frick and Thomas Fortune Ryan. However, Tesla was focused more on humanity and his experiments than money, so he was never rich and died quite poor, despite his famous friends.

Nikola Tesla standing next to his suite at the Hotel New Yorker, circa 1934.

10. Many of His Inventions Are Still Classified

Tesla died in 1943, but some of his inventions and experiments are still classified by the U.S. government. After his death, all of his possessions were sized by the Office of Alien Property and eventually released to his family, but a few select items are still behind lock and key.

Nikola Tesla’s AC induction motor (1888). It remains one of the most important inventions in modern history.

11. The U.S. Government Thought German Spies Were Using Tesla’s Creations

Tesla built a 185-foot tower in Long Island, New York called the Wardenclyffe Tower. He used the massive machine to conduct many of his wireless power transmission experiments in the early 1900s and believed it had the power to suck electricity out of the sky.

Authorities became worried the Germans were using the tower for radio transmission during World War I and blew up the tower, though some people believe the story is a cover for Tesla to scrap the materials because he was out of money. The remains of the tower are being converted to a Tesla museum, funded through crowd funding and a $1 million donation from Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.

Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower in Long Island, 1904.

12. Without His Inventions and Research, Our Modern World Would Look Quite Different

Tesla’s experiments can be seen in numerous aspects of modern technology and everyday life, including florescent lighting, x-ray machines, radio, television, cell phones, and more. The words spoken by a presenter in 1917 when Tesla received the Edison Medal still ring true: “Suffice it to say that, were we to seize and to eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle. Yea, so far reaching is this work, that it has become the warp and woof of industry.”



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