We all like good stories, we are willing to believe them together while your narrative attracts us. Some work better than others, but in science there is one that has gone viral. Its ingredients are clear: a child from a humble family in Croatia demonstrates superior intelligence and migrates to the United States to change the world. There he confronts an exploiting chief who defeats, but does not get the recognition he deserved and dies alone, poor, persecuted by the FBI and, if you hurry me, by aliens. It’s about the story of Nikola Tesla, or at least the Nikola Tesla that we usually talk about.
Before continuing, nobody doubts that Tesla had a great mind and that its fruits have had a decisive impact in shaping the world in which we live. However, it is common to find him leading lists of the best scientists in history, and the question becomes evident. Does he really deserve that position? Was it more influential than Newton, Gauss or Darwin? The answer is not easy, the truth is that it never is when you talk about biographies, because, although it is difficult to accept it, even the most exceptional people in history are still people, not beings of light.
Son of the light
Tesla was born on January 7, 1856, in Smiljan, in present-day Croatia. They say that the birth took place during an intense storm and that, seeing it, the midwife said “He will be the son of the storm”, to which his mother Đuka Mandić replied: “No, he will be the son of light”. None of them could imagine that little Nikola would end up inventing the alternating energy engine that would give humanity energy. The truth is that we will never know if this conversation was real, but we must recognize that few biographies begin in such a novel way.
We know that Tesla was a restless young man, a lover of engineering and physics, and that, being deeply ill with cholera, he was able to take away from his father the idea of making him a priest. I read almost 24 hours a day and barely slept, but contrary to what the myth tells us, Tesla was not always the first of the class. In his second year of career he lost motivation, stopped studying and even became addicted to the game. Luckily he ended up recovering from the pothole and finished the race.
The young Tesla was measuring as an engineer, finding better jobs until he was hired by the Continental Edison CompanyHe finally worked for Thomas Alva Edison, one of the minds he most admired. The next step was on the other side of the ocean, he didn’t have much left to grow in the old continent, and in the new one he was waiting for a flesh and bone Edison, with which to work hand in hand.
Nikola came to the land of opportunities with a great mind, a dream, little business vision and several kilos of ego. This was an explosive combination in the presence of Edison, the two trains collided head-on and Tesla felt undervalued. After some rifirrafes decided to leave General Electric. Edison had promised him an economic reward for improving one of his patents and, after getting it, he had undressed by treating Tesla naive. So far myth and reality walk almost at par, it is now when fantasy arises.
Once upon a time
What the myth tells is that Tesla managed to stand up to Edison alone, putting General Electric in check by presenting the AC motor a better alternative to its flagship product: the DC motor. The difference was that the Tesla engine was able to change the direction of the current alternately, coming and going, while the continuous one travels in only one direction.
It is possible that, as history says, Tesla had an eureka moment during his time in Europe, but there was a long way to go between that inspiration and the large-scale commercialization of a new current model. Far from working alone, Tesla had a great team working at his command and with the financial support of another of the greatest engineers of his time, tycoon George Westinghouse. Finally, despite being less secure, the profitability of the AC model to transmit energy over long distances made it prevail for a long time. Tesla had won, but accompanied.
As we move away from this War of the Currents his life and myth diverge more and more. Above all, when we mix the interests of large companies.
Energy for everyone
More than the alternating current, Tesla has passed into popular culture through the 150-meter-high Wardenclyffe tower. An attempt to supply electricity without wires to everyone. The idea is wonderful and the altruism that distills is won by anyone who listens to it, but how much truth is there in that story? Tesla was one of those scientists with the strongest social dimension, such as Archimedes of Syracuse, Marie Curie or Dimitri Mendeleyev. But of course, the dark forces of the big companies could not consent for the energy utopia to arrive and sabotaged their investigations, causing the FBI itself to demolish the tower.
Actually, we now know that the hypotheses on which Tesla was based were wrong. He wanted to transmit energy not by air, but by the earth, taking advantage of our planet’s own resonance. However, the myth goes further, because although the tower was collapsed by the government, it was due to suspicions that it was being used by the Nazis during World War II, since Tesla’s patents made him perceive notable sums of the Third Reich. But, moreover, by the time the United States took action on the matter, investors had already withdrawn the money from the project due to lack of results.
The patent war
It seems that Tesla had gradually taken on a martyr’s role, sacrificing everything for the good of society. While it is true that money mattered little to nothing, there was something boiling inside and it was the desire for recognition. Everything bureaucratic repelled him, but if he had to sink into paperwork to get what was his, he would do so without hesitation. That is what happened with the radio and its inventor, Guillermo Marconi. Tesla considered that the idea of sending energy from a distance belonged to him, after all, his Wardenclyffe tower was based on it.
Following this same line, there are many people who today consider that Tesla has been beaten by history and that the patent was his, however, the verdict of justice was clear. The invention was owned by Marconi, no matter how much he used some parts patented by Tesla, as he also used other inventors’ devices and the value of the device was in how their parts had been assembled, not so much in what it was composed. So no, Tesla was not robbed of the radio.
The Dethroned Prince
As I said, popular daydreams become more extraordinary as Tesla ages. Towards the end of his life he began talking about a death ray, an earthquake machine and all kinds of science fiction ideas. The truth is that there is no evidence that these gadgets came into existence, even as sketches on paper, and moreover, the scientific criterion suggests that they were directly outlandish. But then where do these lies come from? The answer, in this case, is really unexpected: Nikola himself spread them.
During his professional life, Tesla gained prestige and won grants from some of the richest men in the country. However, when work began to run out, Tesla found himself alone and began to have strange behaviors. Throughout his life he had had nervous breakdowns, but in this case his behavior was different. He wrote angry columns in the press and claimed responsibility for any invention that came to light. It took little time to take this wake-up call to the next level, inventing stories about the projects he was supposedly developing, speaking directly to journalists about legendary weapons and technological panaceas. The press, of course, took his words like a diamond in the rough, exploiting them and giving them sonorous and overwhelming names, such as: the death ray.
He lied We cannot judge him for it, not without taking into account his situation and everything that led him there. But the death ray, what he is best known for, is not only false, but it was a lie told to the press during his last years. The great lie of Tesla.
The fallen hero
Those stories happened in the hotel where he spent his last days, the Waldorf Astoria. They say he died ruined, but the truth is that he received a pension from his former boss, Westinghouse. In addition to this, the hotel was covered by the Yugoslav government, by weaving of one of their relatives. It is true that a man on his journey could have become really rich with his patent money, although, as we have said, Tesla was always quite careless with finances. This and some seasons where he was betting on billiards made his economy unstable, but he did not die in destitution, as some sources claim.
It may surprise us how much a person’s story can deform, but as one dives into the story he discovers that more than biographies, true hagiographies are often written, almost canonizing the character and bleaching the human impurities we all have. In the case of Tesla it is especially striking because it does not need fiction.
He, his mind and his life were more than enough to give him a position in the pantheon of science. A fantastic man who, despite his peculiarities, wanted to make the world a better place. A person who, for whatever reason, has remained invisible for many decades in the eyes of history and has now resurfaced with exaggerated enthusiasm. Tesla is capable of raising passions and, from the grave, has armies of fans willing to defend his “honor” against the truth.
Admiring someone is wonderful, it means recognizing your own imperfection and being open to the experience of others, however, admiring and endorse are very different things. One of them makes you grow, the other will make you a slave.
DON’T KEEP IT UP:
- Tesla was one of the brightest minds of his time, but he was human and not only moved by altruism. I was looking for recognition that I deserved completely.
- Most of the inventions attributed to it are false. He never created anything like a death tower and the Wardenclyffe tower failed to function.
- It is true that his popularity was lost over the years, but he did not live his old age in poverty.
- Miguel Ángel Delgado. “Tesla and the conspiracy of light”, Destination. (2014).
- Max E. Valentinuzzi “Nikola Tesla: why was he so much resisted and forgotten?” IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine. 17: 4 (1998)