His coolness is unmatched, but the man himself is far more enigmatic than cool. Nikola Tesla is known for being as awesome as scientists get. He was and remains the ultimate mad scientist – calm, mysterious with a will-get-the-job-done attitude and an insane futurist. He conceived of transferring energy wirelessly when people had just about gotten to know about conduction through wires. His great dream of intercontinental wireless transmission of power is still unfulfilled and remains extremely futuristic. Tesla, fulfilling his archetypical mad scientist image, died penniless and in debt.
Too Far Ahead of His Times
Time and time again, and the world is realizing this now, Tesla has been proven too ahead of the time. Tesla himself knew:
My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.
Tesla is the pioneer of the modern alternating current generator and the transmission/supply system, the critical components of the worldwide power grid that we see today. He was the greatest electrical engineer the world has ever seen. Not only that, he was the founder of the field of electrical engineering.
Let’s go a level deeper. He wasn’t just an electrical engineer who pioneered the electrical supply system – he created the item that was to be supplied through the lines. In other words, he was the father of Alternating Current. The next time you switch on any electrical device connected to the main power supply of your house/office, say a small thanks to Tesla. He had won the ‘War of Currents’ with Thomas Edison, who wanted DC power to be circulated. Edison, Edison…
Yes, Edison was no stick in the mud – he wasn’t called a genius for no reason. And he has been vilified in popular culture for no small reason either. Tesla’s famous tussle with Edison meant that Tesla’s genius never got its true value and recognition, unable to come out from under Edison’s clout. And really, Tesla didn’t try hard enough. Tesla and Edison never saw eye-to-eye ever again.
I often doubt whether truth always triumphs. Even if it does – and always – does it do so in time? Not so for Tesla. His genius, once recognized, was never again accepted. Maybe the world can see only so much of a good thing. Maybe being born twice is not for one lifetime.
Living in the Future
Tesla, a genius? What genius?
He identified – and made a source for – X-Rays way back in 1887, a full decade before the year which the world thinks X-Rays were officially discovered. Why the silence then? Primarily because most of his research work was lost in a March 1895 fire and also because he didn’t want to publish anything. He even sent X-Ray photos of his own hand to Roentgen.
Unfortunately, and this has been demonstrated over and over again, science is not meant for people staying mum.
He felt disgusted by the newer crop of researchers:
That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually ‘feel it work.’ We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.
Tesla built the first radio transmitter in 1897. But wait, he then built a radio-controlled boat for the military. The military didn’t recognize the significance.
He spoke futuristically on Edison’s bulb:
I predict that very shortly the old-fashioned incandescent lamp, having a filament heated to brightness by the passage of electric current through it, will entirely disappear.
Tesla’s obsession with long distance telegraphy increased with years. He experimented with lightning, and spectacularly so. His meticulous notes in his diaries reveal his level of planning – and his level of daring. Of his many setups, probably the most terrifying – and the most popular – is the ‘Magnifying transmitter’. Transferring millions of volts across several meters, while still ensuring safety is what Tesla was going in for. The world didn’t recognize him. It was too naïve.
No, Tesla was no peace advocate. He built the ‘death ray’, a weapon capable of directed energy release. The death ray 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.
Madness to Senility
This madness would continue, but it was eating into Tesla himself. He began to develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) manifesting in many ways, such as his extreme fondness for the number 3. He would circle his lab 3 times before entering. His hatred – and probably irrational fear – for round objects or clinking jewelry is well-known. Even professionally, he was faltering. He criticized Einstein’s relativity on grounds which were sometimes quite irrational. They weren’t taken into account in the science circles. Tesla had run aground of his ‘genius’ tag. He had simply gone mad.
Tesla would feed a flock of pigeons, of which one – a beautiful white pigeon – was his favourite. His OCD grew worse, as can be easily seen from what he says:
I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a women, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.
Hardly a statement from someone who is called the greatest electrical engineer of all times. Tesla’s duration on this planet was over, just the formality of death loomed over his head.
That came peacefully enough on the 7th of January, 1943 in the midst of a global conflict – the Second World War – which he had predicted would be inevitable. Like most of his life, he died alone.
Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla, the genius. We’ll meet again in the future.