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Chances are if you’re over about 30 you’ve never heard of Nikola Tesla.  That’s a shame because both electric motors and the way we distribute electricity are among the many contributions this man made in his incredible career as one of the most brilliant scientists who ever lived.  That’s why Mathew Inman, the artist behind The Oatmeal, is raising money to turn the brilliant if somewhat tortured genius’ lab into a museum.

The story of Tesla is far bigger than the campaign to create the museum, however.  It’s a story of how business trumps science and invention, at least in the minds of American popular culture – and why the two are often horribly at odds with each other.  Yet, the way the story progresses far beyond Tesla’s life it shows that there is an eventual redemption, because if you are under 30 years old there’s a good chance you have heard of Tesla – and have a pretty low opinion of his onetime mentor and later rival, Thomas Edison.

Tesla was born in 1856, the son of a Serbian Orthodox Priest, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He was a child prodigy, solving complex differential equations entirely in his head when he was only 15.  He enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic and achieved the highest possible honors, but burned out after a few years.  His addiction to gambling and possible nervous breakdown cut him off from his family as he moved on to Paris to work for the French branch of Edison’s company.  In a short time he created the electric motor as we know it, calling on his innate understanding of the complex calculus that describes the interaction between magnetism and electric current induced in a nearby wire.

That caught the attention of Edison himself, and Tesla was soon in America working in Edison’s lab. The two had a falling out, and Tesla quit to dig ditches for a while rather than work for a man he considered a cheat.  Tesla’s work soon caught the attention of industrialist George Westinghouse, who realized that a paper the young genius published on alternating current (AC) was the solution to the transmission problems that plagued Edison.  Westinghouse took Tesla under his wing and implemented much of his work, installing AC lines from Niagra Falls across the east coast.

That wasn’t enough for Tesla, who continued his most controversial work with a great big tower near Shoreham, NY, to transmit electricity through the air.  He ran out of money before he could prove his concept, and the laboratory was closed down.  This is the property that is now for sale and slated to be a possible Tesla Museum.

Later in life, Tesla worked quietly on whatever he felt like, and eventually died in 1943 completely broke.  His deep superstitions and paranoia led many to believe he had gone insane, but it is true that on his death his papers were seized by the US government and have yet to see the light of day.

Why is Tesla important?  Since he was not a commercial success and did not get rich, he did not achieve prominence in popular culture the way Edison did.  But it was Tesla’s work that made electricity transmission possible.  Where Edison wanted success and recognition, Tesla wanted to solve problems and make life better.  And that’s where the story gets more interesting.

My first career was as a research engineer at 3M during the glory days of a great technology company.  As part of many teams of brilliant inventors, intrigued by problems, one simple fact became very apparent – creative minds are rarely motivated by money.  What any of us valued more than anything was playtime, sparked once in a while by competition, where we could make use of vast resources as an extension of our imaginations.  3M, for its part, was a big company that did its best to operate as small as possible, giving broad latitude to divisions and generally providing employees with a comprehensive package of benevolence and ease far beyond pay.

This is important because Tesla’s star has been rising consistently over the last 10-20 years as a new generation realizes the importance of technology and how twisted our American legends have become.  Many people involved in the art of inventing know that the systems we have in place, based almost entirely on the bottom line, do not favor them.  And in a technology driven world they all worry that our obsessions are putting us at a terrible disadvantage.

Why the fascination with Tesla?  Not only did he create the world we live in, he received very little credit for it in his life.  That’s because he rarely sought it.  But he did seek funding for his ideas, something far more important to him than his own mortal self.  That’s true for nearly everyone fired by imagination and possibility.

With the passage of time, the world has come to realize how important Nikola Tesla was.  Hopefully, we can honor the man at least in part by taking up what was most important to him – a world of possibility, not fame or fortune.  But a museum is a good start to restoring Tesla to his rightful place in American history.

7 thoughts on “Tesla

  1. The contrast of Edison and Tesla is fascinating–they really represented opposite types. Tesla has become a cult figure among people who believe in magical solutions to physical problems. That may be a bit unfair to him–he’s not in a position to say anything about it. Maybe he did become a bit of a crank later in his life. Not sure…..

    • They have become intertwined, perhaps unfairly, but the “Current War” was a big deal in its day. Edison lost and Tesla/Westinghouse won.
      Tesla has been latched onto by people who don’t really understand what he was trying to do, and the wireless transmission of electricity did seem to be a bit much. But he is still a very important person and may yet have more to teach us!

  2. I had heard a little of this but he sounds fascinating. Really more important than Edison in electricity? Wow. But history is written by the ‘winners’ and it sounds like Tesla was used by the people in power. Things don’t change all that much.

    • No, things don’t change. That’s part of why I think the Tesla story is so important. I have met a lot of people vaguely like him in both their brilliance and their lack of motivation by material stuff.

  3. Tesla was a great man, we’re still figuring out how brilliant he was. Glad to see people are finally taking note of him.

  4. Edison was not a particularly pleasant person to work for–he believed in claiming personal credit for what others did. But Edison had the combination of business and technical skills to commercialize electricity distribution. He pulled together the elements of a complete system–generation, distribution, metering, end use–initially mostly lighting.

    It’s interesting that DC is encountering something of a revival now that modern power electronics make it pretty much as fungible as AC.

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