Nikola Tesla was an electrical engineer, inventor and one of the most outstanding physicists in the history of science. But beyond his brilliant work, some aspects of his life remain unspoken in the pages of history.
Tesla registered more than 300 patents and became famous for developing AC (alternating current), while his work became the basis of developments in wireless communications, radar, laser X rays, lighting, robotics, and many other areas.
Here is a list of interesting facts you probably never knew about the guy. The information below comes from interviews with W. Bernard Carlson, author of “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” and Marc Seifer, author of “Wizard: Life and Times of Nicola Tesla.”
#1. HE WAS BORN DURING A LIGHTNING STORM
Nikola Tesla was born around midnight, between July 9 and July 10, 1856 during a fierce lightning storm. According to family legend, midway through the birth, the midwife wrung her hands and declared the lightning a bad omen. This child will be a child of darkness, she said, to which his mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”
#2. He Was Amusing Person
Most people have no idea that Tesla had an extraordinary sense of humor, Seifer said. 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.
#3. He had a photographic memory
Possessing the ability to read books and periodicals while simultaneously committing them to memory served Tesla well; he used all the information he acquired as an internal library, available at his beck and call. As a result, Tesla rarely made drawings of his inventions, but worked from a picture or a memory in his head.
#4. He claimed to have nearly created An Earthquake in Manhattan
Tesla’s electro-mechanical oscillator, a steam-powered electrical generator, was developed as a possible replacement for inefficient steam engines used to turn generators, but couldn’t compete with steam turbines. Tesla reportedly regaled friends with a tale in which his experiments with the oscillator at his lab at 46 East Houston Street in Manhattan set off vibrations that generated a resonance in several neighboring buildings, shaking the ground and prompting calls to police. When the machine began oscillating at the resonance frequency of his own building, Tesla surmised that he was in danger of creating an earthquake, and allegedly smashed the device with a sledgehammer. The claims—which earned the machine the nickname “Tesla’s Earthquake Machine”—were later debunked by Mythbusters (the team felt vibrations from hundreds of feet away using a re-creation of Tesla’s machine, but didn’t create any earthquakes).
#5. Some of Tesla’s inventions are classified
When Tesla died in the year of 1943, the Office of Alien Property took his stuff. Most of his things were given to his family, and many were taken to the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. However, some documents still remain classified by the U.S. Government.
#6. Tesla rarely slept and suffered from OCD.
Tesla claimed to have required only two hours of sleep a night, although he occasionally napped. He loathed jewelry and round objects and wouldn’t touch hair. He was obsessed with the number three and polished every dining implement he used to perfection, using 18 napkins.
#7. Pearls drove him crazy
Tesla could not stand the sight of pearls, to the extent that he refused to speak to women wearing them. When his secretary wore pearl jewelry, he sent her home for the day. No one knows why he had such an aversion, but Tesla had a very particular sense of style and aesthetics, Carlson said, and believed that in order to be successful, one needed to look successful. He wore white gloves to dinner every night and prided himself on being a “dapper dresser.”
Every photograph of Tesla, he said, is very carefully constructed to capture his “good side.”
#8. Tesla built a tower intending to suck electricity out of the air
He built a 185-foot tower on Long Island, planning to suck electricity out of the air and send it through the earth. Sadly for humanity: it did not work. In 1917, the tower was torn down. Somebody blamed the government, who allegedly blamed the Germans who were supposedly using it as a spy tower. This all appears to have been a cover: Tesla was broke and his debtors wanted to salvage what they could from the wreckage.
#9. Tesla had a weird obsession with pigeons.
The great inventor spent his last years broke, and, apparently, with a strange love for pigeons. According to this post on www.atlasobscura.com:
“Tesla allegedly loved an all-white pigeon romantically. As the story goes, the bird flew to tell him she was dying with a bright light in her eyes. After the bird died in 1922, Tesla knew that his life’s work was finished. Regarding this beautiful bird, Tesla supposedly said, “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.”
Tesla died penniless in 1943 at age 87 in a New York hotel room he shared with a flock of pigeons. In an odd twist of fate, Tesla has a street corner named after himself in New York City at 40th and the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) where he allegedly spent many hours feeding pigeons in Bryant Park. The street corner was named after Tesla in 1994.
#10. He died broke and alone
A sad, empty ending for a man filled to the brim with brilliance, Tesla died on January 7th, 1943 from coronary thrombosis in the New Yorker hotel room that had served as his home for a decade. The hotel maid discovered his body two days later, after she chose to ignore a “do not disturb” sign placed on his door.
Though he sold his AC electrical patents, Tesla died in debt because he self-funded many of his own projects that never ended up seeing the light of day.