Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Biography of the Day: Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, 1856 – 1943, was a complicated genius whose work, among other things, made possible our commercial AC electrical supply system, wireless communication, radar, remote controls, wireless power transmission, and spark plugs. Born in Serbia, he finished school early and went on to study electrical engineering in Austria. After three years, he dropped out and cut relations with his family. His friends believed that he had drowned. He moved to Slovenia, suffered a nervous breakdown, briefly attended a university in Prague, then went to work as an engineer in Paris and finally the US.

Offered a great deal of money to solve a problem for Thomas Edison, he did so. Edison broke his word and refused to pay him, so he resigned and worked for a time as a ditch digger as he continued his experiments. One of them was seized and torn down because of suspicion that it was being used by German spies. He once ripped up a Westinghouse contract that would have made him the world's first billionaire, because he thought that power should be free, and because he didn't want to deal with creditors if Westinghouse went out of business. He and Edison feuded until the end of their days, and it probably cost both of them Nobel Prizes.

Tesla was a sickly man with many quirks and phobias. He was fastidious about cleanliness and had a pathological fear of germs. He wore white gloves and declined to shake hands. He was physically revolted by pearl earrings, and obsessed with the number three (he circled buildings three times before entering, and wouldn't stay in a room without a three in its number) and with pigeons (he fed them daily with special seeds). He spoke eight languages, was a connoisseur of art, poetry, philosophy and food, was passionate about billiards, chess and cards. He was "sweet, sincere, modest and generous". He openly expressed disgust to overweight people, and sent employees home to change if he didn't like their clothes. He was painfully introverted, and yet a great showman. He memorized entire books. He never slept longer than two hours. He often spent more than two days straight at gaming tables, and once worked 84 hours without sleep. He was ambivalent about women, and none played a part in his life aside from a mysterious relationship with the daughter of J.P. Morgan. He claimed that chastity was an important component of his scientific abilities. He believed that man's sense of pity interfered with the workings of nature and advocated sterilization of the unfit to offset it.

In middle age, Tesla became a close friend of Mark Twain, who spent a great deal of time in his lab. In his later years, he became extremely sensitive to light and noise, converted to vegetarianism, decided that women were the dominant sex, and predicted that humanity would eventually be ruled by "Queen Bees". He believed that he was visited daily by a specific white pigeon that gave his life meaning. When it died, his work stopped.

Tesla died broke in a NY hotel room. His pallbearers were Nobel Prize winners. The US government seized his private papers and classified them Top Secret. He had been involved in a lawsuit claiming that he had invented the radio, not Marconi. Shortly after his death, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

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