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A look at erratic, influential inventor Nikola Tesla

Tesla on the Serbian 100 dinar note
Tesla on the Serbian 100 dinar note

With more than 4.5 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute or just wondering why Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t change its name to something kickier, like Bosnovina. But follow enough links, and you’ll get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,535,843-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Nikola Tesla

What it’s about: Thomas Edison is generally acknowledged as America’s greatest inventor—if not the world’s—but a former employee turned rival, Nikola Tesla, may be the more fascinating. A Serbian immigrant who came to New York to work for Edison, before quitting over a pay dispute, Tesla presaged our wireless era by more than a century, transmitting electricity wirelessly in 1891, and inventing remote control by the end of that decade. However, his life and career were full of ups and downs, and he had the misfortune to strike on several inventions at the same time as a rival—most notably Guglielmo Marconi, whom he battled for years after claiming Marconi’s radio was developed using numerous Tesla patents. At different times in his life, Tesla was wealthy and destitute, sickly and hale, praised as a genius and dismissed as a crank. While he was undeniably a genius, Tesla lacked Edison’s practicality and business sense, and some of his most groundbreaking inventions were never put into common use. Even so, as evidenced by the electric car company that uses his name, Tesla is still synonymous with technological leaps forward.

Strangest fact: Some of Tesla’s last inventions were among his most outlandish, and potentially transformative. The inventor died deeply in debt, and one of the main reasons was the years he spent (1901-1917) on a madly ambitious, ultimately unworkable project called Wardenclyffe Tower. The 187-foot tower was to be the proof of concept for a World Wireless System, a series of towers that would broadcast both telecommunications and wireless electricity. Tesla had been demonstrating short-range wireless energy transmission for a decade when he began work on Wardenclyffe, but the tower was supposed to use the electrostatic charge of the Earth itself, building up energy and then sending it out to numerous small receivers, thus powering a whole city. Tesla also claimed Wardenclyffe would be a telecommunications tower capable of reaching across the Atlantic. While the inventor originally had the financial backing of J.P. Morgan, Morgan pulled out in 1904 after a stock market panic and Tesla couldn’t afford to complete work. The never-functional tower was eventually sold to pay off debts and torn down. Meanwhile, the world had begun to adopt Marconi’s system of radio, which required cheaper equipment. Wireless power transmission was never again attempted on a grand scale. 

Biggest controversy: Tesla’s rivalry with Edison may have cost both men a Nobel Prize. A competition grew between the two men as Westinghouse began using Tesla’s alternating current (AC) technology for transmitting electricity, while Edison’s company (which would become General Electric) obviously favored his own system, direct current (DC). DC was the original standard, but AC was better at sending electricity over long distances, and the equipment was cheaper. The “War of Currents” nearly bankrupted Edison, and he resorted to a smear campaign, inventing stories of multiple deaths at the hands of AC, and even trying to replace the word “electrocuted” with “Westinghoused” in the popular consciousness. Edison famously Westinghoused a Coney Island circus elephant, using alternating current, and filmed the spectacle as anti-AC propaganda. Edison lost the war when, in 1892, even GE began investing heavily in AC, and it quickly became the standard. Years later, Reuters briefly reported that the 1915 Nobel Prize was being jointly awarded to Edison and Tesla, but a week later reported the award was in fact going to Sir William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg for using X-rays to analyze crystals. Rumors abounded that one or both of the original recipients had refused the prize, although the Nobel Committee insisted that it had never been awarded to them in the first place. As for possible motives, some thought neither wanted the other one to get credit, or simply that their animosity was such that neither man wanted his name side by side with the other’s. Whether there’s any truth to those rumors or not, neither inventor ever won the Nobel.

Thing we were happiest to learn: While Tesla went broke several times, at one point working as a ditch digger for $2 a day, he did at least have one stage of his life where money was pouring in. When Tesla developed alternating current, Westinghouse had been trying to perfect the technology for years. So they snapped up Tesla’s system, in a deal that gave him $60,000, an annual salary of $2,000 (that’s more than $50 grand in today’s dollars), plus a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower produced by every AC motor. That royalty was especially shortsighted, as once AC began to become the standard, Westinghouse was hemorrhaging cash to pay Tesla for its use. After paying $200,000 in royalties, Tesla agreed to sell the expensive patents outright for another $200,000, after George Westinghouse personally appealed to Tesla, convincing him that the company wouldn’t survive to keep paying his royalties if the original arrangement stood. 

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: World War II only lasted as long as it did because the Allies never tried using a Tesla superweapon to incinerate Nazis. After the failure of Wardenclyffe, Tesla claimed to have developed what he called a “teleforce weapon,” and the press called a “death ray.” In theory, the weapon would send a beam of concentrated particles through the air, as thin as a hair, or large enough to, in Tesla’s words, “bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes… and cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.” While Tesla claimed in 1937 that he had “built, demonstrated, and used” the device, there is no evidence it ever actually existed. Even the blueprints only seem to have existed in the inventor’s mind. Nevertheless, he spent the year preceding the Second World War trying to sell the technology to all three eventual major Allied powers, to no avail. The Soviet Union did pay Tesla $25,000 after a preliminary test in 1939, but the project didn’t seem to progress beyond that. 

Also noteworthy: While Tesla was not known to have pursued any romantic relationships, and seemed to spend his time consumed by his work, he did amass some famous friends, including architect Stanford White (who designed the building that housed Wardenclyffe), poet Robert Underwood Johnson, writer Francis Marion Crawford, and Mark Twain, who Tesla had admired in his youth. Twain and Tesla became very close, and the writer spent a fair amount of time in Tesla’s lab, observing his work. 

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Upon Tesla’s death, a eulogy was read over the radio in New York City by none other than Fiorello La Guardia, possibly the most colorful and influential mayor in the city’s history.

Further down the wormhole: J. Pierpont Morgan, one of the richest men in American history, not only bankrolled one of Tesla’s grandest projects, he also arranged Edison General Electric’s merger with Thomson-Houston Electric to form General Electric, which obviously still exists today. Morgan is also the real-life inspiration for Rich Uncle Pennybags, mascot for the Monopoly board game. Next week, we’ll examine the game, in what will invariably end up being a 4-hour slog in which several people will cheat, someone will be accused of playing too aggressively (but that’s how you win!), and a disagreement will nearly come to blows over who gets to be the car.