Lately, I have been struck by the realisation that our modern culture of celebrity is extremely misguided. It constitutes a celebration of mediocrity and notoriety, rather than representing the real value in human endeavour. As such,I thought that it was about time someone celebrated the rather more cerebral figures that have appeared throughout history, not just for their achievements but for their fascinating personality. Rather than mediocrity, this column will celebrate the genius; the calamitous; the seminal and the most inspiring. With this in mind, I have decided to begin with Nikola Tesla.
A man who registered over 250 patents across a tremendous breadth of fields, Tesla was of the inventive breed, so mentally attuned with nature that its infinite number of uses seemed to come to him one-by-one, as if broadcasted wirelessly by extra-terrestrial beings. Or so he would have you believe…
Nikola Tesla was born in a rural Croatian village named Smiljan, which in the 19th century was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: the sort of empire that was passed down through monarchic generations like a particularly bad batch of genetic defects, a bad tempered eastern contingent the equivalent of a gammy leg or male pattern baldness. In spite of the fact his birthplace sounds like a brand of eastern European cottage cheese, Tesla had a fairly healthy upbringing; his father was a Serbian-orthodox Priest and his mother, despite her illiteracy, could recite all manner of epic poems, the scale of which would make the average British schoolchild squeal in confused acronyms. (“LOL, WTF?”)1
The man was a savant; he could conceive vastly complicated concepts within his mind that even the most advanced thinkers of his time could not make sense of on paper. He also possessed a name so fundamentally badass that it has become synonymous with the fields of study he engaged in. His list of inventions and early designs included the X-Ray, the radio, wireless communication, revolutionary electrical engines, the laser beam and the Tesla coil. (Still used extensively by modern cinema and weaponised by the Soviet Union to comedic effect.) Tesla even designed a speculative death-ray that was said to be able to ‘make 10,000 enemy airplanes drop from the sky within a range of 200 miles’.2 While this might seem meagre by the standard of today’s phallic missiles of nuclear doom, it was considered monstrous at the time.
Above all, Tesla considered himself to be a thinker, spending most of his time considering these postulations in his head rather than drawing them out. Subsequently, the death ray and its specifications have never materialised, Tesla himself admitting that the blueprints existed only in his mind. Similarly, Tesla’s disagreement with the theory of relativity led him to work on his own theory of space and time that, despite apparently being ‘fully realised’, had never been written down. Tesla also believed he had received messages from supernatural beings through his early experiments with wireless communication, beliefs that many of his peers at the time would politely term ‘poppycock’.3
Tesla in his Colorado Springs laboratory
It is this mythology that dominates the legend of Tesla, his links to the supernatural tending to encroach on descriptions of his genius. This is a complete injustice. Tesla was a man so in touch with the actual physical composition of the universe that his inventions, despite seeming other-worldly, are essentially elegant manifestations of his ability to harness the earth’s raw potential. It’s just a shame that he didn’t invest in some quality stationary. If he had done, perhaps we might be a few generations further on in our attempts to modernise energy generation and develop our theories of space and time. It’s hard to begrudge the man though. For all we know his ideas may have been tragically awful; a death ray that did nothing but turn human hair a dark shade of auburn; a space-time theory at the epicentre of which is the doctrine that gravity is actually just the quantitative measure of how serious a situation is, and that if we were a little less serious about our problems then they would just float away; or perhaps just a mis-understood recipe for pistachio ice cream.
In all likelihood, however, the ideas that never surfaced were likely to be as brilliant and epoch-defining as the inventions that he did bother to write down. One such example of his ineffable genius is the invention that brought him the most commercial success and peer acclaim, the alternating current electrical generator. AC, as it is commonly known, is a more efficient and powerful method of transporting and providing electricity in a domestic setting than the predominant DC (direct current) of the time, discovered and provided (expensively) by Thomas Edison. Tesla originally conceived of the rotating magnetic field, essential to his AC inductor engine, in the city park of Budapest, drawing his design in nearby sand with a stick after a missing fragment of his theory rose to the surface of his consciousness. Such moments of crisp revelation are recurrent in Tesla’s inventive life and it neatly portrays his method: that as long as all the principles are there and you have an understanding of the basic laws and permutations of nature, more complicated and useful compositions of these principles will occur to you.
All things considered, Tesla was such that he will never be recreated, a unique phenomenon in his own right. It is with great irony that devices such as the television, facilitated by inventions he himself created, are now the curse of young minds that could potentially be as devoted and expansive as Tesla’s. If he were still alive today, upon observing all this over-stimulation, the barrage of useless information that people ingest on a ritual basis, I think he would both be horrified and fascinated by our abuse of the great opportunities that these inventions give us. With that in mind, I consider Tesla to be the most appropriate person I could hope to biograph as I begin this periodical tribute to interesting people, his life being a myriad of supreme intellect and complete calamity. I hope his story, and every other I will go on to provide, inspires you to become as interesting as you can possibly be.
1: Nikola Tesla, My Inventions 2: ‘Death Ray’ for Planes, New York Times 22 Sept. 1940