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Nikola Tesla – Genius or Magicus?

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

For many contemporaries, Nikola Tesla was a strange character. He was born in Croatia in 1856. Fluent in eight languages, he read all that he could to improve his brainpower, the photographic memory he had, allowed him to memorize entire books. His visual imagination was so pronounced, that he solely built new inventions mentally before lifting a finger and executing his idea - usually flawlessly. If a problem did arise, he reported seeing flashes of light and visions that showed him the solution and often brought a whole flood of new ideas with them.

The "Tesla-Tower"

Nevertheless, he was highly regarded in society, partly due to the performances he occasionally presented to overcome people's skepticism about electricity. Some of these were showcased in the famous "Wardenclyffe Tower," which Tesla built in 1901 with the money of a private banker. He presented the project as a high-performance transmitter that would far surpass Marconi's current leader with only 18kW, with 300kW to enable transatlantic radio transmissions for the first time.

However, Tesla had something else in mind - he was experimenting with wireless distribution of electrical energy, as we know it today from wireless charging or an induction plate. When his financier got wind of this, he stopped the payments and the 57-meter wooden tower and 20-meter diameter dome fell into disrepair, unfinished on the coast of Long Island. Without an investor, Tesla could not continue his research here and became increasingly indebted as he had to pay monthly rent for the property while staying in various luxury hotels. Therefore, the property, along with the Wardenclyffe Tower, was sold to a hotel owner in 1917, who had the tower demolished to build a new hotel instead.

In a way, this also blew up Tesla's visions of the future, as the Wardenclyffe Tower would have been the ideal research station for the visionary. In addition to wireless electricity transmission, he dreamed of teleportation, time travel, and thought photography - things that, according to the physicist, were theoretically possible. Looking at Tesla's other predictions, one is reminded of our modern technology. According to him, it would be possible in the future to communicate with a "face-to-face feeling" at any time and over any distance, and the device required for this would fit in a pocket - sounds like a smartphone. It should also be possible to establish a stable wireless connection between dozens of devices, the equivalent of Wi-Fi. Tesla also envisioned a small everyday printer that could easily print the newspaper at home. And while we're at it, according to Tesla, the owner of a house could control its interior design from a distance in the future. Isn't that so, Alexa?

Considering that all most of the possibilities we now consider "normal" once seemed as far away as teleportation and time travel from our perspective, we should not be closed off to the possibility of this "sci-fi technology" any more than we are to the option of quickly googling tomorrow's weather. However, all of this was metaphorically dependent on the Wardenclyffe Tower. An important innovation that was groundbreaking for future technology and that we largely owe to Nikola Tesla anyway is the…

... alternating current

During the time of electrification, there was a fierce battle among entrepreneurs and engineers to dominate the market with either direct or alternating current. Tesla relied on alternating current due to its high efficiency over long distances, while his opponent Thomas Edison saw it as a great danger and wanted to stick with the proven direct current principle. Both relied on public opinion, but their approaches couldn't have been more different. While Tesla held the seemingly harmless current in his hand during demonstrations, let it slide over his head, and finally stored it in a wooden box – pure magic for eyewitnesses – Edison relied on intimidation. He passed alternating current through the bodies of stray dogs, cats, horses, and even elephants, which died in front of the audience, and theatrically asked the crowd, "Do you want your wife to handle this at home?" Eventually, Edison even had a prototype of the electric chair developed, which is still used to execute convicted criminals in parts of America today.

At the en of the day Tesla won this duel. As you are reading this article, you have also used alternating current to charge your phone, tablet, or computer. If you make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, you use alternating current, and if you turn on the lights in the evening, you use alternating current as well. So Tesla's achievement have a massive impact on our daily lives to this day. Despite the historical and scientific significance of his inventions, life often did not treat him well. In a collaboration with Edison, the latter cheated him out of about $50,000, and later he was ousted from his own company and deprived of its profits.

Tesla as "mad scientist"?

The temporary lack of funds hardly affected his connections to the upper class - he lived in luxurious hotels and surrounded himself with New York's high society. Despite his often praised personal hygiene, stylish hair and clothing choices as well as elegant posture, he didn't seem to quite fit in there, which may have been due in part to his quirks. For example, the physicist calculated the contents of his coffee cups because he didn't enjoy the taste otherwise, the same went for food served in bowls, which had to be delivered precisely. He allegedly became very hot at the sight of just one peach, and he counted his steps while walking meticulously. He also had a strong aversion to pearls, earrings, and other people's hair. He only slept in hotel rooms whose number was divisible by three, and the same went for repetitions of activities. He claimed to only sleep two hours a night. Nevertheless, he placed great importance on not negatively affecting his intelligence, which is why he kneaded his toes at night to stimulate his brain.

In his later years, he developed a special relationship with pigeons, caring for them when they were injured and feeding them when they flew onto his windowsill. He even claimed to have a kind of love affair with a particular pigeon. During this last period, he devoted his scientific interest to ray guns. In the case of Tesla genius and madness are not so far apart after all. Ultimately, Nikola Tesla passed away in room 3327 on the 33rd floor of the Wyndham Hotel in New York. There is not much left of the young man who once enthralled audiences with his intellect and brilliance. While the widespread belief that he died penniless is not true, the inventor passed away at the age of 85, bitter and out of touch with the world.



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