The Original Mad Scientist: Nikolas Tesla

When looking at the roots of the modern world, one needs to not look further than one man, Nikolas Tesla, for a notable example. A bright mind from an early age, Tesla defines the term ‘genius’, and from an early age, demonstrated an ability for innovation and invention, and would later go on to enlighten the world: literally.

Born in January of 1856 in Croatia (then the Austrian Empire), Tesla’s intelligence and intellect exhibited itself at an early age. In his autobiography, My Inventions, he noted that “suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which marred the sight of real objects and interfered with my thought and action. They were pictures of things and scenes which I had really scene, never of those I imagined.” He attributes this ability to strongly conceptualize and visualize as a key element in how he was able to invent various things, and early on, was frightened by this perceived ability. From an early age, he began to invent various objects: a hook to catch frogs, air powered guns, as well as dismantled clocks and at one point, fixed a fire engine’s hose during a demonstration to the town.

Following this, at the age of six, he attended the Higher Real Gymnasium Karlovac, finishing out his time there in three years, instead of the four generally required. After he had finished, Tesla was stricken with Cholera. This incident encouraged his parents to send him to school for science and engineering, where they had previously hoped that he would join the clergy. Recovering, Tesla was permitted to join the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz in 1875,  where he further excelled and became further interested in physics and engineering, becoming interested in creating motors, a particularly early step in his work in alternate current.

In 1880, he relocated to Prague, Bohemia, at the Charles-Ferdinand University, before realizing that his academic pursuits were putting a strain on his parents. Leaving the school, he sought work at the National Telephone Company, before moving in 1882 to Paris, where he worked for the Continental Edison Company, working on electrical equipment, and two years later, he travelled to the United States, seeking to work for Thomas Edison. In a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor, a former employer and friend of Tesla’s, it noted that “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man”. This was a rather positive start to a relationship that would quickly sour. Tesla went to work for Edison, who had promised him $50,000 for his work to upgrade and repair generators, but shortly after the work was done, Edison claimed that he had been making a joke, and Tesla, furious, left the company.

Telsa then formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing, where be began to work on his method of Alternate Current, which he believed was far cheaper and safer than the Direct Current that was used across the world by this point, but due to issues with the company, he was soon removed. In 1888, he began work under George Westinghouse at the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, where he worked on his alternating current and studied what were later understood to be x-rays. Over the next several years, Tesla continued his work in electronics and physics.

During this time, both he and Edison became adversaries, with Edison invested in his Direct Current technology, while Tesla and Westinghouse backed Alternate Current. Edison implemented a public campaign against AC power, touting accidents and the fact that AC power was used for the first electric chair. The tide turned, however, when Westinghouse’s company was awarded a contract to harness the power of Niagara falls to generate electrical power, which resulted in a positive, highly public and practical test of AC power, while the 1893 Chicago World Fair likewise utilized Tesla’s power system in a highly public fashion. The result was a shift from the utilization of DC power to AC power, which allowed for a greater range for power, and over the next century, DC power was phased out.

In 1899, Tesla moved to Colorado Springs (where he was portrayed by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s film, The Prestige), where he continued his experiments with electricity. He created several methods for transmitting power wirelessly, and in 1900, he began work on the Wardenclyffe Tower with funds from J.P. Morgan, a wireless transmission tower. The tower was completed, but the project ran short of funds, and was eventually discontinued. Tesla lost several patents at the same time, and in the years that followed, he continued scientific research, designing things such as a directed energy weapon, but found little support for his plans. In the last decades of his life, he began suffering from a mental illness, and passed away in 1943 at his home in New York City.

Tesla is a figure that has captured the imagination of the geek community, but is at the same time someone who is almost single-handedly responsible for the transmission of power that covers the nation, a necessity in modern life. In fiction, he has been portrayed several times (the aforementioned appearance in The Prestige is a good example), but is known for his intellect and forward thinking in science and technology. Several of his inventions, such as a death ray and wireless power, are still elements that belong to the science fictional realm.

What is most astonishing, reading over Tesla’s 36 page autobiography, is his ability to conceive of projects and carry them out, understanding them almost completely. He appears to have had a very rare gift, one that borders on the supernatural, or to some, some sort of mental illness or disability that allowed him unprecedented abilities. In the truest sense how I see geekdom, Tesla fits all of the marks, a textbook case of following a passion extensively, and changing the world as he did so.