Alright, so most of you know about Tesla. At least I hope you know who Tesla was. Seriously, if the Oatmeal likes Tesla enough to save his original lab and write a glowing comic about him, I really hope you have at least heard of the guy. (Note: if anyone EVER asks you “Tesla or Edison?” the correct answer is ALWAYS “Tesla, duh” because only Tesla people will ask that.)
He was part mad-scientist, part poet, part comedian and all-around bad-a**, kind of like the Wozniak of his time (with Edison assuming the role of Steve Jobs). He worked on doomsday devices, free electricity for all, lightbulbs, and the famous Tesla Coil.
He was also known for falling madly in love with a pigeon in his later years. But, there are a few things I would venture to guess that you are far less familiar with about our Serbian god of lightning. Here is a list of my 8 favorite random facts about Tesla.
His mental capacity to imagine (germs and 3D images).
Tesla was a COMPLETE germophobe. He barely survived a bout of cholera as a teen, so he was known for his crazy high hygienic standards. He also had a photographic memory and could imagine things in 3D. If there is one thing I would attribute to his ability to be such a visionary, it would be his imagination. As a young child, he had vivid nightmares that were somewhat debilitating, and this was how he coped with them.
But his imagination was truly something of a marvel. He would invent and test all sorts of things in his mind before ever putting pen to paper or creating a physical model of what he wanted to build. That is a rare gift.
He despised pearls
Along with being a germaphobe, the man also despised jewelry. but in particular hated pearls. He was known for making his secretary go home for the day when she wore pearls in to the office and refused to speak to women wearing them. He also hated touching other peoples’ hair… But the pearl jewelry hatred is kind of strange. Perhaps it is because he knew that pearls are layers of hardened oyster mucus around grains of sand…
He was very concerned with his appearance. He believed to be successful, one must LOOK successful. He ate dinner with white gloves, wore tailored suits, and always had his hair properly styled. It is not known if his hatred of pearls was because of aesthetics alone, or because of one of his other many quirks.
He was friends with celebrities
Tesla was friends with some of the most influential members of society during the height of the Gilded Age. His friends included conservationists of the Sierra Club, financiers, writers (like Mark Twain), and politicians. Although, later in life his fame lessened significantly, he was considered in high regard by many who met him.
He “shook the poop” out of Mark Twain
One of the times Tesla was playing with his high frequency oscillator (improperly referred to as an “earthquake machine”) he dared Mark Twain to stand on it. Twain, whom he was friends with through their gentlemen’s club, was known for having digestive problems. So Tesla instructed Twain to stand on the oscillator and he turned it on. After about 90 seconds, Twain jumped off and ran for the facilities.
He and Edison were NOT sworn enemies (but they were rivals)
This is one of the more interesting things about the Tesla/Edison rivalry. They didn’t HATE each other. In a nutshell, Edison did not take Tesla very seriously in their earlier years. There was the well known debacle of Edison refusing to pay Tesla for some of his early research, which is true. Tesla did go on record to say some unsavory things as to the scientific method of Edison, whom he still regarded as a good businessman.
However, there is so much more history than that. Think of it like Steve Jobs/Bill Gates. It’s a love/hate relationship. Edison wanted to hear Tesla speak but didn’t want to be spotted. When Tesla noticed him in the crowd, he instructed everyone to give Edison a standing ovation.
Conversely, when there were fires in Tesla’s labs, Edison gave him access to lab space so he could continue to do research. Later on there was a lot more mutual respect than most people realize.
He was really funny
Tesla was a genuinely funny guy. In private correspondence, he referred to the poet Kipling as “Inkspiller Kipling” after being less than enthused with his choice of hotel for him and Tesla to dine at. He had a quirky sense of humor and was overall quite soft-spoken, and in spite of some of his tendencies to be cold to others whom he did not, for whatever reason, agree with- he was regarded highly by all who met him.
He came up with the idea for smartphone technology in 1901
In yet another example of Tesla having great ideas that were never put into practice, he thought of the idea of smartphone technology in 1901. He refused to create any physical model or design that he could not “test and refine” in his imagination first. He was staunchly against inefficient methods of research by making revisions to designs and models. So there were many brilliant ideas he never created because of this.
Smartphones were one of them. He described to his investor, J.P. Morgan the idea of a handheld device for individuals that could allow for instantaneous stock quotes and communication by taking data, encrypting it and assigning a frequency for it to be received and unencrypted by the other user. This was one of the few ideas that really put Tesla to a pause.
He was born in a lightning storm
In Serbia, Tesla was born in the middle of a lightning storm. The midwife was worried and claimed it to be a bad omen. “This child will be a child of darkness” she was cited as saying.
To which his mother shook her head and replied “No. This child will be a child of light.”
Siouxsie Downs: Siouxsie Downs is the CEO of IQ Co-Op, and co-founder of Farnsworth Downs Technology. She is an Uncollege alumni, stopped out of CU Boulder’s Engineering Physics program and is continuing her education in Nuclear Engineering. She hosts a radio show, has worked on humanitarian engineering, and is currently designing nuclear reactors in the Rocky Mountains. She plays roller derby (Atom THORasher), rides motorcycles, and was named after a 1980s punk rock singer and is an all around geek.