The Many Myths Surrounding Nikola Tesla

In the mid-19th century, the Austrian Empire, which stretched for over a thousand miles (1600 km) from Italy to Ukraine, was a place of contradictions. The ruling patriarch, Minister of the Interior Baron Alexander von Bach, was on the one hand something of a despot, abolishing public trials, reducing the freedom of the press and imprisoning political opponents. Conversely, his rule also saw the relaxing of economic laws, the demise of internal custom duties and peasants freed from their feudal obligations.

It was during this time, in the small village of Smiljan, situated within the Empire’s military frontier (now modern-day Croatia) that Nikola Tesla was born, the fourth of five children. Tesla’s father was a priest, and the family soon moved to nearby Gospić, where his parish was located. In 1870, Nikola migrated to the city of Karlovac to attend high school, where he first became enamoured by the emerging science of electricity. The next few years were rough for the young man. He contracted cholera and was near death on several occasions. Following his recovery, he went into hiding among the mountains in order to escape conscription into the Empire’s military.

In 1875, Nikola enrolled at the Imperial-Royal Technical College in Graz, where he did very well initially. However, by his third year, for reasons that are still debated, he was struggling, and he left without graduating, leaving behind a rumour that he’d drowned in the Mur River. What he actually did was cross the border into Slovenia without telling anyone, not even his family it appears, and took a job as a draftsman. However, ultimately Tesla was deported from Slovenia for failing to get a residence permit, and he thus returned home just in time to see his father die a month later at the age of 60 in 1879.

Two years after this, Tesla began working for a man named Tivadar Puskás at The Budapest Telephone Exchange in Hungary. Impressing his superiors, they soon promoted him to the position of chief engineer, where the young scientist made several improvements to their equipment.

This was significant to the story at hand today, as, in 1882, Puskás recommended Tesla for another job, this time in Paris, working for none other than the Continental Edison Company, installing indoor electric lighting across the city.

Once again, Tesla impressed his employers by improving designs, and he began to be sent on troubleshooting missions to other Edison utilities. Next came a big step for the young engineer. Tesla’s overseer, Charles Batchelor, a close associate of Thomas Edison’s, was recalled to New York City, and decided to take Tesla with him.

And so it was that almost immediately upon arriving in the United States, Tesla began working at Edison’s Machine Works for a period of just six months. It was this curiously short time span that is often cited as the origin of the first great myth of Tesla’s life and career- that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla hated each other.

According to legend, this all started when Tesla was offered a $50,000 bonus (about $2 million today) if he could improve the design of certain of Edison’s machinery. When Tesla successfully completed this task, Edison’s company (or Edison himself, in some versions of the tale) declined to pay out.

As to the origin of this story, it came from Tesla himself later in life. Tesla wrote of all this, “The S.S. Oregon, the fastest passenger steamer at that time, had both of its lighting machines disabled and its sailing was delayed. As the superstructure had been built after their installation it was impossible to remove them from the hold. The predicament was a serious one and Edison was much annoyed. In the evening I took the necessary instruments with me and went aboard the vessel where I stayed for the night. The dynamos were in bad condition, having several short-circuits and breaks, but with the assistance of the crew I succeeded in putting them in good shape… During this period I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and of uniform pattern which replaced the old ones. The Manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars on the completion of this task but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock and I resigned my position.”

Now, to begin with, it should be explicitly pointed out that Edison wasn’t involved in any of this, with the story simply mentioning Tesla’s manager.

Yet another problem with this supposedly being the origin of the mythical feud between the two is that it isn’t actually clear that it ever happened. First, even if Tesla’s manager had made such a promise of a, in modern dollars, near $2 million bonus, it bizarrely makes Tesla look rather dimwitted, given his pay at the time was only $18 per week and he would otherwise have just been doing his job in making these improvements. Further, even if bonuses were offered, it certainly wouldn’t have been for a figure like $50,000, which would have made Tesla not only quite wealthy overnight, but given him more money than Edison’s Machine Works actually had on hand at the time.

The story, thus, seems a little suspect on its details.

This is also not documented in Tesla’s journal at the time it supposedly happened, which, we’re just guessing if someone offered you the equivalent of $2 million today as a bonus to do your normal job, you’d probably write that crap down in your nightly written musings. Further, you’d certainly write about it if they then reneged on the deal. Especially if it then made you so angry you left the company because of it, as Tesla claims there.

And it’s at this point we should probably mention in the period of his life Tesla came up with this story, he was also claiming pigeons were speaking to him, one of whom he had fallen in love with. As he stated, “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

Going back to Tesla’s departure from the company, when he left, he was allowed ownership of patents for all the inventions he had designed while in Edison’s employ, something that was not the norm, but for whatever reason it was allowed in his case. This suggests he left on very good terms with his employers.

This is also noteworthy here in that it debunks the idea that Edison was just sitting back evilly cackling as he stole his brilliant employee, Tesla’s, inventions for fun and profit. In fact, it went the other way and, for whatever reason, he allowed Tesla to take them, something that would be pivotal in Tesla’s first steps into financial independence, with his ability to then sell them and keep the money himself.

In any event, the idea that the two men hated each other is perpetuated thanks to a very real competition, not so much between the two men, but two companies in the so-called War of the Currents.

On this one, after leaving Edison, Tesla came up with his first major scientific breakthrough: the Alternating Current Induction Motor – an alternative to the Direct Current method of transmitting electricity championed by Edison. News of Tesla’s device soon reached George Westinghouse, owner of the Westinghouse Company. Both Edison and Westinghouse were already fighting to secure dominance of the energy markets, and the latter put his faith in Tesla’s invention to win the battle conclusively.

As for Edison’s side, he went to rather extreme lengths to discredit Alternating Current, including leveraging research his company had done using electricity to try to find a more humane way of euthanizing animals than the then common methods of hanging or drowning our furry companions. In all of this, he was trying to show A.C. electricity was simply too dangerous compared to Edison’s Direct Current. Nevertheless, for a variety of practical reasons, Tesla’s A.C. method of transmitting electricity won out.

Now, as a brief aside in the spirit of debunking popular myths- we feel compelled to point out here that- no, Edison did not kill an elephant to try to discredit Alternating Current. Nor did he kill an elephant at all.

Now, to be clear, there was an elephant named Topsy who had been sentenced to death for killing three humans, and it was indeed electrocuted. But Edison had nothing to do with any of this at any stage before, during, or after. Nor was he mentioned in any contemporary news accounts of the event. Nor do any of his own surviving writings such as journal or correspondence make any mention of the event. Further, going back to the so-called War of the Currents, this elephant execution occurred about a decade after Edison had already lost the war. So this event was not in any way used by Edison to discredit A.C. current either.

So why do most today think Edison did murder an elephant and use it to show A.C. current was dangerous? First, because the electrical company that performed the execution bore his name- the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of Brooklyn. However, despite the name, Edison was not in any way involved with this power company at the time. It was a privately owned entity that had years before lost any association with the man himself outside of still bearing his name.

The second reason he is so associated with this execution is that Edison Manufacturing’s film branch filmed the event. While Edison was president of Edison Manufacturing, someone else ran the film company’s day to day operations, Edison Manufacturing vice president and general manager William E. Gilmore. It’s also noted that the company made about 1,200 films around this time with very little input or oversight from Edison. And, indeed, this particular execution seems to be one of those cases, as none of Edison’s surviving correspondence from this period between himself and Gilmore mention anything about it.

So why film the killing? It would seem simply that it was a highly publicised event and Gilmore just thought it would be something worth documenting with their relatively new film technology.

In any event, going back to Tesla and Edison and the War of the Currents, while there was, as noted, a bit of a battle between companies with their competing technologies, both men, at least as far as the scant surviving mentions the two made of each other, seem to have respected one another greatly.

Tesla even later praised Edison in an article he wrote for the New York Times when Edison died, stating, “The recurrence of a phenomenon like [Thomas] Edison is not very likely. The profound change of conditions and the ever increasing necessity of theoretical training would seem to make it impossible. He will occupy a unique and exalted position in the history of his native land, which might well be proud of his great genius and undying achievements in the interest of humanity.”

And as for Tesla’s criticism of Edison, about the worst he seems to have ever said was to take a little jab at Edison’s research methods. That said, even here, while it is a small criticism, it’s also a great compliment concerning Edison’s work ethic and persistence. Tesla stated, “If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.”

Tesla would elsewhere expand on this, “[Edison’s] method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense. In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle.”

And given Edison himself allegedly stated, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” this assessment of Tesla’s perhaps checks out.

…Although, once again in the spirit of debunking myths, we should probably point out that despite that maxim being one of the most famous of all Edison quotes, it wasn’t actually what he said, nor was he the originator of the idea. As for what he said, this was “Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration,” as well as supposedly expanding, “2% is genius and 98% is hard work.”

As to who actually seems to have come up with the source sentiment, enter academic Kate Sanborn in her “What is Genius?” lectures in the 1890s. In this, she stated that genius is a mix of perspiration and inspiration, and that perspiration was far more critical than its fellow -ation. Not long after, an editorial about her lecture in the paper popularly made the rounds, afterwhich Edison seemed to concur given his whole “inspiration is perspiration” thing.

That quote and the general idea evolved over time, to our present day “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” that Edison never actually said (nor did Sanborn say verbatim), and today everybody’s forgotten about poor Kate’s contributions.

In any event, going back to Edison and Tesla, the money generated by Tesla’s A.C. patents made him a relatively wealthy man, and gave him the opportunity to pursue further inventions of his own. Working from various spaces in Manhattan, over the next few years Tesla developed a number of fascinating projects. He invented the now-famous Tesla Coil, a device which projects vibrant arcs of electricity through the air. The scientist also introduced the steam-powered oscillating generator, worked closely on the Niagara dam project, advising on the best method to produce and transmit electricity, and invented new ways of utilising the newly discovered science of X-rays. In 1889, Tesla made one of his most famous demonstrations, using a system which he named ‘Teleautomatics’ to remotely steer a model boat across a lake. Tesla attempted to interest the US military in this latter invention, but they declined.

During this period, Tesla was also experimenting with the concept of wireless power, which leads us to our next major topic. Perhaps the most pervasive myth concerning Nikola Tesla is that he invented a form of ‘free’ wireless energy. This energy, so the conspiracy theory goes, would have been communicated wirelessly at no cost to the end consumer, and would have, thus, revolutionised the world.

This whole idea stems from Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe tower (or Tesla Tower) which the inventor constructed in Shoreham, New York, between 1901-1902. Persistent voices declare that the tower was demolished by the federal government to prevent Tesla from gifting such free energy to the world- an act which would have put some very rich and influential people out of business.

The thing is, beyond the inherent issues of wireless electricity, like extreme inefficiency and the like, which would have actually made it massively more expensive, obviously there’s no such thing as free energy. Tesla himself never used the term, to describe what he was doing and we’re guessing his investors would not have invested if that’s what he was planning. But he did believe in the concept of wireless transmission of electricity, and his ideas as to the process were novel. He states as a part of various wireless electrical transmission attempts he conducted in Colorado Springs,

“(using) the Earth itself as the medium for conducting the currents, thus dispensing with wires and all other artificial conductors … a machine which, to explain its operation in plain language, resembled a pump in its action, drawing electricity from the Earth and driving it back into the same at an enormous rate, thus creating ripples or disturbances which, spreading through the Earth as through a wire, could be detected at great distances by carefully attuned receiving circuits. In this manner I was able to transmit to a distance, not only feeble effects for the purposes of signaling, but considerable amounts of energy, and later discoveries I made convinced me that I shall ultimately succeed in conveying power without wires, for industrial purposes, with high economy, and to any distance, however great.”

Among other things, Tesla’s plans then were for a new way of distributing energy, but the energy itself would have had to have been generated in the traditional manner. In Tesla’s time, this would have likely been via steam pumps burning coal. While it is true that Wardenclyffe tower had been designed with the testing of wireless power transmission in mind, the inventor was never able to prove his ideas and mounting financial woes and lack of investor interest led to the foreclosure of the tower itself. Tesla was unable to keep up with mortgage payments and Wardenclyffe was dismantled in 1915 by its de facto owner, George C Boldt, in order to be sold for scrap.

Tesla’s last decades do not seem to have been happy ones. In reduced financial circumstances, for many years he lived and worked in a New York hotel. This was a period during which, by all accounts, the great scientist’s energy and mental health declined. He became increasingly ‘eccentric,’ to put it mildly, displaying behaviour such as an obsession with numbers and cleanliness which would today most likely be diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is from these times which our next two myths originate.

First, that Tesla invented a death-ray. As you may have deduced from Tesla absconding from mandatory military service as a youth, Tesla was a pacifist and believed in the good of the common man. So why do rumours persist of his so-called ‘death ray,’ a weapon of frightening power designed to inflict maximum damage to human life? There is, at least, some truth behind this enduring myth. Tesla did indeed talk openly about such a device, which he called the Teleforce, and theorised could use metal ions propelled at great speed, exploiting previously unknown laws of physics that, to quote him, “no one has ever dreamed about”. It’s certainly true that Tesla sought funding for his energy weapon from various governments and seemingly the Soviet Union even bit on it and gave him some money to make it.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the inventor believed that such a thing would put an end to warfare. He claimed it was powerful enough to bring down aircraft in flight over vast distances and that it was capable of creating a deadly wall of energy that no enemy could pass through. It was the inventor’s belief that, if every county were equipped with his machinery, no war could ever be fought again. According to Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson, one night in 1937, the inventor declared to a room full of people at the Yugoslavian embassy that he had constructed a working model, which would be unveiled to the world in the coming months. Unfortunately for Tesla, later that year he suffered injuries resulting from an automobile accident. He never fully recovered his health and, by the time of his death in 1943, no further news of the Teleforce device had been forthcoming.

While it is true that, following Tesla’s death, government officials, keen on such a device to use against the Nazis, searched his hotel room for sensitive documents, no physical proof of the inventor’s ‘death ray’ has ever been found. A package left by Tesla in the hotel’s vault, which he had told the hotel manager was a secret prototype worth thousands of dollars, was discovered to be a mundane tool for measuring electrical resistance. It must also be taken into account that this was not the only device Tesla claimed to have invented during his years of decline, yet never demonstrated to anyone, many of which certainly sound implausible.

Moving on from there, let’s talk about Tesla and numerology. Tapping into the view of Tesla as a preternaturally gifted mystic, adherents to numerology (belief in an occult or supernatural link between numbers and events) regularly claim that the inventor was privy to astounding universal knowledge centred around the numbers 3, 6 and 9. We have already discussed the inventor’s possible mental illness later in life, and he did seem to have something of a genuine obsessive compulsive fixation with the number 3. But this myth centres on the following quote, attributed to Tesla: “If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6, and 9, then you would have a key to the universe.”

However, there is no evidence that Tesla ever spoke these words or had any interest in numerology. The quote itself appears to derive from another: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” This latter is attributed to Ralph Bergstresser, a fellow inventor who claims to have heard this from Tesla first-hand. Of course, not only does this not say anything about 3, 6, and 9, but there is no other reference to Tesla saying this.

In the end, the legacy of Tesla’s great work is often overshadowed by the wild conspiracy theories which surround him. he is often portrayed as a kind of martyr for the common people- an inventor with almost supernatural ability, privy to the inner workings of the universe, and a man cruelly censored by those in power who could not allow for any challenge to the status quo.

The truth is, however, while there is no doubt that Tesla had an exceptional capacity for science and engineering far ahead of his time, and that he contributed extremely important innovations to a range of then-emerging technologies, he was also enigmatic and unstable, with his wildest claims more fantastical than real inventions, only existing or even possible at all in his mind. Further, in later life, as we’ve alluded to, it seems plausible that he may have experienced dementia, compounding all of this. None of this diminishes his actual real life accomplishments, which were incredible. It’s just important to focus on what those actually were, and realise that his issues with funding and various things of this nature throughout his life had far more to do with his own shortcomings, than any real conspiracy against him.

Bonus Fact:

Speaking of Thomas Edison and errors, ever wonder where the term “bug” as in a glitch in a computer system came from? Well, I hope so because we’re going to talk about it. The first recorded use of “bug” in this context comes from none other than Mr. Edison, who in a March 3, 1878 letter to Western Union President William Orton wrote: “You were partly correct. I did find a “bug” in my apparatus, but it was not in the telephone proper. It was of the genus “callbellum”. The insect appears to find conditions for its existence in all call apparatus of telephones.”

The “callbellum” Edison refers to in the letter is not an actual genus of insect but rather an obscure Latin joke, “call” referring to a telephone call and bellum being the latin word for “war” or “combat” – implying that Edison is engaged in a struggle with this particular hardware glitch. In a letter to Theodore Puskas written later that year, Edison more clearly defines his use of the word: “It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an intuition, and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise—this thing gives out and [it is] then that “Bugs”—as such little faults and difficulties are called—show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”

Where Edison himself got the term is not known, though one theory posits that it originated from a common problem plaguing telegraph systems. For almost 40 years since their introduction, electric telegraphs were limited to sending a single message at a time over a single wire. As the popularity of telegraphy rose through the mid-19th Century, this limitation became a serious problem, as the only way to allow more messages to be sent was to install more telegraph wires – an increasingly inelegant and expensive solution. This led inventors around the world to seek out methods for transmitting multiple signals over a single wire – a practice now known as multiplexing. By the 1870s several inventors had succeeded in perfecting workable multiplex or “acoustic” telegraphs, which generally worked by encoding each individual signal at a particular acoustic frequency. This allowed multiple signals to be sent along a single telegraph wire, with only a receiver tuned to the sending frequency of a particular signal being able to extract that signal from among the others. Among the many inventors to develop multiplex telegraphs were Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, whose work on sending acoustic frequencies over telegraph wires would eventually lead them to discover the principles that would be used for the telephone.

In any event, while these early multiplex telegraphs worked reasonably well, they had a tendency to generate phantom signals in the form of loud “clicks” that reminded many telegraph operators of the sound of an insect. Thomas Edison himself patented an electronic workaround to this problem in 1873, which he referred to as a “bug catcher” or “bug trap” – suggesting this phenomenon as a likely origin for the term.

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