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10 Uncomfortable Truths About Nikola Tesla

Gregory Myers

Nikola Tesla has become something of an Internet hero. According to legend, he was a mad genius who almost never got the credit he deserved in the money-hungry world of science. It’s easy to argue that Tesla didn’t make it further because of his eccentricities: He hated everything, suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and might have been autistic. The truth, however, is far simpler: Many of his ideas just weren’t viable. Although many people would like to believe otherwise, Tesla was far from perfect.

10Alleged Eidetic Memory

It’s often claimed that Tesla never needed to write anything down because he had either a photographic or eidetic memory. While scientists have not ruled out the claim, the researchers who have studied the phenomenon have admitted that they can’t even prove its existence, although others have pointed out flaws in their methodologies.

As a brilliant scientist and inventor, it’s quite possible that Tesla had excellent visual memory, but it was never tested. It’s certainly not true that he never needed to write anything down—Tesla kept copious notes on his inventions and ideas, many of which have survived to this day. Scientists were thrilled by the possibilities they might contain, but upon examination, these notebooks were found to be highly speculative and contain no useful scientific knowledge.

9Irresponsibility With Money

Many people claim that Tesla died penniless, and some go so far as to say he always was. This is decried as a great injustice against such a brilliant mind. The truth, much like the man himself, is a little more complicated. There is some evidence that he could have made more money if his patents had been secured better or he had not been exploited by people like Thomas Edison. Tesla never cared much for the business aspect of his work, though, and even if he had made a fortune, he likely would have blown it.

Tesla had a reputation for hemorrhaging money. He lived in fancy hotels and sunk the rest of his money into increasingly ambitious—and expensive—projects. He had a history of borrowing money from friends and getting evicted from those hotels. He would sometimes even leave some of his notebooks behind as collateral for the debt when he moved out.

Tesla once commented on his poverty when the city tried to force him to pay a tax bill, admitting that he had no money and “scores” of other debts he owed. He explained that he had been living on credit at the Waldorf for several years. He had plenty of opportunities to pay off his debts and keep his patents from lapsing, but instead, he maintained his lavish lifestyle until the day he died.

8Wild Claims

Thanks to the Tesla revival, every absurd claim he made to newspapers back in the day is now being repeated as fact. The truth is that Tesla made many claims so far out of left field that they would destroy a scientist’s credibility even today, often with no evidence or results to back them up. But if Tesla was crazy, he was crazy like a fox. Oftentimes, his claims were reported shortly before the historical experiments of other scientists.

For example, when Marconi was gearing up for some important radio signal tests, Tesla told the media that he had already received radio transmissions that he believed were from Mars. With his technology, he claimed, we would soon be able to communicate with other planets almost instantaneously. Other projects he claimed to be working on included a torpedo that could be recalled even after being fired and a powerful death ray.

As bizarre as these claims sounded, they gave the impression that Tesla was light-years ahead of everyone else. But if the general public was impressed, the scientific community was decidedly not, regarding Tesla as being mostly full of hot air. While this is an overreaction—Tesla certainly did contribute to our body of scientific knowledge—the plausibility of many of Tesla’s inventions is greatly exaggerated.

7Strange Visions

Tesla’s tall tales weren’t confined to his inventions or supposed interactions with Martians. He also believed that he received a variety of important visions. The first occurred when he was walking in the park with a friend after suffering a nervous breakdown due to his constant lack of sleep.

According to Tesla, he had a vision of the entire model for his AC motor and started drawing it in the dirt. Considering that he had already stated that he had been thinking about the idea for about six years, he probably wasn’t being entirely truthful.

His second “vision” occurred much later in life, involving his beloved pigeons. He claimed that he was alone in his hotel room one night when a white pigeon for whom he harbored particularly great affection came to see him. He was then suddenly blinded by two powerful beams of light that communicated to him that he had finished all of his life’s work and would die soon.

6Insomnia And Addiction To Work

Tesla’s visions could probably be more reasonably attributed to his lack of sleep than any mystical properties. He was known to be a workaholic, to the point that any kind of rest was inconceivable. He claimed that he went to bed at 5:00 AM and rose only five hours later, and only two of those hours were spent sleeping. Once a year, he indulged himself and actually slept all five hours. He never stopped thinking about his work, even when he was snoozing.

There’s no doubt that Tesla’s insomnia had a profound impact on his physical and psychological health for his entire life, but it’s likely that its extent was another of his exaggerations. Humans simply aren’t capable of maintaining such a lack of sleep and remaining alive. However, it is possible Tesla had simply deluded himself. The hotel employees who attended his room said they often found Tesla standing silently, apparently awake but totally unaware of his surroundings. It’s likely that he slept more than he realized, falling into these nap-like trances as a natural reaction to that level of sleep deprivation.

5Contribution To Radio

One of the most contentious issues with Tesla is his contribution to the invention of radio. For a long time, Marconi was considered the father of modern radio, but many have claimed recently that Tesla deserves the honor. After all, Tesla claimed that a whopping 17 of his patents were used in Marconi’s device. This caused trouble for Marconi when the time came to secure a patent of his own, but ultimately, the courts ruled in his favor.

Tesla was very bitter about the matter, but unfortunately, there isn’t any historical evidence that he actually built a working radio. While Marconi was sending radio signals across the Atlantic, Tesla was too busy boasting to conduct any tests. In fact, the evidence suggests that Tesla didn’t completely understand how electronic waves worked, believing them to be faster than the speed of light. It seems the only person at the time who claimed that Tesla invented radio was Tesla.

4The Wardenclyffe Tower Fiasco

Tesla’s most ambitious project—and his biggest failure—was Wardenclyffe Tower. He envisioned a gigantic tower that could transmit incredibly powerful amounts of electricity and wireless communication all around the globe. He asked for $1 million to fund the project, which is close to $30 million in today’s money. However, the only major backer he secured was J.P. Morgan, who offered him $150,000 dollars, or about $4 million now. Morgan also wanted a stake in Tesla’s patents, which indicates that he might not have had much faith in his investment.

Once Tesla had his funding, he went straight to work. He purchased plots of land and hired laborers to build his tower, which consisted of 16 steel supports that went hundreds of feet into the Earth. He intended to use the Earth itself as a conductor and believed that the supports from his tower would “grip the Earth” and “make it quiver” even at those relatively shallow depths.

While many people think the structure failed because Tesla didn’t receive the proper funding, he apparently completed the plans outlined in his patent and produced a transmitter. The problem was that it didn’t work. Tesla was desperate to fix it and begged Morgan for more money, but Morgan refused, disappointed in the initial results.

Modern-day experts who have studied the Wardenclyffe Tower have come away with more questions than answers. They couldn’t figure out how Tesla’s device was supposed to accomplish its intended purposes, and the same patent that proposed the plan to use the Earth as a conductor contained another plan to shoot the energy into the Earth’s ionosphere. They aren’t sure which method he intended to use or even which one he actually tested. It’s likely that no money in the world would have resulted in the finished product when its designer didn’t even have a clear vision of his immense project.

3Nobel Prize Rumors

Among the strangest claims about the Tesla-Edison rivalry concern a contested Nobel Prize. The rumor, which was reported at the time by such esteemed publications as The New York Times, was that Tesla and Edison had been offered a joint Nobel Prize one year. Later rumors claimed that the prize was given to someone else because the two refused to share an award between them, and some even believe that Edison tried to sabotage both of their chances out of spite.

The news came as quite a surprise to the Nobel committee, who had already chosen their winners for that year. In response to the rumors, they stated unequivocally that they wouldn’t ever withdraw an award just because the recipient refused it. Furthermore, both Edison and Tesla denied ever being given such an offer. Although both were serious—if unlikely—candidates on a handful of occasions, neither ever won the Nobel Prize.

2Popularity In His Time

The modern mythology of Tesla rests on the belief that he was never given the funding he needed, never got the attention he deserved during his time, and suffered the injustice of a world that wasn’t ready for his amazing genius. None of this could be further from the truth.

While not every single idea of his was fully funded, which is true for most scientists at all levels of prestige, he received plenty of funding from rich donors. In addition to the generous endowments he received from household names like J.P. Morgan, Tesla was quite popular with the common man. He and Edison were both considered celebrity scientists in their day.

Despite the popular conception of him today as a reclusive, misunderstood genius, Tesla was quite the showman. He was known to demonstrate his famous coil in front of frothing crowds who lavished him with attention and support. He was also a media darling who certainly knew how to create buzz around his work and did so whenever possible. The idea that he could have turned the world into a technological utopia if only he had enough money and recognition is patently absurd.

1The Earthquake Machine Myth

One of the claims most beloved by Tesla fans is that he built an “earthquake machine.” Unsurprisingly, there are many variations of the story, but they all contain some common elements. Generally, it is said that Tesla was working with some kind of resonance device when he decided to try it on his own building, which caused it and several other buildings in the area to shake. Afraid that he might end up leveled by his own invention, Tesla smashed his machine to pieces with a hammer just as the police arrived to find out what was going on.

The apocryphal story has been repeated many times, especially by Tesla himself, who claimed that his machine could “split the Earth like an apple” if he so desired it. He went on to claim that he wasn’t done experimenting with the machine, setting out one evening to see if he could use it to destroy a partially finished tower and fleeing during the panic he caused. However, there was no evidence in the news or any record anywhere to verify these wild stories.

Since some people remained unconvinced by the lack of evidence, an episode of Mythbusters featured a test of Tesla’s crazy device to determine whether it was a realistic possibility. They found that such a device set to the right frequency could cause powerful vibrations but wouldn’t cause any serious damage or anything resembling an earthquake. It’s likely simply another of Tesla’s embellishments.