A Predatory Mind
 
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Nikola TeslaWHO WAS TESLA, REALLY?

The Man and his Inventions.

    Many who learn of his accomplishments idealize and idolize Tesla. The first biographer to tackle his complete life's story set the tone. "Even the gods of old, in the wildest imaginings of their worshipers, never undertook such gigantic task of world-wide dimensions as those which Tesla attempted and accomplished1." ... "...he seemed to be an admixture of a Jupiter or a Thor who hurled shafts of lightning; an Ajax who defied the Jovian bolts; a Prometheus who transmuted energy into electricity to spread over the earth; an Aurora who would light the skies as a terrestrial electric lamp; a Mazda who created a sun in a tube; a Hercules who shook the earth with his mechanical vibrators; a Mercury who bridged the ambient realms of spaces with wireless waves—and a Hermes who gave birth to an electrical soul in the earth that set it pulsating from pole to pole2." Those who revere him see him not only as the greatest virtuoso among inventors but as a martyr when his idealistic plans to help all of humanity were destroyed by wealthy interests.

    Others, more critical of Tesla, agree he was one of the luminary geniuses at the end of the 19th century but afterwards he destroyed his career and reputation pursuing impractical ideas. In his later life, they say, he went crazy: Howard Hughes with better-trimmed nails.

    In my readings, I've come to believe that Tesla's life was not lived in separate pieces. He was always brilliant, always a martyr, and always a touch mad.

Mental difficulties and visionary skills.

    Crazy is a cruel term to apply to his conditions. Tesla suffered from obsessive-compulsive behavior, grandiosity, phobias and was prone to nervous breakdowns. These challenges followed him his entire life. In an era long before being candid about one's personal troubles became popular, he explicitly described his mental problems.

"After finishing the studies at the Polytechnic Institute and University I had a complete nervous
breakdown and while the malady lasted I observed many phenomena strange and unbelievable3."

"In my boyhood I 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 action4."

    Tesla enforced a discipline on himself to control his visions. "I was about twelve years old when I first succeeded in banishing an image from my vision by wilful effort...5"

    This same discipline would be key to his productivity. "Although as a rule he does not retire until 5:30 o'clock every morning, he gets up about 10 a.m. and feels full of energy6."In other iterations he required even less sleep.

    He credits this ability to view objects as though real with his ability to conceive and perfect inventions.

"I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is radically opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient7."

Tesla considering Tesla
Tesla pointing to one of his most famous photos.


Idealism and martyrism.

    Throughout his life Tesla pursued ideals in place of practicality, he was always confronting the powers that be. He was regularly robbed, repeatedly a martyr.

    In 1885, he quit working for Thomas Edison claiming he was cheated out of $50,000 for an invention8. That same year the Tesla Electric Company folded leaving him with worthless stock9. In 1901, he sold off 51 per cent of the value of his inventions, past and future, to J.P. Morgan10 for funding to create a never-completed electrical transmission tower. In 1943, after his death, officers Alien Property Control seized his estate concerned his inventions were of strategic value. They reported their efforts to the FBI.

"On Saturday afternoon of January 9 [1943] Gorsuch and Fitzgerald of Alien Property Control went to hotel and retrieved all property of Tesla consisting of two truckloads of material...[snip] Concerning Tesla hotel managers report he was highly eccentric if not mentally deranged during the past ten years... [snip] The Office of Scientific Research Development might be interested11."

    Both when he was young and when he was old Tesla envisioned impossible inventions. From 1873, when he was 17 years old.

"Another one of my projects was to construct a ring around the equator which would, of course, float freely and could be arrested in its spinning motion by reactionary forces, thus enabling travel at a rate of about one thousand miles an hour, impracticable by rail. The reader will smile. The plan was difficult of execution, I will admit...12"

    Perhaps in performing a disservice to his understatement, the above described invention is wholly ridiculous, especially by the standards of the 1880s. Did he believe centripetal force would keep the ring aloft? How would the travelers achieve the thousand miles per hour to climb aboard? What material could be used to make such a massive ring? How could it withstand one thousand mile per hour winds? While such a ring would be possible (although still ludicrously impractical) in geosynchronous orbit, space travel was still nearly a century away. Tesla realized the difference between these imagined inventions and the ones he made came down to this: in his youth, he had yet to acquire the education necessary to evaluate what was and what was not possible.

"I thought and planned, and conceived many ideas almost as a rule delusive. The vision was clear enough but the knowledge of principles was very limited13."

    The reason I present the "delusive" idea above is that it is mirrored in his later grandiose plans. Intervening between fanciful youthful contrivances and the equally impossible schemes he imagined in his later life was a period in which he produced a range of brilliant and perfectly engineered inventions. This period came about due to education he received at The Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria and at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague. The current state of Newtonian physics, sound engineering principles, and a comprehension of the latest inventions were sufficient to keep Tesla at the forefront of technology for twenty years. It allowed him to focus his remarkable talents and energies on devices that could be made.

    In his sixties he proposed seeing around the world, not through television, but through one gigantic mechanical eye. "The arrival of Tesla's mechanical eye will mean that the man in New York can see his business associate in Shanghai as he talks to him by wireless. The eye resting on a pivot, will be swung about and brought to bear on the explorer, fighting his way over the frozen wastes of the Arctic circle; the fiery interior of the earth will give up its secrets to the eye, and the battles of men will be revealed to all other men in their cruelty and savagery14." He goes on to say, "I am certain that Man will soon possess this machine in completed form and will be able to see at will to any part of the earth14."

Stubborn and Inflexible.

    Tesla refused to accept the radically changing understanding of the world that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He clung to his belief in the theory of space-ether, disputed the works and findings of Michaelis, Hertz, Einstein and Bohr. For a man who tamed electricity, he never understood the electron. For a man who made such fundamental advancements in radio, he never understood radio waves.

    He could not see the necessity of accepting the radical new physics of relativity and quantum mechanics, or even a better understanding of electromagnetic forces. What need had he for such matters? His method of envisioning his inventions had so far been infallible.

"When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception15."

    In his later life Tesla would make yearly press gatherings on his birthday announcing new schemes and unrealities, each seemingly wilder than the last. Three examples are presented below from his consortium with reporters on his 79th birthday.

"...he is now convinced that many of the cosmic particles travel fifty times faster than light, some of them 500 times faster16."

"He has invented an "absolutely impossible" machine which will impart vibrations to the earth which, with proper receiving apparatus can be picked up anywhere on the earth's surface, and that this mysterious machine will allow scientists to explore the deep interior of the earth, will enable practical geologists to discover gold, coal and petroleum, and at the same time will give ships the means of navigating without compass or sextant16."

"Some shrewd reporter asked Dr. Tesla at this point what he would need to destroy the Empire State Building and the doctor replied: - "Five pounds of air pressure. If I attached the proper oscillating machine on a girder that is all the force I would need, five pounds16."

    As each set of claims failed to materialize, from year to year the reporters grew more skeptical viewing these annual meetings a matter of entertainment.
 
    So Tesla became a 19th century scientist lost in a new age. Not understanding the forces of the universe, he schemed against them with evermore fury. His idealized theories and fully imagined plans could not be realized in a world of quantum energies and uncertainties. He saw the earth as a conductor, but could not reckon with the turbulent forces beneath its crust.

    The difference between the time in his life when he was considered an eccentric genius inventor and when he was dismissed as a crackpot was in part his success or the lack of it. His later failures exacerbated his nervous disorders, but those mental problems were there his entire life. With his wild undertakings, he rode his previous fame and fortune until it was in tatters, until many unfairly dismissed him until he was all-but-forgotten to history.

    Tesla was an inflexible person. His genius leaned on his madness, the two were one. His critics had been wrong so often, he could not allow himself to see when they were right. Although his life ended in seeming failure, along the way he gave humanity such a treasure-store of advancements. It is selfish on our parts to wish him to be something more. It is a dishonor to treat him as a superman.

References

1. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, J. John O'Neill, copyright 1944. Reprinted by Ancient Wisdom Publications. Page 3.

2. ibid, page 4.

3. My Inventions, The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, compiled by Ben Johnston, Experimenter Publishing Company, Inc., copyright 1919, page 17.

4. ibid, page 10.

5. ibid, page 13.

6. New York Times, July 11, 1936, II p. 1, c. 2. Tesla, 80, Reveals New Power Device.

7. My Inventions, The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, compiled by Ben Johnston, Experimenter Publishing Company, Inc., copyright 1919, page 12.

8. ibid, page 72.

9. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson, copyright 2013, Princeton University Press, page 75.

10. "... I assign to you [J. Pierpont Morgan] an interest of fifty-one percent in all said patents and invetions, and also in any patents or inventions which I may hereafter secure." Ibid, page 317.

11. Foxworth Memo to New York City FBI director, dated January 12, 1943, FBI files, Nikola Tesla, FOIA. http://vault.fbi.gov/nikola-tesla/nikola-tesla-part-01-of-01/view
Retrieved July 24, 2013.

12. My Inventions, The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, compiled by Ben Johnston, Experimenter Publishing Company, Inc., copyright 1919, page 30

13. ibid.

14. A Giant Eye To See Around The World. Albany Telegram, February 25, 1923

15. My Inventions, The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, compiled by Ben Johnston, Experimenter Publishing Company, Inc., copyright 1919, page 13.

16. New York World-Telegram, July 11, 1935. Nikola Tesla, At 79, Uses Earth To Transmit Signals; Expects To Have $100,000,000 Within Two Years


More to the story

Who was Nikola Tesla?
Tesla versus Einstein
Tesla versus Adrian Monk
Health Tips from Nikola Tesla
Was Tesla anti-Semitic?

The novel - first three chapters.

copyright 2013, Martin Hill Ortiz