Always eccentric, Tesla is now thought to have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he aged, his quirks became more obvious. He had a phobia of germs and washed his hands obsessively. He would eat only boiled food. He was obsessed with the number three. He claimed he had received messages from outer space. As an old man, he became devoted to pigeons, which he smuggled into his hotel room.
Back in 1891, George Westinghouse's company had been on the verge of bankruptcy. To help the man who had put faith in him, Tesla agreed to give up the royalties he was owed on his AC patents. The inventor could have made millions, but was instead left destitute. Westinghouse died in 1914, never having fully compensated Tesla for his contributions.
Yet Tesla continued to invent. He was granted at least 275 patents in his lifetime [source: Twenty First Century Books]. He left behind him a long list of innovations, many of which he was never able to pursue:
- He came up with an efficient bladeless turbine in 1904, but the device did not find a commercial application.
- He proposed electric power generation by utilizing geothermal, solar and wind energy.
- He speculated on the existence of the ionosphere, the electrically charged layer of the earth's atmosphere, years before it was discovered.
- He patented one form of spark plug for gasoline engines.
- He invented the first electric clock based on mechanical vibrations.
- His last patent was for a vertical-take-off flying machine, which would become a reality much later.
Not all of Tesla's ideas worked. His dream of wireless power transmission never proved feasible. He dismissed Einstein's work, which would form the basis of modern physics. During and after World War I, Tesla worked on a "death beam," but it was never realized outside of science fiction movies [source: PBS].
In 1943, Tesla died alone and broke in a New York City hotel. He was 86. After his death, many of his papers disappeared. World War II was on; some speculated the FBI had seized them for possible military use. His possessions were later returned to Yugoslavia, but were his papers complete? Did others develop his ideas in secret? Conspiracy theories abound to this day.
"Some day," Tesla predicted in 1915, "there will be, say, six great wireless telephone stations in the world system connecting all the inhabitants of the earth to one another, not only by voice but by sight" [source: Cheney]. Sound familiar? Is that your cell phone or mine?
Author's Note: How Nikola Tesla Worked
Because of his eccentricities and inventive flights into the unknown, Tesla has a reputation as something of a mad genius. In fact, he was much more of a modern researcher than many other 19th-century inventors, relying on mathematics and sound theory. Like many, I feel an affinity for Tesla because of the great daring he showed in his work. His audacity was most apparent in the ideas that didn't work: the tower at Wardenclyffe was kind of monument to his own wildly inventive mind.
The other appealing facet of Tesla's genius was that he worked largely alone. Industrial-scale research laboratories were already making their appearance, but Tesla's research was strictly his own. The notion of a lone pioneer in the world of invention still has its romantic appeal.
- Cheney, Margaret & Uth, Robert. Tesla: Master of Lightning. Barnes & Noble Books, 1999.
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