Nikola Tesla was one of the geniuses of the modern era. Yet, he died penniless, insane and alone in a New York hotel room.
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The Serbian-American inventor is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. He contributed directly to many of the inventions we take for granted today, like X-rays, fluorescent lights, wireless transmissions, computers, smartphones and robotics. Tesla also pioneered the field of radio communication.
But who was he, exactly, and how was he as a person? Here are some less known facts about the tormented genius:
1. He developed the idea for smartphones in 1901
Tesla was known to have a brilliant mind, but unlike his peer, American inventor Thomas Edison, he didn’t have a head for business. At a time when everyone was racing to develop transatlantic radio, Tesla described to his patron and business partner, American magnate J. P. Morgan, a unique idea: a means of instant communication involving stock quotes and telegram messages, which could be funnelled to his lab, where they would be encoded and assigned a new frequency. That frequency, Tesla said, could be broadcast to a device that would fit in your hand. Tesla was describing the smartphone perfectly. Unfortunately, he didn’t go through with the idea. In fact, he also perfectly conceived ideas for radar, X-rays and radio astronomy but never developed the technology for these inventions.
2. He had a photographic memory
Tesla was known to be able to memorise books and images for inventions. He also had a stunning imagination and could visualise in three dimensions – something he used to control the terrifyingly vivid nightmares he suffered from, as a child. He also had extreme hygiene habits, something he developed after he almost died from cholera as a teenager.
3. He had an irrational hatred of pearls
Tesla couldn’t stand pearls, to the extent that he refused to speak to women wearing them. On one occasion, when his secretary work pearl jewellery, he asked her to go back home. No one knows why he hated pearls, but it was clear Tesla had a very specific sense of style. He wore white gloves to dinner every night, and prided himself on being a ‘dapper’ dresser. Tesla even had a ‘good side’, which he carefully constructed whenever someone wanted to take a picture of him.
4. He had a hilarious encounter with Mark Twain
Often eccentric, Tesla had an ‘earthquake machine’ (which was actually a high frequency oscillator) in his Manhattan laboratory – whenever he conducted experiments on it, it shook the entire building and even brought down parts of the neighbourhood. American writer Twain, who knew Tesla from their gentleman’s club, had once complained to him of his digestive issues. So, Tesla invited him over and instructed Twain to stand on the oscillator’s platform while he switched it on. The legend goes, in about 90 seconds, Twain jumped off the platform and rushed for the facilities. Tesla’s experiment was a success.
5. He claimed to receive signals from outer space, and he was right
In the summer of 1899, Tesla set up a field lab in Colorado, US, to assess whether he could use high-altitude stations to transmit information and electricity over long distances. One day, while tracking lightning storms, Tesla’s equipment recorded a series of beeps. After ruling out solar and terrestrial causes, he concluded that the signals must be from outer space, possibly another planet. He even wrote about the incident, stating: “Brethren! We have a message from another world, unknown and remote. It reads: one… two… three…” In 1996, scientists replicated Tesla’s experiment, and found that he was right – the signal was in fact caused by the moon Io, passing through Jupiter’s magnetic field.