Little known facts about Nikola Tesla


Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is best known for his pioneering research in electricity and robotics and for his numerous inventions, which include the eponymous Tesla coil.

But the Serbian-born scientist-inventor is also known for his strange obsessions and some truly bizarre behavior. (How many people do you know who have fallen in love with a bird?) Keep reading to learn the details about that and six other strange facts about the man who some consider one of science’s great unsung heroes…

1. He was born during a lightening storm.
Nikola Tesla was born around midnight, between July 9 and July 10, 1856 during a fierce lightning storm. According to family legend, midway through the birth, the midwife wrung her hands and declared the lightning a bad omen. This child will be a child of darkness, she said, to which his mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”

2. Tesla had a thing about the number three.
A genius, for sure, but Tesla had more than his share of quirks. He was absolutely fixated on the number three, washing his hands three times in a row, and even walking around a building three times before entering it. The obsession may have been a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

3. He was really funny.
Most people don’t know that Tesla had a terrific sense of humor, Seifer said. For example, after dining with writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, he wrote this in a correspondence to a close friend:

April 1, 1901

My dear Mrs. Johnson,

What is the matter with inkspiller Kipling? He actually dared to invite me to dine in an obscure hotel where I would be sure to get hair and cockroaches in the soup.

Yours truly,

N. Tesla

4. Tesla detested pearls.
Couldn’t stand the sight of them. In fact, he hated pearls so much that he refused to speak to women who wore them. What explains his pearly aversion? No one knows for sure–though it, too, might have been evidence of OCD.

5. He was celibate.
Married life was not for Tesla, who once said: “I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men.” He reportedly thought that sex would hinder his scientific work.

6. He lived in a hotel room.
Tesla lived many years in New York City, and spent his last decade living there in the Hotel New Yorker. He lived in room 3327, a two-room suite on the 33rd floor. It’s where his peculiar fondness for pigeons played out.

Tesla belongings on display at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.
Tesla belongings on display at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

7. He was unusually fond of pigeons.
Lots of folks feed pigeons in the park. Tesla didn’t stop there. He used to find ailing pigeons and bring them back to his hotel room. One pigeon, in particular, stole his heart. As he wrote about her, “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.”

8. He and Edison were rivals but not sworn enemies.
Many have characterized Tesla and inventor Thomas Edison as enemies (see this andthis,) but Carlson says this relationship has been misrepresented. Early in his career, Tesla worked for Edison, designing direct current generators, but famously quit to pursue his own project: the alternating current induction motor. Sure, they were on different sides of the so-called “Current Wars,” with Edison pushing for direct current and Tesla for alternating current. But Carlson considers them the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of their time: one the brilliant marketer and businessman and the other a visionary and “tech guy.”

On a rare occasion, Edison attended a conference where Tesla was speaking. Edison, hard of hearing and not wanting to be spotted, slipped into the back of the auditorium to listen to the lecture. But Tesla spotted Edison in the crowd, called attention to him and led the audience in giving him a standing ovation.

Seifer qualifies it more, saying the two had a love/hate relationship. At first Edison dismissed Tesla, but came to eventually respect him, he said.

“When there were fires at Tesla’s laboratory, Edison provided him a lab, so clearly there was some mutual respect,” Seifer said

House where Tesla was born (left) and the church where Tesla's father served in Smilijan. Both structures were burned during Yugoslav wars and rebuilt by the Croatian government.
House where Tesla was born (left) and the church where Tesla’s father served in Smilijan. Both structures were burned during Yugoslav wars and rebuilt by the Croatian government.

9. He believed in eugenics. Tesla seemed to think that some people just weren’t fit to produce offspring. According to Smithsonian.com, he wrote in a 1935 magazine article:

The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.

10. He developed the idea for Smartphone technology in 1901.
Tesla may have had a brilliant mind, but he was not as good at reducing his ideas to practice, Carlson said. In the race to develop transatlantic radio, Tesla described to his funder and business partner, J.P. Morgan, a new means of instant communication that involved gathering stock quotes and telegram messages, funneling them to his laboratory, where he would encode them and assign them each a new frequency. That frequency would be broadcast to a device that would fit in your hand, he explained. In other words, Tesla had envisioned the smart phone and wireless internet, Carlson said, adding that of all of his ideas, that was the one that stopped him in his tracks.

“He was the first to be thinking about the information revolution in the sense of delivering information for each individual user,” Carlson said.

He also conceived of, but never developed technology for radar, X-rays, a particle beam “death ray” and radio astronomy.

Demonstration of the wireless transmission of power Tesla gave in a 1891 lecture.
Demonstration of the wireless transmission of power Tesla gave in a 1891 lecture.

11. He claimed to have invented a death ray. Tesla may have loved animals, but he wasn’t all about loving-kindness. In fact, he claimed to have invented a death ray he called “Teleforce,” which he said would “send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.”

This tesla coil snuffed out the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.
This tesla coil snuffed out the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.

12. ‘He shook the poop out of Mark Twain’.
One famous legend surrounding the eccentric Tesla was that he had an earthquake machine in his Manhattan laboratory that shook his building and nearly brought down the neighborhood during experiments.

Tesla’s device wasn’t actually an earthquake machine, Carlson said, but a high frequency oscillator. A piston set underneath a platform in the laboratory shook violently as it moved, another experiment in more efficient electricity.

It didn’t bring the block to ruins, Carlson said, but it did “shake the poop out of Mark Twain.” Twain was known for having digestive problems, so Tesla, who knew Twain through their gentlemen’s club, invited him over. He instructed Twain to stand on the platform while he flipped on the oscillator. After about 90 seconds, Twain jumped off the platform and ran for the facilities.

13. He had a photographic memory and a fear of germs.
Tesla had what’s known as a photographic memory. He was known to memorize books and images and stockpile visions for inventions in his head. He also had a powerful imagination and the ability to visualize in three dimensions, which he used to control the terrifying vivid nightmares he suffered from as a child. It’s in part what makes him such a mystical and eccentric character in popular culture, Carlson said. He was also known for having excessive hygiene habits, born out of a near-fatal bout of cholera as a teenager.

~ With input from HuffPost,  W. Bernard Carlson, author of “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” and Marc Seifer, author of“Wizard: Life and Times of Nicola Tesla.”

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