Happy Monday, my fine readers. Let’s get your week started off right with the exhilarating crazy that is Nikola Tesla (subtitle: Thomas Edison Was A Twat-Waffle And I Really Hate That Guy).
I’ve been meaning to do a post on Tesla basically since I started this blog, but since he’s one of my all-time favorite historical figures, I’ve actually been a bit daunted by writing about him. The post must . . . be . . . PERFECT . . . to do him justice. In fact, the only person I’ve known to do him justice is David Bowie, who played him in The Prestige and made me go all clappy-squee in the audience, because that role combined two of my favorite people.
“You have retractable metal claws and magical healing powers, Wolverine? That’s cute. I once created an earthquake with the potential to destroy the world, built from the raw power of my evil-genius mind.”
[Seriously. He did that. But we’ll get to that later.]
I think he could actually smite people with the powers of his resting bitch-face.
Tesla, the mad scientist to whom you owe your thanks for many of your modern comforts, was born in what is now Croatia to Serbian parents. His father was an Orthodox priest and his mother’s father was an Orthodox priest. What’s a boy to do? Become an uber-scientist who may or may not be God himself.
“It’s too late to close your browser. I’ve already seen into your soul.”
So, I attempted to write out the narrative of his life, but that ended up being longer than what livejournal [the site of my old blog, where this was originally published] allows for for posts, so instead I’m going to sum up his list of awesomes in bullet points, quoting from Badass of the Week, who describe Tesla in funnier terms than I could ever dream of doing. I’ll round it off with points of my own:
1.) He “almost single-handedly developed technology that harnessed the power of electricity for household use, and invented things like electrical generators, FM radio, remote control, robots, spark plugs, fluorescent lights, and giant-ass machines that shoot enormous, brain-frying lightning bolts all over the place like crazy. He . . . successfully pulled off scientific experiments that modern-day technology STILL can’t replicate. For instance, in 2007 a group of lesser geniuses at MIT got all pumped up out of their minds because they wirelessly transmitted energy a distance seven feet through the air. Nikola Tesla once lit 200 lightbulbs from a power source 26 miles away, and he did it in 1899 with a machine he built from spare parts in the middle of the god-forsaken desert. To this day, nobody can really figure out how the hell he pulled that shit off, because two-thirds of the schematics only existed in the darkest recesses of Tesla’s all-powerful brain.”
2.) “Another sweet thing about Tesla is that he conducted the sort of crazy experiments that generally result in hordes of angry villagers breaking down the door to your lab with torches and pitchforks. [Now we’re about to explain the caption below the Bowie/Jackman picture above:] One time, while he was working on magnetic resonance, he discovered the resonant frequency of the Earth and caused an earthquake so powerful that it almost obliterated the 5th Avenue New York building that housed his Frankenstein Castle of a laboratory. Stuff was flying off the walls, the drywall was breaking apart, the cops were coming after him, and Tesla had to smash his device with a sledge hammer to keep it from demolishing an entire city block. Later, he boasted that he could have built a device powerful enough to split the Earth in two. Nobody dared him to prove it.”
3.) “Tesla also ordered the construction of the Wardenclyffe Tesla Tower, a giant building shaped like an erect penis that would have housed the largest Tesla coil ever built. The massive structure, ostensibly designed to wirelessly transmit power, has been cited as a potential cause of the mysterious 1908 Tunguska Event – a ten-megaton blast that detonated in the wastelands above central Russia that completely obliterated and deforested everything unlucky enough to be located within a several hundred mile radius. While nothing has ever successfully proven Tesla’s involvement in the ass-destroyingly huge explosion, it’s pretty awesome that this guy could potentially have detonated a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and have done it back before they’d even invented the submachine gun.”
4.) “perhaps his most badass invention was his face-melting, tank-destroying, super-secret Atomic Death Ray. In the 1920s he claimed to be working on a tower that could potentially have spewed forth a gigantic beam of ionized particles capable of disintegrating aircraft from 200 miles away and blinking most men out of existence like something out of a Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers comic. His weapon, known as the “Teleforce Beam”, allegedly shot ball lightning at 60 million volts, liquefying its targets with enough power to vaporize steel, and, while it could shoot further than 200 miles, its effectiveness beyond that range was limited only by the curvature of the Earth. Luckily for all humans, this crazy insanity never came to fruition – most of the schematics and plans existed only in Tesla’s head, and when he died of heart failure in 1943, little hard data on the project existed. Still, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI confiscated all his personal stuff and locked it away anyways, just to be safe.”
5.) “Of course, much like many other eccentric giga-geniuses and diabolical masterminds, Tesla was also completely insane. He was prone to nervous breakdowns, claimed to receive weird visions in the middle of the night, spoke to pigeons, and occasionally thought he was receiving electromagnetic signals from extraterrestrials on Mars. He was also obsessive-compulsive and hated round objects [but loved spheres], human hair, jewelry, and anything that wasn’t divisible by three. He was also asexual and celibate for his entire life.” [This does not surprise me. I’m told by most men that they have enough blood to operate their brain or their penis, but not both. Considering how much blood must have been needed in Tesla’s brain, it’s a miracle any other organ in his body got the requisite bloodflow.]
This is a fun fact of my own: Tesla absolutely detested overweight people to the point that he feared them and couldn’t bear to look upon them. I have no idea why. All I know is, every time I mention Tesla to a certain friend of mine (talking to you, Jake), this friend always starts playing this song because he knows how much I (and probably Tesla) hate it.
6.) He got more than a handful of braincells from his mother, Đuka. She’s the one from whom Tesla likely inherited his eidetic memory (eidetic memory is more than a photographic memory–it allows you to remember or even construct images of things in profound detail and with minute precision, and without the aid of mnemonic devices; what’s even more ridiculous is that eidetic memory tends to only exist in children, who grow out of it. Đuka and Nikola retained theirs all their lives. In addition, eidetic memory is more a savant skill and has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence; Nikola not only retained his eidetic memory all his life, but was also a genius to surpass most geniuses).
Đuka was a very crafty, mechanical, and inventive woman and could memorize Serbian epic poems; she never had any formal education. Tesla could also memorize extremely long works, as well as speak eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin. His eidetic memory, combined with perhaps some sort of neural disorder, helped him conceive of many of his inventions: he’d see blinding flashes of light, and would then receive visions of certain devices, equations, or concepts that were fully worked out and meticulously depicted in the vision.
So you know how the idea for Harry Potter just kind of appeared to J.K. Rowling more or less fully formed while she was riding on a train one day? Yeah, it’s like that, only more frequently, with more hallucinations, and also the results now power every electronic device in your house. “Accio alternating current!”
[Someone write me a time-traveling fan fiction where JKR and Tesla fall in love and take over the world.]
7.) His family moved around a lot and Tesla got exposure to a wide variety of school subjects and languages. At one school, he became buddies with the math teacher who taught him integral calculus and physics, which Tesla was actually able to figure out in his head, all very like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a little calculus and some little baby physics.” Unfortunately, NO ONE does fucking integral calculus or physics equations in their head, so all the teachers were like, “You’re a lying liar and a cheating fraud.” But he couldn’t hear them, because he was too busy kicking school’s ass and taking names. And when he finished a four-year degree in only three years, I like to picture him cracking his knuckles menacingly at his teachers and saying, “I’m sorry, did you say something?” “N-noo, sir.”
8.) His dad was like, “Son, I think you should become a priest, because that’s where your exceptionally talented scientific mind could really thrive, except not.” So Tesla got revenge on his parents by contracting cholera and steadily almost dying for most of a year. When his mother was like, “Okay, fine, we’ll send you to engineering school if you just LIVE”, he went, ” . . . ‘kay” and got better.
I’m not saying that Tesla has control over the powers of life and death, but that’s exactly what I’m saying.
So he went to engineering school and also whipped THAT smartly in the derriere by getting the highest possible grades, getting a glowing letter of recommendation from the dean, and passing almost twice the required amount of exams.
9.) I’m convinced that his technical abilities allowed him to turn himself into a cyborg, because Tesla claimed he worked from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. EVERY DAMN DAY, FOREVER. Like, he didn’t even take off Christmas, let alone weekends. He also never slept more than two hours a night.
10.) He started working for Edison, who gave him the job of totally redesigning his inefficient generators. Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if he could do it successfully. Tesla, of course, did it successfully, with a fricking cherry on top, and was like, “Pay me now please. I have discovered alternating current.” And Edison was like, “Ohhhhhh shit,” because he owned all the patents on direct current, and Tesla’s invention was going to upset his status quo. He was like, “Shush with your alternating current, no one needs to know about this, let’s just sweep it under the rug.” So Edison famously said that he was only joking about the $50,000 and Tesla didn’t ‘get’ his American humor, and to thank him for his hugely, monumentally important cute little discovery, Edison, the stingy bastard, agreed to bump up Tesla’s pay from $18 a week to $28.
Tesla said, “Fuck you. Fuck you very much,” handed in his resignation, took up inventing on his own, and went on to kick Edison’s ass at pretty much everything ever, except being a self-aggrandizing publicity ho.
Then the 1893 Chicago World Exposition happened, and the city of Chicago needed to light the Exposition with them thurr new-fangled electric lights. Both Edison and Tesla were up for the job. Edison was famous, but Tesla (who didn’t give a shit about fame or money) underbid him and won the contract. His alternating current lit the months-long fair that the whooooole wooooorld got to experience in some way or another.
Edison then pulled the douchiest of all douche-bag moves and attempted to use his own fame to undermine Tesla’s much safer, more reliable, and more innovative science by electrocuting goats. It’s all fun and games until someone starts zapping the livestock.
He started a mass smear campaign saying that Tesla’s alternating current was dangerous, and he ‘proved’ this by just . . . fucking . . . electrocuting animals in front of huge crowds and saying “That’s what happens when something living comes in contact with alternating current!” Well, what he really was saying was, “I’m taking you down, Tesla, and I’m taking these 57 goats with you”, but you have to read between the lines. That’s what I’ve learned in my PhD: subtext.
But the World Exposition went off perfectly (at least in the electrical department) and Tesla got super famous and everyone and their grannies started using alternating current because it is perfectly safe, so, go on, Edison. Keep making yourself look like an asshole. Tesla don’t care. Tesla don’t give a shit.
(Side-note: this is one of the many, many reasons why I hated Oz the Great and Powerful. Apart from the rephrensible gender issues. And apart from James Franco, who is just a shiver looking for a spine to run up. The Wizard of Oz in that film was a squealing Edison fanboy. 5 minutes in, and I was like, “Nope. Done with this.”)
Then, of course, there was the 1915 Nobel Prize for Physics. As rumor has it, the award was going to be given both to Thomas Edison AND Nikola Tesla that year, but both refused it. Some say neither one wanted to accept the award if it was presented to the other first and some say that Edison refused it because it meant that impoverished Tesla wouldn’t get the $20,000 prize money (yeah, he sounds like the kind of greasy little pimp who would turn down a Nobel Prize to keep someone else in poverty). The Nobel Foundation strongly denies these rumors, but it’s fun to think of, anyway. Neither of them ever actually won the award for anything. Ever.
When Edison died, Tesla wrote this:
“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”
I love that his final words on Edison were basically, “He’s boring and he’s dumb and he smells.”
(If you want to see this relationship acted out by Crispin Glover and John C. Reilly, with narration that is EVEN DRUNKER than this, if you can believe it, go watch this episode of Drunk History.)
Okay. I’ve had enough of Edison and his unctious fuckery. Let’s move on to a less execreble part of the story.
11.) Tesla had a rigorous exercise schedule that involved him walking between 8 and 10 miles per day. He was a vegetarian who lived only on bread, milk, honey, and vegetable juice. He must have had the cleanest colon since John Harvey Kellogg. He also enjoyed squishing his toes with his fingers, claiming that it stimulated the growth of his brain cells. What saddens me is that I can’t say “because science” or “seems legit”. My snarkiness about his Victorian-age science has no place here. He’s Tesla.
He also said that his eyes, which were originally dark, lightened as the years went on because of the excessive use of his brain. You heard it hear first, people: blue eyes = smarter (actually, Tesla was a supporter of eugenics, but I can’t even get into that because it upsets me; can we at least focus on how he hated gender inequality? No? Those two things don’t cancel each other out? Okay. Fine.)
12.) He was BFF with Mark Twain, who was a BAMF in his own right. Wouldn’t that make a great League of Extraordinary Gentlemen reboot? Twain and Tesla, on the warpath against the Evil Edison Empire.
13.) Tesla, in his later years, was hit by a taxi. He broke at least three ribs and really messed up his back, but refused a doctor, because medical attention might reveal that his skeleton was made of titanium, or that his brain contained the swirling centre of the universe, or that his heartbeat thumped out the percussion of “O Fortuna“, or something.
He was bedridden for a while, but got bored because he could no longer go down to the park to feed the pigeons, so he decided that healing the normal human way was for sissies and spontaneously regenerated all of his cells, I guess, and went down to be with his pigeon loves.
He actually did have a borderline erotic relationship with a pigeon. He said:
“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. 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.”
14.) His face literally IS the money:
I wish I lived in Serbia so all of my bank notes could give me bedroom eyes.
The moral of the story is: Edison was a douche-canoe.