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Eclectically Individual

Someone once asked Einstein what it’s like to be the smartest man on earth. He responded, “I don’t know, you’ll have to Nikola Tesla”. Crazy high praise coming from an intellect like Einstein.

There is the almost certain chance this exchange never happened. In fact, most of what I’ve read indicates that Nikola and Albert didn’t even like each other. Anyway, Tesla was a monster genius regardless of what anyone thought of him on a personal level, and I’m certain each man held the other in high professional regard. The purpose here is to talk about Tesla’s dedication to his craft in the face of setbacks, insults, injuries, and unspeakable skulduggery from his contemporaries.

Tesla was Serbian-American living 1856 to 1943. He was an inventor, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, futurist, polymath, and individual to core. His own man. He held 200 plus patents worldwide in the fields of power transmission, radio wave transmission / reception, and remote control. He’s most widely known for his work designing the alternating current electrical supply system going toe to toe with better known Thomas Edison during the electrical current wars of the late 1880s.

Tesla and Edison were contemporaries and rivals at the cutting edge of harnessing electrical power. Edison with DC (direct current) and Tesla with AC (alternating current). Edison wasn’t just a brilliant mind, he was a cut throat competitor and businessman. He waged public relations campaigns labeling AC power as “dangerous” and “unreliable”. Edison made claims and distributed printed propaganda that AC current would kill anyone who lived where it was delivered within six months. He lobbied New York politicians to regulate the amount of electricity to less than 800 volts for “public safety” (it’s always for safety). This limit would shockingly make sending AC current any significant distance impossible making DC the only option. Some stories claim he offered $10K to anyone who could electrocute to death an elephant with AC power. Other stories claim Edison went even further by electrocuting stray animals, cattle, horses, and a convicted murderer (this one was particularly gruesome) in an exhibition of the dangers of AC power.

In response, Tesla held his own exhibitions, lighting lamps with AC electricity harmlessly flowing through is his body first, and then to the lamp. This is one the first times he was made to volley a dirty serve in his quest to prove AC as the better power source.

In 1888 Nikola went into business with financier George Westinghouse in a deal worth $60k. (That’s just shy of $2M in 2023 dollars.) With the capital he needed to build his lab, hire engineers, and purchase or fabricate the needed hardware, he was on the ground running. He had several very big breakthroughs including winning the bid for powering the 1893 World’s Fain in Chicago. Runner up in that competition was Thomas Edison who was less likely than thrilled.

A successful design to light the city of Buffalo using power from Niagara Falls followed. Unfortunately, shortly after, a business ethics disagreement between Westinghouse and JP Morgan prompted Morgan to spread lies around Wall Street that Westinghouse was financially unstable which routed capital elsewhere. Morgan also dirtily manipulated stocks in an effort to divert investors away from Tesla and Westinghouse. The two pronged attack severely hobbled Westinghouse putting him way behind his payments to Tesla to the tune of $1M with interest. When Westinghouse explained these finances to Tesla he was quoted “Mr. Westinghouse, you have been my friend, you believed in me when others had no faith; you were brave enough to go ahead when others lacked courage; you supported me when even your own engineers lacked vision. Here is your contract, and here is my contract. I will tear them both to pieces, and you will no longer have any troubles from my royalties.”

How’s that for working on your craft out of pure curiosity and selfless motivation in the search for knowledge?

Sadly, Tesla’s lack of business acumen and trusting nature would be the end of his dream. Once again JP Morgan entered the scene and Tesla didn’t refuse this time around. It would be the death knell. The contract was unsurprisingly one sided. Tesla went on to design power transmission without wires which could scale to sizes unseen at the time. The design could allegedly be used to provide the entire globe with electricity. Receivers only need to stick probes into the ground to take advantage of the power source. Morgan replied “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?” and killed the project.

Tesla eventually declared bankruptcy in 1917. He spent his remaining days working as a consultant on various projects including flying machines and electric power sources for cars. He also designed a “beam” that he claimed would make war an impossibility. Tesla was pro-peace. Unfortunately, many of the people interested in his designs were not. His anti-war stance would clash with their desire for weaponization more than once and projects were discontinued.

Tesla died in a New York hotel in the year 1943. His cousin came to collect his body and found that all of Tesla’s paperwork, notebooks, and research had been taken from the room and declared Top Secret by the War Department (name changed later to “Department of Defense” *sigh*)

Nikola Tesla was beyond brilliant and engineered the 20th Century. His contribution to modern technology cannot be overstated and their true influence will never really be fully known. He died unceremoniously and with no money. His ideas and effects were stolen, likely used for nefarious ends. But, he did it his way and I have to give him credit for that. He made the decisions the person he wanted to be would make, and thus became the person he wanted to be. There’s much to learn from Nikola Tesla. And the needed digging to learn it is worth it.

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