Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. He developed machinery that allowed us to harness the alternating current which is still our main form of electricity to this day. He invented the Tesla coil which is still used in countless modern electronics plus fluorescent light bulbs, neon light, and spark plugs, you know, like, what starts your car. He’s responsible for major breakthroughs and advancements in electric lighting, x-rays, drones, radios, phosphorescence, electrotherapy, radar, electron microscopes, microwave ovens, and robotics. But did you know, Tesla’s plans for the future of technology were way beyond all that and, quite literally, could have saved the world? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week, we’re talking about Nikola Tesla and no, this won’t be boring and sciency, I promise. I have some bombshells for you in this one so get ready. I think most people have heard of Tesla or are at least familiar with the cars named after him but I think few people know just how nuts Tesla’s story, and really his wasted potential are.
Nikola Tesla was born in what is today Croatia in 1856 to Serbian parents. He was one of 5 children, but he stood out from the rest of his siblings because he was… weird. Yeah he was a weird kid. Which is fine, I love weird kids, I have a weird kid. They’re the best. Tesla had an eidetic memory which is like a step above a photographic memory and it’s extremely rare. People with eidetic memories can retain visual information with extreme accuracy. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that YouTube video of the autistic guy who takes a helicopter ride over New York City and then, once they land and get out of the helicopter, he draws the entire city, like perfectly, from memory. It’s wild. That’s an eidetic memory, okay, so Tesla has that. He could visualize complete diagrams of inventions in his head, sometimes he didn’t even bother to draw them, he just worked off the picture in his head. Throughout childhood, he suffered from hallucinations of bright flashes of light but he often came out of these episodes with new thoughts and ideas. By his early teens, he could perform integral calculus in his head. He loved physics and was fascinated by motors and engines.
When Tesla was 17, he got really sick with cholera and was bedridden for 9 months. His father, fearing his son would die, made a bedside promise to him - if he pulled out of this and survived, he would scrounge up all the money he could and send Tesla to engineering school. They weren’t a wealthy family, so this was a big deal. Tesla’s like, “yeah okay, not gonna die anymore, I’ll take it.” He recovers and goes off to engineering school in Austria-Hungary.
One day, Tesla’s professor gave a lecture about electricity. He’s explaining to the class that electricity naturally moves in alternating currents. So that means, okay so electricity is just moving electrons. So alternating current means the electrons move one direction and then it reverses and they go the opposite direction. It alternates, this way, that way, this way, that way. So the professor is explaining that to harness electricity, to actually use it, the electrons needed to move in only one direction. This is called a direct current. So motors and machines used a device called a commutator to change alternating currents AC into direct currents DC so that the electricity was usable. But commutators were not great. They were bulky and cumbersome and they easily overheated.
So Tesla gets to thinking about this, and he’s like “hey, why don’t we just find a way to use alternating currents instead of trying to change them into direct currents?” The physics professor is like “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, how dare you even suggest it.” I mean, that’s not a direct quote but he did scoff at Tesla’s idea and mock him in front of the whole class. Tesla is not deterred by this though he’s not really a social guy, he doesn’t care what people think about him. He knows it’s a good idea and he takes his professor’s criticism as a challenge. He became obsessed with harnessing the power of AC electricity.
He throws himself at this task completely, isolates himself, no social interaction (I told you he’s not a social guy), works long hours without eating or sleeping. There are reports that Tesla once worked for 84 hours straight without stopping to eat or rest. His family is worried about him. They tell him to work less and make more friends. He drops out of school at age 22 and hides it from his family, keeps working on this alternating current idea obsessively.
When he’s 26 years old he has a nervous breakdown and ends up at a psychiatric hospital and this is blamed on overworking. I mean 84 hours straight without eating or sleeping, yeah that’ll do it. At the psych ward he’s in and out of consciousness for weeks. Then he sort of comes out of it. He’s on a walk one day and he has a vision of flashing lights. These have plagued him since childhood so this is nothing new but this one is different. This one triggers an idea. Tesla grabs a stick and starts sketching out a diagram in the sand. It’s a blueprint for an alternating current motor. He’s convinced this invention will allow him to harness alternating currents making commutators and direct currents obsolete. He’s finally figured it out.
That’s what Tesla is good at, solving problems, figuring things out, inventing ingenious devices. What he isn’t good at is securing investors to finance his projects. Tesla built a model of his alternating current motor in 1883 and showed it to some potential investors, some financiers, but they just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand how revolutionary it was and they’re like “nah, pass.” So Tesla is kind of stuck. He’s had this incredible breakthrough but he can’t do anything with it without financial support.
He moves to Paris and starts working at the Continental Edison Company. Yes, that is Edison as in Thomas Edison, you know him. He was an American inventor best known for improving telephone and recording devices, oh and the incandescent lightbulb, of course, although he didn’t do that all on his own. The collective work of quite a few people actually led to the invention of the light bulb, Edison just got all the credit. He was quite good at that, getting all the credit thing.
Anyway, Tesla’s working at Edison’s Paris company repairing direct current power plants and he’s a super hard worker, as we know, often forfeiting food and sleep to work. This, of course, makes him a beloved employee and he gets transferred to New York City.
He arrives in New York City in 1884 with 4 cents in his pocket (the equivalent of a few dollars today), some poems he had written, and calculations for a flying machine. Now that makes him look pretty unhinged, I must say like “look at this man rolling off the ship with 4 cents to his name,” but there are accounts that claim his luggage was actually stolen during the voyage, including several notebooks of ideas, drawings, notes, calculations for future inventions.
Tesla starts working as an engineer in Edison’s Manhattan headquarters. Edison is super impressed. Supposedly Edison told Tesla he would pay him $50,000 if he could improve the design of his DC dynamos. So DC, direct current, Edison is all about direct current electricity. Dynamos are generators, they are what use the commutator to turn alternating currents into direct currents. So DC dynamos are the very thing Tesla is trying to make obsolete with his alternating current motor. But, $50,000, he’s like “yeah, I can do that.” And he does. After experimenting for a few months, he presents his solution to Edison and asks for the money. Then Edison plays it off like the whole thing was a big joke, saying “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” So Tesla quit. And that’s probably the biggest mistake Thomas Edison ever made.
After leaving Edison’s company, Tesla found some investors who helped him develop his own electrical company where he invented a new electrical lighting system. Buuut, as soon as the investors had the patents, they ditched Tesla and stole all the profits. Tesla was not a good businessman like Edison, you’ll see him fail again and again at this aspect of the business.
He spends the next few years digging ditches for $2 a day. But he’s starting to figure out how this game works. He has one cheap suit that he wears to conferences where he attempts to network, pitching his AC motor idea. Eventually, he catches the attention of George Westinghouse. Westinghouse was a supporter of using alternating currents instead of direct currents. He had launched an AC power plant near Boston. He was basically Thomas Edison’s biggest rival. But Westinghouse couldn’t really compete with Edison, until he found Nikola Tesla. Unlike Tesla’s past would be investors, Westinghouse is like “not only do I understand your invention, I desperately need it.” So he hires Tesla, licensed the patents for his AC motor, and gave him his own lab.
And Edison is kicking himself at this point. His business, which is all based on direct current electricity, takes a major hit. The “War of the Currents” begins. Edison starts spreading misinformation about alternating currents. Edison was a shady guy, y’all, he played dirty. He claims AC was a death current and electrocuted dogs with AC electricity to prove it would kill them. Not just like, people’s dogs, these are dogs that animal shelters had determined needed to be euthanized, so still sad, but don’t freak out too much. Which, direct current would also have killed them so this really proves nothing but, I mean killing dogs certainly leaves an impression on people. He also arranged for AC electricity to be used in New York State’s first electric chair execution. And, although Edison actually had nothing to do with it, it’s also used to electrocute a circus elephant who had killed 3 men and been sentenced to death. So all of this has people fearing AC electricity even though, like I said, DC would have been just as deadly.
In response, Tesla starts giving exhibitions at his lab where he lets AC electricity flow through his body to light lamps. Which is cool, I feel like a neat parlor trick like that is way cooler than, you know, killing dogs and elephants.
But Edison’s fear mongering is working and Westinghouse, his hand forced by his investors, renegotiates his contract with Tesla and cuts him out of all future profits, all royalties, from the work they did together. Again. This is a recurring thing for Tesla. He works around the clock coming up with brilliant, revolutionary ideas and then everyone is like “okay, thanks, bye” and he walks away penniless. So messed up.
But soon after that, Westinghouse beat out Edison for a chance to light the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and he’s like “shoot, kind of need Tesla for this, heyyy old buddy old pal, how bout you and me get the band back together?” So Tesla built a power grid that created the electricity for the whole fair using AC currents. And then, during the fair, he takes the opportunity to show off a wireless phosphorescent light that he invented. It’s powered by a Tesla coil, which he also invented, that sends electricity through the air, so no wires, wireless, basically magic at this point in history. This catches the attention of, some guys, and he is offered a job creating a motor that could convert energy from the moving water at Niagara Falls into electricity. So he does that and the electricity it generates lights the entire city of Buffalo, New York. At this point, after the World’s Fair and the Niagara Falls thing, Edison gives up and Westinghouse/Tesla’s alternating current wins. We still use it to this day.
But if you haven’t realized it yet, Tesla’s story is like a roller coaster. After every great high comes a great low. In 1895, his New York lab burned down, destroying years worth of notes and equipment. He moved to Colorado Springs for a couple years to test out some new crazy stuff he’s been thinking about. With the AC motor obsession checked off his list, he starts focusing on transmitting electricity through the air. Colorado is at a much higher elevation than New York, the atmosphere is thinner there, less dense, much better for wireless transmission. There he discovers terrestrial stationary waves. So this is the concept that the Earth itself can be used as an electrical conductor. He uses this breakthrough discovery to light 200 lamps wirelessly from a distance of 25 miles away. He creates man-made lightning with flashes measuring 141 feet. And then, which he probably should have kept this one to himself, he claims to have received signals from another planet, like alien communication and the scientific journals go from “whoa this guy’s a freaking genius to, oh, no, nevermind he’s just crazy.”
So he goes back to New York and he actually gets an investor, a big one. He gets financial backing from J.P. Morgan. If you don’t know who J.P. Morgan is, he was like the biggest businessman investor guy ever. Gotta throw it back to episode 7 for a sec, J.P. Morgan owned the White Star Line. Yeah, he owned Titanic. He was actually supposed to be on Titanic but changed his plans last minute. So he’s a big deal. Tesla gives Morgan half of his patent rights and, in exchange, Morgan funds him $150,000, which today is more like 4.5 million. Tesla starts working on a wireless global communication system and registers patents for new technology that uses radio waves to communicate. You know, like, a radio. But, that same year, an Italian named Guglielmo Marconi registers paperwork for the exact same radio technology.
Tesla uses the money from J.P. Morgan to build a tower called Wardenclyffe on Long Island. He’s messing around with this radio business, of course, competing with Marconi, but what he really wants to do goes way beyond that. He wants to create wireless telecommunication that could broadcast music, news, stock market reports, weather forecasts, secured military communications, and even images using the Earth itself as a conductor. He basically wants to create the internet, but completely wireless. Even more than that, yes more than the internet in the 1890s, he wants to transmit energy wirelessly using natural energy from the Earth.
According to teslasciencecenter.org “Tesla saw that the world around us is brimming with “free” energy, and was adamant about finding a way to harness it for the betterment of humanity. Secret experiments Tesla conducted at his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899 had convinced him that it would be possible to transmit electrical power through the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Wardenclyffe was to be the prototype station for what he imagined as a grid of towers spanning the globe, realizing his dream of worldwide wireless power.”
So, we still do not have this technology, and we will come back to that. But that’s what Tesla’s really working on at Wardenclyffe tower when he’s supposed to be messing with radio waves. Meanwhile, 1903, Marconi sends the first radio morse code transmissions across the Atlantic. This is a big deal. So remember, Tesla and Marconi registered patents for radio technology the same year. Tesla in the US and Marconi in Italy. So even though Marconi is making headlines for this radio transmission, Tesla still holds the patents in the US, for now. Unlike Tesla, Marconi is a brilliant businessman. He starts securing US investors, including Thomas Edison by the way who is more than happy to help him hurt Tesla. Then he uses all this money to convince the US patent office to let him sell radios in the US, completely ignoring Tesla’s patents. So, like what? Does the patent office accept bribes? This seems super sketch. Also, Marconi’s radios use Tesla’s oscillators, a device that Tesla invented. So he’s beating the man with his own invention. It’s nuts.
Now I’ll jump ahead a bit here to get you some justice. In 1943 the Supreme Court actually overturned Marconi’s patent and credited Tesla as the first person to patent radio technology. But of course they waited to do this until a couple months after Tesla’s death.
Let’s go back again though, Marconi gets all the credit for the radio, wins the Nobel Prize for it in 1909, just to add insult to injury. Tesla runs out of money at Wardenclyffe and goes to J.P. Morgan for more. But Morgan is like, absolutely not. He cuts Tesla off entirely and basically tells all the other big whig investors not to have anything to do with him. He’s blacklisted and the Wardenclyffe tower project is abandoned.
Tesla spends his last decades moving from hotel to hotel with 80 trunks of papers. He’s obsessed with the number 3. He’ll only stay in hotel rooms that are divisible by 3. He’s terrified of pearl earrings. He starts feeding the pigeons and claims he can communicate with them. He’s losing it basically. I mean I guess, I don’t know, a man this genius, like, maybe he can communicate with pigeons.
Anyway, towards the end, some of his old Westinghouse colleagues bought him a permanent room at a New York hotel which, I mean, yeah, I feel like they owed him that. So, finally settled with his 80 trunks of plans and schemes, he starts working on a “death ray” that could destroy 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles away. Now, this is just as World War II is kicking off so this technology would be incredibly valuable? Volatile? I’m not sure the word.
But Tesla dies in his hotel room in 1943 at the age of 86. All of his things now belong to his nephew Sava Kosanovic. When Sava arrives to gather his uncle’s things, he can tell that they’ve already been tampered with. Then, a few days later, the Office of Alien Property Custodian took all of Tesla’s belongings - all 80 boxes. So this is kind of sketch because the OAPC, that agency that took his stuff, is a wartime agency. They are just supposed to take stuff from foreign enemies. Tesla was a naturalized US citizen so Sava argued that they had no right to confiscate his stuff. But, at the same time, Sava, who has just inherited all this stuff, he is from Serbia, or Yugoslavia or whatever it was called then, it’s very confusing, and this is World War II. Yugoslavia is part of the quote “axis of evil” at this point and Tesla was talking about death rays.
So yeah, they take the stuff, and they hire an electrical engineer to go through all the boxes. He determines that none of it is a threat to national security and returns it to Sava. But, they only give back 60 boxes, not the original 80. Sava is like “what the heck? Where’s the rest?” and they’re all “oh, it’s all still there, we just consolidated it into fewer boxes to make it easier to ship.” So, there’s no way to prove or disprove this but it’s definitely suspicious. It’s weird to me that the electrical engineer was basically like, “yeah this is all garbage the man was nuts,” but then they potentially keep a quarter of the papers and lie about it.
So what would the US government want with Tesla’s papers? Well, there was the whole death ray thing. If he had actually developed that technology, they wouldn’t want it falling into the wrong hands, especially at the height of WWII. And we know the government was interested in this. After WWII, some of Tesla’s papers on particle beam weaponry made their way to Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio where a covert operation code-named “Project Nick” began. Details of these experiments were never published and the project was abandoned at some point but, those copies of Tesla’s papers they had disappeared and no one knows what happened to them. So that’s fun.
My mind also goes back to Tesla’s claims of alien communication. That was totally scoffed at and disregarded but, who knows, maybe the government found something in his papers about extraterrestrials they didn’t want out there. That wouldn’t surprise me.
And then there were his plans to create global wireless energy sourced from the Earth itself. That means no coal, no oil, no burning fossil fuels and, while this sounds great, it is potentially very problematic for some very important people. Take J.P. Morgan, for example. When Tesla first secured Morgan as an investor, he was working on radio transmissions. He was competing with Marconi and I’m sure Morgan was all “we can’t let an Italian beat us to it, get um Tesla!” and then when he realized what Tesla was actually doing at Wardenclyfe, the whole clean global energy thing, he was like “Oh, no, no, no.” He pulled his financial support and convinced all other potential investors to have nothing to do with Tesla. He even started backing Edison and Marconi instead.
Why would he do that? Well, let’s follow the money trail. J.P Morgan is a money man after all. He owned General Electric and AT&T which would both be made obsolete if Tesla were to succeed at this wireless global energy plan. He owned copper mines and factories that made copper wire, rubber farms and factories that made insulation for wires, steel companies and factories that built power generators, timber mills that created telegraph and electricity poles. He owned coal mines that fueled power plants and he also owned dozens of railroads that transported all of these resources. None of this would be necessary anymore if Tesla’s clean, wireless global energy idea took off. It would ruin J.P. Morgan financially.
Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that men like J.P. Morgan have no power over the US government. I think it’s completely reasonable that Tesla’s papers were actually confiscated, not because of death rays or aliens, but to keep us chained to fossil fuels which still create 85% of the energy we use today, with devastating consequences for the environment. Not to mention they are non-renewable which means they will eventually run out.
Tesla’s idea is clearly superior and could, quite literally, save the planet and the future of humanity. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about the money and the men who are desperate to hold onto it. Now, J.P. Morgan, the man is long gone. But J.P. Morgan Chase the investment bank named after him is alive and well and they have financed a staggering $434 billion in fossil fuels in the past 4 years alone, more than any other investor. The reason we continue to burn coal and oil, pollute the environment, go to war with other countries over this stuff, isn’t because a cleaner, cheaper alternative energy source isn’t possible, it’s because the powers that be have suppressed it, hidden it, blacklisted it, all to keep their fortunes.
Unfortunately, Tesla was an easy target. We see this again and again. He was terrible at securing investors to begin with but, even when he did, they mostly took advantage of him then denounced him as crazy and left him penniless, making off with all the profits from his ideas. This happened multiple times.
Now, allow me to speculate for a minute. Autism spectrum disorder wasn’t a thing yet when Tesla was alive. But, if I had to guess, I think Tesla was autistic, and I mean that as a compliment. I think he was on the high end of the spectrum, like an autistic savant. The eidetic memory, the obsessive compulsive tendencies, fixation on particular topics and ideas, the lack of social skills or any real desire to maintain social relationships with people, these are hallmarks of autism. And while his neurodiversity probably had a lot to do with his sheer genius brain it also led to his inability to carry out his ideas through marketing to investors.
Marconi and Edison were pros at this. They knew how to talk to investors, knew when they were being taken advantage of, knew how to take advantage of people. Tesla lacked these social skills and the ability to pick up on social cues. He was easy to use and abuse. Easy to denounce as crazy, or unhinged, or weird. And that is really such an incredible shame.
It goes back to the old grade school standard that, just because someone is different, doesn’t mean they are less than. We teach this to children and yet grown men can’t seem to grasp the concept. Tesla’s ideas could have changed the world, saved the world, but they were essentially erased by a bunch of rich bullies who found him an easy target, gone with those 20 missing trunks. And it’s not every day a man like Nikola Tesla is born, at this point, we can’t afford to wait around for the next one.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from historychannel.com, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, a PBS article, teslasciencecenter.org, livescience.com, a Union of Concerned Scientists blog post, The Why Files YouTube video titled “Tesla Knew the Secret of the Great Pyramid,” and an Unexplained Mysteries podcast episode about Nikola Tesla. Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.