INNOVATION HUB
10:22 am
Fri August 16, 2013

Tesla: Inventor and Enigma

Not many innovators attain legend status, but Nikola Tesla – who died penniless, yet made all of our electrical appliances possible – is definitely one of them.

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Nikola Tesla was one of the most prolific and ingenious inventors of his age. Why is he only beginning to resurface now?
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Guest:

It's 1894, and a tall, handsome, mysterious man is sitting in the ornate, elegant dining room at Delmonico's in New York. He's surrounded by admirers - nouveau riche and old money alike - and they're all whispering about the amazing feats they have seen him perform with electricity: including sending 250 volts coursing through his body, lighting up the surface of his skin from within. The man is Nikola Tesla, inventor of alternating current, and he's widely regarded by the people in the room as one of the greatest geniuses alive.

Fast forward to 1943. Tesla, impoverished, is living in a hotel room. He's alone. He's lost contact with his friends and his family. And, perhaps worst of all, he's largely stopped inventing. In the end, the man who once electrified audiences dies alone--his name already slipping into obscurity and his only friends the pigeons behind the New York Public Library. 

 

Tesla in his lab in Colorado, 1899.
Credit Dickensen V. Alley, Century Magazine / Wikimedia Commons

How did Tesla slip from celebrity to oblivion? W. Bernard Carlson, professor at the University of Virginia and author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, says Tesla was lost to history for many years largely because he was a radically different type of inventor than his peers. 

American history has been quick to idolize innovators like Thomas Edison or Bill Gates, who were able to mass produce and make enormous profits from their inventions. Tesla, on the other hand, "took the path that was not necessarily towards huge riches and having the corner office and being the robber baron," says Carlson. "Tesla basically saw himself as something of an artist."

 

Mark Twain experiments with Tesla (left) in his lab, 1894.
Credit Century Magazine / Wikimedia Commons

That meant, of course, pursuing ideas that  were daring, but not necessarily guaranteed to make a great deal of money. Tesla's process was to invent, secure strong patents for those inventions, promote them, and then--once he had created enough buzz--sell the patents. Sound familiar? "Surely you have heard this story somewhere before," Carlson says. "and I do believe you have heard it in a place called Silicon Valley."

In the end, Tesla's contributions to electricity and wireless technology not only made the products we now see from Silicon Valley possible, but the model he triumphed enabled future innovations too. Tesla was a man enormously ahead of his time - and as the times begin to catch up with his ideas, he may finally be getting his due. 

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