Tesla was born to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia, but he emigrated to the U.S. as a young man, where he eventually became a naturalized citizen. Besides Edison, who later became his bitter rival, Tesla often worked with inventor George Westinghouse. In 1893, the pair demonstrated their advances in lighting and motors in the “White City” at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1895, Tesla and Westinghouse developed the world’s first hydroelectric power plant, at Niagara Falls.
Here are 10 unusual facts about Nikola Tesla that you may not have known:
Tesla was born during a lightning storm
Quite fortuitously, Tesla was born during a particularly violent lightning storm. Reading this as a bad omen, the midwife asserted that this meant Tesla would be a “child of darkness.” Tesla’s mother, probably affronted by this woman’s assertion, immediately replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”
Tesla was an environmentalist
Tesla was very concerned about the fact that we were using up the Earth’s resources too quickly, and he wanted to make sure that we were using nonfossil, renewable fuels.
So Tesla researched ways to harvest the natural energy in the ground and in the sky. He created artificial lightning in his lab, and probed electrical potential differences in the Earth and across tall objects.
J. P. Morgan reportedly took exception to that line of research, arguing that he wasn’t interested in funding a power source that he couldn’t meter.
He spoke 8 languages
No doubt hastened by his eidetic—commonly known as photographic—memory, Tesla was fluent in 8 different languages: Serbo-Croatian, English, Czech, German, French, Hungarian, Italian and Latin. Linguists refer to such a person as a “hyper polyglot”, or someone who can speak more than six languages with great proficiency.
He rarely slept
Tesla claimed to only sleep two hours per night, and was prone to spending two days or more in his laboratory without sleeping at all. Kenneth Swezey, one of the inventor’s friends, confirmed Tesla’s claims. Swezey once recounted a time when Tesla phoned him at 3 a.m.: “I was sleeping in my room like one dead … Suddenly, the telephone ring awakened me … Tesla spoke animatedly, with pauses, as he … worked out a problem, comparing one theory to another, commenting; and when he felt he had arrived at the solution, he suddenly closed the telephone.”
He had a photographic memory
Possessing the ability to read books and periodicals while simultaneously committing them to memory served Tesla well; he used all the information he acquired as an internal library, available at his beck and call. As a result, Tesla rarely made drawings of his inventions, but worked from a picture or a memory in his head.
He had a “strange” relationship with pigeons
While Tesla appears to have been unable to foster feelings for humans and has thus been described as asocial, perhaps his aversion to people had less to do with his lack of emotion and more to do with the fact that they lacked feathers. Like many people do, Tesla would feed the populous gray colored birds at the park. Even after he was too ill to do it himself, he hired others to do it for him. He would often bring sick or injured pigeons back to the hotel where he lived in his later years, and nurse them back to health. He grew especially fond of one little bird, and said this 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.”
He envisioned the modern day smartphone – in 1909
Attempting to make good on his idea to craft a handheld device that could receive stock quotes and telegram messages via encoded and broadcasted frequencies, Tesla went on to design the very first wireless transmission tower and had it erected in Long Island New York, along with a laboratory facility. Wardenclyffe Tower, so named after the investor, James S. Warden, was meant for trans-Atlantic wireless telephony and broadcasting, but it was never fully functional, and was therefore demolished in 1917.
Claimed that free energy for all is possible
Tesla was fascinated by radiant energy and its free energy possibilities. He called Crooke’s radiometer, a device which has vanes that spin in a vacuum when exposed to radiant energy “a beautiful invention.” He believed that it would become possible to harness energy directly by “connecting to the very wheel-work of nature.” Tesla announced a plan for a “cosmic-ray motor” when asked if it was more powerful than the Crooke’s radiometer, he answered, “thousands of times more powerful.”
In 1901 Tesla believed that neutron particles were responsible for all radioactive reactions. Radiant matter is in tune with these neutron particles. Radiant matter is simply a re-transmitter of energy from one state to another.
Tesla’s free-energy concept was patented in 1901 as an “Apparatus for the Utilization of Radiant Energy.” The patent refers to “the sun, as well as other sources of radiant energy, like cosmic rays,” that the device works at night is explained in terms of the night-time availability of cosmic rays. Tesla also refers to the ground as “a vast reservoir of negative electricity.”
Tesla died a broke humanitarian
Tesla did what he did for the betterment of humanity, to help people have a better quality of life. He never seemed to be interested in monetary gain, although a possible downside of that was he never seemed to have enough money to do what he needed to do.
Tesla had famous friends, including Mark Twain and French actress Sarah Bernhardt, but he struggled financially. Edison and Westinghouse were much more successful businessmen, which partly explains the strength of their legacies.
Many of his inventions remain classified
Upon his death, most of Tesla’s belongings were taken by the Office of Alien Property – even though he was legal citizen of the United States. And by “most”, we mean what has been described as a “railroad boxcar” full of Tesla’s materials. After a time, some items were released to his family, while others ended up in the Tesla museum, located in Belgrade, Serbia (where his ashes are also kept). Some of Tesla’s documents and papers still remain classified, and while people have requested items via the Freedom of Information Act, those items are heavily redacted before their release. As a result, people tend to wonder what else Nikola Tesla had up his sleeve—like a device that would lead to free energy— before his death.