Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Anniversary: Nikola Tesla

Engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla probably died on this day in 1943. Tesla, who invented radio and alternating current circuits, died alone and destitute in The New Yorker hotel of heart failure sometime between January 5th and January 8th. J. Edgar Hoover and the U.S. government took control of his belongings and papers for, among other reasons, concealment of Tesla's plans for a death ray. This strange end capped an extraordinary, bizarre life.

Tesla was first to demonstrate the effects of x-rays, invented radio (and radio controlled vehicles) and alternating current circuits, conceived radar, and tried to build a teleforce weapon - a peace ray or death ray, depending on your persuasion. He worked for Thomas Edison before a famous falling-out. He won the War of Currents with Edison - Edison insisted on his own direct current electricity, later calling it his biggest mistake. Tesla was good friends with Mark Twain, who sometimes observed and participated in his experiments (see photograph). He devised an alternate theory of gravity and publicly derided Einstein's relativity. He was an advocate of eugenics. He suffered from profound obsessive compulsive disorder - he was obsessed with the number three and multiples of three and he was disgusted by jewelry. He was also obsessed with pigeons. All leading to his seclusion in room 3327 of The New Yorker hotel for the last ten years of his life with a white pigeon as his cherished companion.

Tesla has been depicted in film several times, including by David Bowie recently in The Prestige. Below is a clip from the movie The Secret of Nikola Tesla featuring a meeting between Tesla, Edison and J.P. Morgan (played by Orson Welles).

(image credit: Tesla circa 1896; Mark Twain in Tesla's lab circa 1894,