Written: February 3, 2015
With Tesla, the company, moving to Reno, Tesla, the man has been in my mind, so I read his biography written by a Serb which I feel lends a little cultural authenticity to the biography. I was tempted to read Tesla’s autobiography, but I imagined it would be written in an old-fashioned, harder-to-read style and autobiographies tend to be rather distorted. The book is comprised of 127 chapters, but don’t worry, they’re short chapters, some are only a paragraph. The paperback version is 384 pages.
As a kid, Tesla may or may not have thrown his older brother down into the cellar and killed him out of jealousy. His brother haunts him the rest of his life. Tesla’s dad was a Serbian Orthodox Priest who wanted his son to enter priesthood. Tesla wanted to study electrical engineering and became deathly ill when he confronted his dad about this. His dad relented, and Tesla suddenly got better. A bit digressive, but it makes me wonder whether humans get a little sick to reinforce social relationships, and how social interaction also helps people recover. Tesla becomes a star pupil in college but then goes out drinking and then starts to play cards and becomes a gambling addict until one day he demands money from his mother and then returns it with disgust.
The beginning of Tesla’s life reads like pretty much a lot of famous people’s biographies. It’s rather mundane and unexceptional with small glimmers of greatness. I just wonder how many people might have been famous, but they just weren’t at the right place at the right time. I read Tony Hsieh’s autobiography, the multi-millionaire Zappos founder who transformed downtown Vegas, and he was very, very, very close to losing all his money with Zappos. Likewise, after working for Edison in New York for a little over a year and getting swindled out of a $50K bonus offer, Tesla hits rock bottom. Tesla winds up broke on the streets of downtown Manhattan, sleeping in stench-filled tenements or with a friend, digging ditches with New York’s poor Irish, Italians, and blacks. However, in a stroke of historic luck, Tesla’s ditch-digging foreman is a southerner named Obadiah Brown. (It is unclear whether he is black, but he does hang out at black clubs.) Obadiah happens to have a brother, Alfred B. Brown, head engineer at Western Union Telegraph, who knew New Jersey lawyer Charles Peck who knew Westinghouse could use Tesla. Westinghouse would buy a number of Tesla’s patents and even offer him a partnership which Tesla turned down. Westinghouse then introduced Tesla to Nikki Vanderbilt, portrayed as somewhat of a dimwit. None-the-less, you always wonder about the most powerful people in the world, and you have to think, Tesla must have met them in his ascent to fame. At least in this book, it notes that Tesla met JP Morgan when he worked for Edison and later Vanderbilt when he worked for Westinghouse.
After helping light the World’s Fair in Chicago with Westinghouse, Tesla becomes the pompous dandy of the day rubbing elbows with the other celebrities including Dvorak, Kipling, and Twain. Undoubtedly, fame and wealth went to his head as he snubs his nose at his origins of downtown Manhattan. One of the great tragedies of Tesla was the burning down of his first great laboratory which housed not only all his great inventions but also his papers. I believe I know the culprit. After his second lab was built, Edward Dean Adams, a front man for JP Morgan approaches him with an offer of $500K to start a company with him. In essence, Morgan destroyed everything Tesla had built or worked on, but by swooping in and offering to help him rebuild, he would then take a great deal of ownership and credit for what inventions he could recall and rebuild. After losing wealth to his insatiable material appetite, he winds up getting Morgan to invest in his wireless communication system which ultimately fails and completely wipes him out. He goes from rags to riches back down to rags.
Here’s another odd coincidence in the last three books I’ve read, Hermeneutics, shamanism, and now Tesla. Tesla claimed to have suffered bright lights in his forehead (temporal lobes) whereby he would see forms and claim God was talking to him. This inspired many of his inventions. The shamanist book, Cosmic Serpent, claims that DNA emits light, that it is this light that forms the basis for consciousness and the background light that we see when thinking about images. Images themselves reflect light, but that light is not transmitted to our brains. What then, lights up these images in our minds? Could Tesla’s own DNA have communicated to him, not as a source, but as a receiver and amplifier of other DNA in the universe. Tesla himself claims, “…they don’t know what frequency they’re using. They don’t understand the role the earth has in conveying messages.” “The life of all energy – from the sun to the human heart – is a matter of pulsations and vibrations at certain frequencies.” Whether it is DNA or some other transmitter and receiving device, perhaps nature can somehow communicate with us not in our language but in its own language of metaphor and forms, that it has developed this ability as a means of self-preservation, that when it encounters an organism that may in fact be harmful, it can somehow influence that organism and make it more benign.
The story of Tesla’s secretary Tiara Tiernstein is perhaps the oddest episode in his life. He takes her in, but she gets fat, so he fires her. Meanwhile, he’s electrocuting mentally challenged people, trying to cure them of their disability. I am convinced the idea of the mad scientist comes from Tesla, perhaps spurred by the business world that cannot understand him and is threatened by Tesla’s anti-commercialistic ideas of free energy. Tiara loses weight, but then returns to try to kill Tesla only wounding him in the shoulder. She is then sentenced to an asylum where they apply electro-shock therapy, ironically.
After reaching the apex of fame at an early age, Tesla slides through middle age into old age ungracefully in solitude feeding pigeons and increasingly encountering skepticism and probably a sense that he was getting senile. While Tesla had ideas beyond his age, a laser for instance that is now used by the Navy as a weapon, he didn’t have the funding and means to work on them effectively. His legacy is a bit convoluted. He was certainly a genius, but was he the great genius people thought he was at his apex or the demented, delusional scientist he became later? Obviously, there are no spoilers in biographies, but the way the author ended the book is somewhat frightening in that it is very similar to a vision of death I had on mushrooms. The world is a stage. We are all actors. The author adds that we all have masks on. In the end, all the stars come back on stage together as the curtain falls.