If Tesla’s life were a movie, these would be the “montage years”–five years edited down into a few minutes (probably with melancholy music playing underneath) showing us that things didn’t work out for our hero for a long time until his big break came at the end of Act 1.
Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times
EPISODE 4 – The Frustrated Montage Years (1878 – 1882)
Our last episode looked at one of the more surprising aspects of Tesla’s life: the fact that after a promising start, he flunked out of university and received no degree in electrical engineering, or any other field for that matter.
This week, we’ll look at what I think of as Tesla’s “montage years”--by which I mean if his life were a movie, this would be the part where five years was edited down into a few minutes (probably with melancholy music playing underneath) to convey the fact that things didn’t work out for our hero for a long time until his big break came at the end of Act 1.
So our montage begins in 1878:
In January 1878, The Yale News became the first daily college newspaper in the United States.
Pope Pius IX dies in February, after a 31 ½ year reign--the longest pontificate in history. He is succeeded 13 days later by Vincenzo Pecci, who takes the name Leo XIII. He would hold the office for 25 years, making him #2 on longest reigning popes list until he was passed over 100 years later by John Paul II.
Also in February, Thomas Edison patents the phonograph. 123 years later, one mild-mannered graduate student would earn a Master degree thanks in part to a thesis on Edison and his phonograph.
In May, Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore debuts in London. It will have a first run of 571 performances.
In June in California, Eadweard Muybridge produces the sequence of stop-motion still photographs Sallie Gardner at a Gallop. A predecessor of the silent film, the famous series of photographs demonstrated conclusively for the first time that all four hooves of a galloping horse are off the ground at the same time.
Also in California, the poet and Wild West outlaw calling himself "Black Bart" makes his last clean getaway when he steals a safe box containing $400 dollars and a diamond ring, from a Wells Fargo stagecoach. The empty strong box is found later with a taunting poem inside. Sadly, I’ve been unable to find the text of this taunting poem. I’m going to assume it begins “There once was a man from Nantucket…”
August sees the foundation of the Salvation Army.
Cleopatra's Needle is erected in London in late September, having arrived in England all the way back in January.
October sees the world's first recorded floodlit soccer (or, football) match played at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, England.
Also in 1878, yellow fever in the Mississippi Valley kills over 13,000 people.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, America's oldest university press, is founded.
Leo Tolstoy publishes Anna Karenina.
And in the United States, Remington introduces their No. 2 typewriter, the first with a shift key enabling you to type lower case as well as upper case characters. Handy. For the first time in history, you’re able to type a letter to someone without seeming like you’re shouting at them…
Notable births in 1878 include:
French automobile manufacturer André Citroën;
famed American actor Lionel Barrymore (probably best well-known for his role as Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, and for being member of the Barrymore family of actors—a family which also includes actress Drew Barrymore);
Irish baron and author Edward Plunkett, aka Lord Dunsany was born—I recommend his fantasy novel The King of Elfland's Daughter;
American writer, Upton Sinclair;
and last (but not least), Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known to history as Joseph Stalin.
Notable deaths include:
Julius von Mayer, German physician and physicist and one of the founders of thermodynamics;
and French scientist Antoine César Becquerel, pioneer in the study of electric and luminescent phenomena. He is grandfather of the physicist Henri Becquerel, Nobel Laureate, and one of the discoverers of radioactivity.
Fun fact for today: Antoine César Becquerel’s name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
And your second fun fact for today: apparently the Eiffel Tower has names inscribed on it.
We left off last week at the end of 1877 when, for all intents and purposes, Tesla disappeared.
For months, neither his family nor his friends knew what happened to him. In fact, some of his friends from university speculated that he had drowned in the Mur River, his body swept away, as being the only explanation for his sudden and unexplained disappearance.
In fact, Tesla was alive and well in the city of Maribor (now in Slovenia), where he’d arrived in the late spring of 1878. No one is sure quite why he ended up in Maribor after leaving Austria, but there he took a job as a draftsman for a local engineering firm.
Now, as I mentioned briefly last week, Tesla and his first biographer O’Neill give a very different account of this time than what later research and records have revealed.
According to them, Tesla chose to forgo a return to the University of Prague in the fall of 1878 and instead accepted a “lucrative position” as a draftsman in Maribor. He was paid sixty florins a month and a separate bonus for the completed work, which they say was very generous compensation compared with the prevailing wages—I’ve been unable to verify just how lucrative this kind of pay was for the place and time. If any of you out there have a sense, please let me know. During this year, they said that Tesla lived very modestly and saved his earnings.
However, the picture that emerges in later biographies, archival records, and stories passed down from within the Tesla family paints a different picture.
As mentioned last time, it appears now that Tesla flunked out of school after not completing his exams, and so rather than choosing not to return in the fall of 1878, Tesla was no longer welcome at the university. His sudden disappearance, and his severing of all contact with both family and friends was likely due to shame: not speaking to anyone being far easier than having to explain that he’d dropped out of school after his parents (and his father especially) had worked so hard to get him access to the education he’d longed for.
I also find it interesting that Tesla took a job as a draftsman, given how much he’d hated his classes in drawing. Was this a job he took out of desperation, I wonder? I wish I knew whether 60 florins was a lot…
When not at the drafting table, Tesla spent his spare time playing cards, either in a pub called Happy Peasant or with local men on the streets (something of a local custom in Maribor, apparently).
At this point, our sources conflict: according to some, Tesla’s job as a draftsman was short-lived and he soon began travelling again, making his way first to the city of Zagreb, in the northwest of the country, and from there to the small coastal village of Min-Gag. Other sources keep him in Maribor, gambling away his idle hours.
Whatever Tesla’s exact itinerary, by March 1879 the jig was up. Tesla’s father Milutin—alerted by a friend who had seen the younger Tesla in Maribor—finally caught up with his son and sat him down for a heart to heart.
The more I learn about this father-son relationship the more fascinated I become. Theirs was obviously a very fraught relationship, and I would love to know more about just how this conversation went.
Were there angry recriminations? “How could you just disappear like that? Do you have any idea what you’ve put your mother and I through?” “What do you mean you flunked out—you said you’d die if you didn’t go to university?”
Smug “I told you sos” about the priesthood being a better destiny for young Tesla?
Or was it more tender than that? Understanding and sympathy from a father to a son who had apparently failed at his one true dream and who was hurting badly?
On this, our sources are silent.
What is clear is that Tesla refused to return to Graz or the university there.
On the details of exactly what happened next, again, our sources conflict:
Seifer says that during their heart-to-heart in Maribor, Milutin offered his son a solution: the young Tesla would make a fresh start at another university. According to this version of events they returned together to the family home at Gospić.
But, as with so many things about Tesla's early life, there is another version of the story.
Cheney and Carlson both say that only a few weeks later, on March 24, 1879, Tesla was forcibly returned to Gospić under police guard for not having a residence permit. This version of events is further backed up by Tesla's nephew (and namesake), Nikola Trbojevich, who says he was told by other family members that Tesla was deported (and I quote) “because of playing cards and leading an irregular life.”
Now, the phrase “irregular life” is a loaded one, to be sure. Maybe the local authorities felt Tesla some kind of rabble rouser, or degenerate gambler. Some have speculated that in addition to his gambling, Tesla was a carousing womanizer. Or “Irregular life” could be code for homosexual relationships that Tesla may have had (speculating about Tesla's sexuality is a bit of a cottage industry within Tesla biographies, and we'll do our own speculating in a later episode—so sit tight).
Whatever the actual cause, the fallout for Tesla was immediate. Not only had he washed out of university, but according to his roommate, Tesla’s “cousins, who had been sending him money, withdrew their aid.”
However it was that he came home finally, by the early spring of 1879, Tesla had returned to Gospić and rejoined his family. He even began (perhaps as a condition of his return) to once again attend church to hear his father’s sermons. There he met Anna. She was “tall and beautiful [with] extraordinary understandable eyes.” For the first and only time in his life, Tesla would say, “I fell in love.” They took strolls by the river or trips back to Smiljan, where they would talk about the future. He wanted to become an electrical engineer; she wanted a family.
But within mere weeks of Tesla’s return tragedy struck: on April 17th, 1879 his father Milutin died suddenly of unspecified causes (some sources say a short illness, others a stroke). He was 59 years old.
The following day, he was given a "funeral liturgy fit for a saint," according to Tesla.
It is telling, I think, that in his autobiography while Tesla does discuss his mother’s death (which happened many years later), he makes no mention of his father’s death. It seems theirs was a strained relationship, to the very end.
For the rest of 1879, Tesla kicked around Gospić. It’s unclear whether he felt any special obligation now as the man of the family, or to looking after the support of his mother and sisters.
Tesla's sister Angelina was already married (her first child, Tesla's nephew and namesake Nikola Trbojević was born this same year) so perhaps she and her husband stepped in to look after Georgina and the other Tesla children.
During that year, Tesla taught a large class of students in his old school, Higher Real Gymnasium, in Gospić alongside his former fellow student, Mojsije Medić, who recounts that Tesla didn’t want teaching to be his fate.
It’s worth pointing out that none of this is mentioned in Tesla’s autobiography, or in O’Neill’s Prodigal Genius. Now, while self-serving, this is sort of understandable: Tesla would likely have been embarrassed about this period of his early life: flunking out of school and getting run out of town on a rail aren’t usually high points for anyone. However, it also shows that Tesla can be an unreliable narrator of his own life, and that his account of events needs to be read critically, and compared against other sources (particularly later biographies and research).
Whatever his later report of events, Tesla’s discontent with life in Gospic must have been evident enough to those around him at the time: because by January of 1880, two of Tesla's uncles, Petar and Pavle, put together enough money to help him leave Gospić for Prague, where he was to study.
Not for the last time in life, Tesla chose his work and career over love. He had been involved with Anna for some months by this point and he promised to write her when he was away in Prague. It’s unclear how committed Tesla was to this promise however, as soon after his departure for school the relationship dissolved, with Anna marrying another not long afterward. We’ll revisit Tesla’s feelings about the role of love in an inventor’s life in later episodes.
Arriving in Prague, Tesla discovered that he was too late to enroll at Charles-Ferdinand University. Even if Tesla had arrived early enough, however, he would have not been permitted to enroll as he had never taken Greek and did not speak or write Czech—both requirements of admission. How or why he chose this particular school is unclear: Tesla claims that it was his father’s wish before he died that Nikola go to this school and complete his education. However, Tesla’s nephew again relates a family story that Tesla’s father wasn’t speaking with his son before he died…so who know why he ended up in Prague?
What we do know is that Tesla lived at 13 Smeckach St. and spent most of his time at the Klementinum Library and Narodni Kavarna (People's Cafe) on Vodickova St.
Toward the end of the 20th Century, a search was made by the government of Czechoslovakia to determine which of the four universities in the country Tesla enrolled in. But no record was found of Tesla being enrolled at any of them.
Instead, Tesla audited courses in philosophy, geometry, physics, and advanced mathematics. And he studied in the library, keeping abreast of progress in electrical engineering. But he received no grades and took no degree…and makes no mention of this in his autobiography.
Now, there’s certainly no shame in being self-taught: many notables throughout history have been, including Tesla’s predecessor in electrical engineering, Michael Faraday. And Tesla’s later accomplishments certainly demonstrate that he didn’t seem to suffer much for a lack of credentials. But for a variety of reasons (likely including social and economic ones, as well as personal pride and his own myth-making), Tesla chose to gloss over the fact that he held no degree in his own account of his life (people would often refer to him as ‘Dr. Tesla’ in later years—after all, if anyone was going to hold a PhD it was going to be Tesla, right?—and it’s unclear whether Tesla ever bothered correcting them).
In his autobiography, Tesla does credit his time in Prague with helping him make an advance in his problem of how to craft a better A/C motor: this consisted in detaching the commutator from the machine, placing it on separate supports away from the frame of the motor, perhaps thinking that by increasing the distance he could overcome the well-known sparking caused by the commutator. His plan didn’t work, and no breakthroughs were made, but it did help Tesla to better understand DC motors and to feel that progress was being made despite lack of tangible results.
There is some suggestion that Tesla continued gambling during this time in order to keep in funds, but it’s unclear. He had earlier vowed to his mother to swear off gambling, but who knows really?
And his funds were beginning to dwindle by the end of that year. His uncles would only support him so long as a student, so Tesla resolved to head for Budapest.
You may at this point, after a few episodes of this podcast, be sensing a theme: the conflicting accounts of the hows and whys of Tesla’s actions and choices in his early life. Once again, our various sources and biographies give different accounts of just why Tesla chose Budapest and how he came to work for the Budapest Telephone Exchange once he got there.
Some suggest that he chose Budapest almost on a whim, having read in a Prague newspaper that local businessmen had received permission from Thomas Edison to build a telephone exchange there.
Other sources claim it was at the urging of his uncle, Pajo (who was, presumably, getting tired of paying for Tesla’s schooling) that Nikola move to Hungary and get a job. It turns out the telephone exchange was being set up and run by an old army buddy of Pajo, and he could get Nikola a job.
And still other sources say that it was Tesla himself who deduced this connection and asked his uncle for the introduction.
However he came to choose Budapest, Tesla arrived there in January 1881 only to discover to his dismay that the telephone exchange wasn’t yet in operation and that there was no job for him. Without the financial backing of his uncles Tesla was in a desperate spot. He once again took a position as a draftsman, this time with the Hungarian Central Telegraph Office. The salary was meagre and Tesla found much of the work boring, involving more routine drafting and calculation than he liked.
So, somewhat recklessly, Tesla quit and vowed to make his way in the world as an inventor.
It…didn’t really work out. In fact the disappointment at his lack of quick success (and probably the stress of living in what must surely have been poverty) took its toll on Tesla’s mental health. Not for the last time in his life, Tesla suffered a total mental and emotional collapse: what he describes in his autobiography as a “complete breakdown of the nerves.”
Now, Tesla would always lay claim to extraordinarily acute senses (and reading his own description in his autobiography its again hard not to see some of his boastfulness as further myth-making about himself): he claimed that as a child he had several times saved neighbours from house fires because he was awakened by the crackling of flames before anyone else. During his experiments in Colorado Springs in 1899 Tesla (then over forty) claimed he could hear thunder at a distance of 550 miles, while the limit for his young assistants was 150 miles.
But during his breakdown he described physical effects that are, to be honest, a bit hard to believe: he could hear the ticking of a watch three rooms away; flies landed with a dull thud to his ear; carriages passing miles away shook his whole body; distant train whistles caused unbearably painful vibrations. He felt like the ground under him was constantly trembling. He placed rubber cushions under his bed to ease his sleeping.
Passing under a bridge left Tesla with a crushing pressure on his skull. Rays of sunlight struck him with physical force. In darkness, he could sense an object up to 12 feet away via a (quote) “peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead.”
His pulse raced up to 260 beats per minute. His flesh twitched and trembled uncontrollably.
Tesla was convinced he was dying.
Lest we get too concerned, at the end of this passage in his autobiography, Tesla wanted to let us know that he was fine:
“Can anyone believe that so hopeless a physical wreck could ever be transformed into a man of astonishing strength and tenacity, able to work 38 years almost without a day's interruption, and find himself still strong and fresh in body and mind? Such is my case.”
A little more myth-making, as we’ll see in later episodes.
However, back to Tesla’s death bed…
A new friend, Anthony Szigeti, took it upon himself to aid Tesla’s convalescence. Szigeti was a master mechanic with whom Tesla often worked, and an athlete—reputed to be the strongest man in Hungary. Tesla described him as having a “big head with an awful lump on one side and a sallow complexion [that] made him distinctly ugly, but from the neck down his body might have served for a statue of Apollo.”
He dragged Tesla from his room, and much in the way that modern treatment for depression includes an emphasis on exercise and fitness, Szigeti made Tesla exercise, especially through vigorous walks through the city.
And gradually, Tesla’s malady passed. In later years, he credited Szigeti with literally saving his life.
Able to return to work, Tesla claimed his determination to crack the mysteries of alternating current had returned with a vengeance:
“When I undertook the task it was not with a resolve such as men often make,” he writes of that time. “With me it was a sacred vow, a question of life and death. I knew that I would perish if I failed.… Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could not yet give it outward expression.”
* * *
Next time, Tesla goes for a walk in the park…and changes the world.
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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.