Tesla goes on the lamb not once but twice, with a bit of schooling and a bit of gambling and at least one brush with death keeping him busy in between.
Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times
EPISODE 3 – Big Man on Campus (1874 - 1877)
Last time, we looked at Tesla’s early schooling, as well as a couple of traumatic relocations, and we got a glimpse into some of his thinking about the world and human nature that would shape Tesla’s outlook and work for the rest of his life. This week, Tesla goes on the lamb not once but twice, with a bit of schooling and a bit of gambling and at least one brush with death keeping him busy in between.
It was 1874 when we left off.
On January 1 of that year, New York City annexed The Bronx. That same year, the Young Men's Hebrew Association in Manhattan was founded. It continues to operate today as the 92nd Street Y.
Walter Clopton Wingfield patented a game called "sphairistike" which (thankfully) becomes more commonly known as tennis.
For you footie fans out there: the Dresden English Football Club is founded, first soccer club on the European mainland.
In Paris, in the spring, a critical review of an exhibition by a group of young painters gives their movement a name: Impressionism – after Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise.
In May, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis receive a U.S. patent for blue jeans with copper rivets. The price is $13.50 per dozen.
The Sholes and Glidden typewriter (also known as the Remington No. 1), with cylindrical platen and QWERTY keyboard, is first marketed in the United States. It could print only upper-case letters and was a "blind writer", meaning the typist could not see what was being written as it was entered. Nevertheless, it became the first commercially successful typewriter, as the new communication technologies and expanding businesses of the late 19th century created a need for fast, legible correspondence. The typewriter is credited with assisting the entrance of women into the workplace, as many were hired to operate the new devices (as we'll see in a later episode, Tesla had some thought on this shift of women outside the home).
On July 14, the Great Chicago Fire burned down 47 acres of the city, destroying 812 buildings, and killing 20.
Also in July, Mathew Evans and Henry Woodward file a Canadian patent for the first incandescent lamp with an electric light bulb, four years before Thomas Edison even began his research into incandescent lighting. The Evans-Woodward lamp consisted of carbon rods mounted in a nitrogen-filled glass cylinder. However, they were unsuccessful at commercializing their lamp, and sold rights to their patent to Thomas Edison in 1879.
In November, Harper's Weekly publishes a cartoon by Thomas Nast which is the first use of an elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party in the United States.
John Ernst Worrell Keely demonstrates his "induction resonance motion motor", a perpetual motion machine which eventually turns out to be a fraud.
And English chemist C. R. Alder Wright synthetizes heroin for the first time.
1874 was a particularly busy year for historically significant births. Born were:
Robert W. Service, a British-Canadian poet known as "the Bard of the Yukon," and best remembered for his poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
William Somerset Maugham, a British playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the world’s highest-paid author during the 1930s.
Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton
Thomas John Watson Sr., early computing pioneer and chairman and CEO of IBM from 1914 to 1956.
Famed short stop Honus Wagner
Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
American poet Robert Frost
Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tut (and later died of the mummy's curse—I mean of completely natural causes!)
G. K. Chesterton, English author of both mystery novels and Catholic devotionals
Herbert Hoover, who would become 31st President of the United States and blunder his way through the early years of the Great Depression
Gustav Holst, English composer best known for his work 'The Planets'
And Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and one of the people who saved Western civilization in the mid-20th Century. I have a lot of respect for Churchill, and he's one of the people I've got my eye on for a Life & Times podcast someday...
Also born in 1874 was Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, who history remembers as the inventor of radio. Marconi will feature again later in this podcast when we talk about Tesla's own patents for wireless and how they were infringed by Marconi, but for now before you jump to any conclusions about him, remember: Marconi is the great-grandson of the guy who founded Irish whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons, so he can't be all bad.
A little closer to home for me, three notable Canadians:
First, and sharing a birthday with Churchill, Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables stories. When my family visted Prince Edward Island we were sure to visit Green Gables, her old house which is now part of a national park. Perhaps someday, if this podcast is a big enough hit, my house, too, will be made in to a national park...
William Lyon Mackenzie King, 10th and longest-serving Prime Minister of Canada, spending a total of 21 years, 154 days as PM in 3 majority & 3 minority governments between 1921 and 1948. Term limits, schmirm-limits. He is best known for his leadership of Canada throughout the Second World War and for his habit of sitting on park benches conversing with the ghost of his dead mother. No foolin'--look it up.
And perhaps most importantly: in December 1874, James Lewis Kraft was born. He was an entrepreneur and inventor, and was the first to patent processed cheese. God bless this man. He founded the company that later became Kraft Foods Inc., and generations of university students on a budget owe this man their thanks for Kraft Dinner.
Dying in 1874 wasn't as fashionable as being born, it seems. Passings of note do include:
Rabbi Abraham Geiger, founder of Reform Judaism
Millard Fillmore, 13th President of the United States
David Friedrich Strauss, a German liberal Protestant theologian and writer, who scandalized Christian Europe with his research and writings about the "historical Jesus" which present Jesus as non-divine
Chang and Eng Bunker, Thai-American conjoined twin brothers and sideshow performers whose condition and birthplace became the basis for the term "Siamese twins."
And Anders Jonas Ångström, Swedish physicist and one of the founders of the science of spectroscopy. Named in his honor is the Ångström, a unit of measure in which the wavelengths of light and interatomic spacings in condensed matter are measured. He also has a crater on the Moon, and one of the main building complexes of Uppsala University named for him.
And so we turn, at last, to Tesla in 1874. As they used to say in those old radio serials, when last we left our hero...
And when last we saw him, young Nikola was trying to figure out a way to tell his father—an Orthodox priest who expected his son to follow him into the family business—that what he really wanted to do was become an electrical engineer.
But before he could, Tesla received a strange letter from his father shortly before the end of term, suggesting that he not return home but rather go on a shooting expedition in the mountains. Tesla found this an odd suggestion, since his father had always opposed hunting for sport.
Now, in O’Neill’s Prodigal Genius, its suggested that Tesla’s parents—ever cautious about Nikola’s health—had tried to prevent him from coming home because of a cholera outbreak in the Gospic district. While this seems perfectly reasonable, why the subterfuge? Why not simply say: “Hey Niko—better stay away until this whole cholera thing blows over, m’kay?”
More likely, as some other Tesla biographers have suggested, this was a way to try and help Tesla avoid the compulsory three-year military term that all young men had to serve in the Austrian military in this era. It is notable that Tesla does not mention this military term (or its avoidance) at all in his biography, and he did end up disappearing into the woods for about a year as we’ll see in a minute.
First, however, whether he was aware of his parents’ real reasons in cautioning him away from home or not, he returned to Gospic against their wishes. In his biography, Tesla mocks the simple and superstitious people of Gospic for not understanding the origin of the cholera that would intermittently plague the city:
“It is incredible how absolutely ignorant people were as to the causes of this scourge,” Tesla notes. “They thought that the deadly agents were transmitted through the air and filled it with pungent odors and smoke. In the meantime they drank the infected water and died in heaps.”
For all his superior understanding, it’s noteworthy that Tesla contracted cholera the very day he arrived back in Gospic and was bedridden for months.
Nice work, smarty-pants.
Now, I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness of Tesla’s condition, cholera is serious business: vomiting, muscle cramping, and the potential for fatal dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Tesla reports being close to death several times during his convalescence. What saved him, Tesla says, was his father’s final acceptance and permission for his son to become an engineer.
“In one of the sinking spells which was thought to be the last, my father rushed into the room. I still see his pallid face as he tried to cheer me in tones belying his assurance. "Perhaps," I said, "I may get well if you will let me study engineering." "You will go to the best technical institution in the world," he solemnly replied, and I knew that he meant it.”
And after that, Tesla did recover. However, there remained the pesky problem of the compulsory military service. With war breaking out against the Turks, once again Milutin recommended that extended hunting trip. And so in 1874, risking prison if caught, Tesla disappeared into the mountains near Gračac.
Here, I think, O’Neill makes a good point. We should appreciate how serious this situation was not just for Tesla, but his whole family.
Remember that in addition to the priesthood, the Tesla family had a tradition of sending sons to military service. The inventor’s grandfather, also named Nikola Tesla, was a sergeant in Napoleon’s Illyrian army. Relatives of Nikola’s had achieved high rank and honours in the army; many were still in active service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of his mother Djouka’s brothers, Pajo Mandić, was a field marshal in the Austro-Hungarian army. Another relative ran an Austrian military academy. For a member of that family to become essentially a “draft dodger” or a “conscientious objector” would have been scandalous, in addition to illegal. I think Nikola’s father was perfectly aware of this when he kept emphasizing a “hunting trip” to the mountains, rather than an open acknowledgment that his son should avoid the draft. Surely he, too, could have been liable to prosecution for encouraging his son to run away.
War with the Turks was threatening, and given his son's delicate health (and the early death of his only other boy), doubtless the risk was worth it in Milutin's mind.
And so at this point in Tesla’s life, I always envision him wandering the countryside like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, hiding out until the heat back home blows over.
Nikola spent a year exploring the mountains in hunter's garb, and he felt that the extended contact with nature made him stronger, both physically and mentally.
With nothing but time on his hands, Tesla spent his days in thought, reading, or planning his future and imagining great inventions.
One plan was to send letters and packages across the seas in spherical containers, blasted through submarine tubes by high-pressured seawater.
Another idea, right out of a sci-fi novel, was to construct an orbiting geo-stationary ring around the earth’s equator which would allow for travel around the globe at a rate of about one thousand miles an hour. To Tesla’s credit, this idea has some analogs in the geo-synchronized satellites not invented until the mid twentieth century, though he envisioned it as a way to quickly move people and goods around the planet. How exactly this would get built (Tesla makes reference to some sort of scaffolding that would be removed once the ring was complete), or how you would reach the fully-functioning ring before not just the advent of rocket technology but when the Wright Brothers were still some 29 years away from their first flight wasn’t something that seemed to concern Tesla.
(And, just because I looked it up: when Tesla concocted this idea Wilbur Wright was 7 years old, and Orville was only 3. And that’s today’s historical fun fact!)
Give him credit: Tesla was never one to think small.
In his excellent book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson makes an interesting observation about Tesla’s desire throughout his life as an inventor to “think big” like this, and to seek out the ideal behind an invention. He argues that such an impulse comes ultimately from Tesla’s exposure to the Orthodox Christian theology of his father and uncles in the priesthood.
In the Orthodox faith, the material universe is not only orderly, but everything in it—whether natural or manmade—has a logos, that is an underlying divine principle imparted to it via Jesus Christ, who was the capital-L Logos, the Word, through whom (as the second person of the Holy Trinity) the universe was created.
“Our human task as craftsmen and manufacturers,” writes one Orthodox bishop, “is to discern this logos dwelling in each thing and to render it manifest; we seek not to dominate but to cooperate.”
While certainly not (by his own admission) an orthodox believer (either upper- or lower-case O), Tesla's early exposure to this philosophy certainly shaped him and his worldview. We’ll talk in a few episodes about the contrast between Tesla and his long-time frenemy Thomas Edison, but I think in many ways this is a good summary of the difference: while Edison’s style was brash and American in its desire to dominate the forces of nature and bend them to human uses, Tesla strikes one as more interested in harnessing the power of nature in a cooperative fashion. He didn’t seek to dam or divert Niagara Falls, but to use its natural properties to bring electricity to the masses.
And like his reformer father, as he grew older Tesla became less interested in making money from his inventions and more concerned with how they might benefit humanity. Whether it was wireless power, or radio control, or his so-called 'peace beam' that would render war obsolete, Tesla's driving force in later life was the improvement of man's place in the world.
This approach, though likely subconscious, came from his exposure to the thinking and beliefs of a father he never really got along with.
But as fantastic as Tesla’s wilderness plans sound, Tesla himself eventually became aware of their impracticality. The vision was there, he said, but the understanding of principles was lacking. For example, he realized later that his idea for the submarine tubes was impractical if not impossible as he had failed to take into account the frictional resistance of the pipe to the flow of water.
Over the course of this year, Tesla’s father worked on his connections (especially his high-ranking relatives in the Army) to use their influence to enable his son to escape conscription and avoid punishment for failing to report for duty. Along with the excuse of Nikola's delicate health, Milutin was ultimately able to get Nikola exempted from the draft.
Tesla returned home to Gospic after his year as a mountain man, and learned that his father had kept his sick-bed promise to his son.
Milutin had somehow managed to secure (perhaps, again, through family connections) a scholarship from the Military Frontier Administration Authority. The scholarship would pay for three years and would permit Tesla to attend the Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria. Upon completion of his studies, Tesla would owe the Military Authority eight years of service (although this never seems to come up again in Tesla biographies—perhaps because Tesla never completed his degree, or perhaps because the military frontier and its administration were themselves dissolved a few years later, but we'll get to that).
Despite his scholarship, Tesla was determined to make the most of his time at the polytechnic. “I had made up my mind to give my parents a surprise,” Tesla later wrote, and he threw himself into his studies with abandon. Doubtless he wanted to prove to his father in particular that giving his permission to study engineering was the right choice. Tesla plunged into his studies, supposedly allowing himself only four hours' rest, not all of which he spent in slumber. He would go to bed at 11PM and read himself to sleep. He was up again by 3AM, tackling his studies.
By cramming from three in the morning until eleven at night, he completed two years' work in one. He also apparently found time to start a Serbian culture club. He was fueled by what he described as “copious” amounts of coffee. So copious, in fact, that Tesla began experiencing heart palpitations from all the caffeine and so began what would be a life-long moderation in the amount of coffee he would consume.
When I was in my first year of university I happened to win a year’s supply of Pepsi, which I relied on pretty hard to get me through exam time, so I can related to the whole over-caffeinated heart palpitations thing…
Physics, mathematics, and mechanics were his main studies, but so too was literature. Showing some flashes of his compulsive tendencies, he felt compelled to finish (once started) the complete works of Voltaire. He didn’t appear to enjoy Voltaire (referring to him as a coffee-swilling “monster”) but nevertheless he hate-read all 100 volumes of the man’s complete works.
At the end of the year he sailed through nine exams with ease. Returning home with the highest marks in all subjects, he expected his father to be proud. Instead, Tesla recounts that his father “made light of these hard won honors,” and instead showed concern only for Nikola's health, criticizing him for endangering it after his earlier narrow escape from death.
“That almost killed my ambition,” he writes. Several years later, after his father had died, Nikola discovered a package of letters which one of the professors had written to Milutin concerned about how hard Nikola was pushing himself, and urging Milutin to take his son away from the Institution, lest he kill himself through overwork.
While this might seem a harsh reaction, as a father myself I kinda have to feel for Milutin and be impressed by the restraint he showed in letting Nikola finish out the term. While this is long before the era of the helicopter parent (and I hope I'm not one of those, by the way) for parents who had already lost one son tragically, to be warned that another might be working himself to death must have been terrifying. The natural impulse would be to get in your buggy and go get the boy, for his own good. That's what I would have done, anyway.
Instead, Milutin let his son stay, a sign (I think) of knowing just how important this vocation was to young Nikola—even if he did get a bit passive-aggressive once the boy was home.
Returning to school the following year, and perhaps chaffing at both his father's interference as well as the taunting of his fellow students for a fairly monastic way of life, Tesla began to cut loose...and would come to pay the price.
Primarily, Tesla's rebellion took the form of gambling. There is some suggestion that, at first, Tesla took up cards mainly as a way to relax between study sessions. However, his natural intelligence and keen deductive skills meant he was quite good at cards, winning more often than he lost. Soon he was spending long hours in coffee shops playing cards, billards, and chess for money. His father, when he caught wind of this, couldn't understand what he saw as a senseless waste of time and money. For his part, Nikola fell back on that favorite saying of all addicts: “I can stop whenever I please,” he told his father, “but is it worthwhile to give up that which I would purchase with the joys of Paradise?”
Adding to the rift between father and son was the abolition of the Military Frontier Authority, and along with it the scholarship upon which they depended.
When not playing cards, Tesla did actually attend class and during his second year a state-of-the-art direct-current Gramme dynamo was delivered from Paris to the classroom of Professor Poeschl, Tesla's physics teacher. The arrival of this dynamo was to have momentous implications for Tesla and his life.
To understand why, it's important to know a bit of the difference between alternating current (AC) (which is what we all use today, thanks to Tesla) and direct current (DC) (which is still in use today for certain applications, but which in the 1870s was the only real option available).
Electricity in its natural state is alternating. This means that its direction of flow changes rapidly. An analogy often used is of a river that flows upstream one moment, only to switch downstream the next, and then back and forth again and again. There's no way to harness such a river with, for example, a waterwheel and have it do any useful work.
So prior to the advent of AC motors, dynamos were equipped with a device called a commutator—a series of wire brushes that transferred the current from the generator to the motor in only one direction of flow, making it a direct current motor. It was a clunky piece of technology, prone to sending out storms of electrical sparks.
While Professor Poeschl displayed this up-to-date equipment, electric sparks and all, Tesla intuitively deduced that the commutator was unnecessary and that alternating current (AC) could be harnessed without the need to first transform it into DC power. When he said as much in class, his professor shot him down--hard.
Other scientists had toyed with the idea of an AC dynamo long before it occurred to Tesla, but none had met with success. “Mr. Tesla may do many things,” Professor Poeschl said to the class, “but this he cannot accomplish. His plan is simply a perpetual motion scheme.”
The exchange must have amounted to more than that, since Prof. Poeschl devoted his next lecture and demonstration to refuting Tesla's objections one by one. His dissection was so thorough and methodical, that Tesla later confessed that even he wavered in his belief in the practicality of AC power.
But instinct can be a powerful thing, something which transcends logic, and Tesla couldn't shake the surety of his insight. “We have, undoubtedly, certain finer fibers,” Tesla later wrote, “that enable us to perceive truths when logical deduction, or any other willful effort of the brain, is futile. For a time I wavered, impressed by the professor's authority, but soon became convinced I was right and undertook the task with all the fire and boundless confidence of youth.”
You have to admire the hutzpah of Tesla here: he simply came to believe that his professor and everyone else in the world was wrong, and that he was right. It's the kind of belief that, if you prove it, makes you a genius and a visionary, but which if it doesn't pan out can drive you mad.
Tesla spent hours mentally constructing and deconstructing DC and AC motors and generators. He would visualize whole systems around the technologies...but his flash of insight unfortunately didn't bring with it the essential practical details of how this innovation could actually be built and work. He would spend years obsessed with proving the professor wrong but getting no closer to a solution.
In the meantime, Tesla's new bohemian lifestyle began to get the better of him. By his third year Tesla was running into difficulties at school. He returned to Graz in the fall of 1877 but soon stopped attending lectures, and university records show that he wasn't even registered for the spring term in 1878.
Tesla was bored and frustrated by his inability to find a solution to his AC problem and so began to gamble more heavily to relieve the tension, sometimes in marathons of twenty-four hours at a stretch. Although Tesla tended to return his winnings to heavy losers, few did likewise for him, and so one semester he lost his entire allowance, including the money for tuition. His father was furious, but his mother came to him with “a roll of bills” and said, “Go and enjoy yourself. The sooner you lose all we possess the better it will be. I know that you will get over it.”
Chastened by this, Nikola won back his initial losses and returned the balance to his family. “I conquered my passion then and there,” he wrote, and “tore it from my heart so as not to leave a trace of desire. Ever since that time I have been as indifferent to any form of gambling as to picking teeth.”...Which is a nice story, but not really true.
Tesla gambled quite freely in later years, particularly during his heyday in New York society. He was especially skilled at billiards. An Edison employee recalled: “He played a beautiful game. [Tesla] was not a high scorer, but his cushion shots displayed skill equal to that of a professional exponent of this art.” It has also been suggested that in the early 1890s, Tesla hustled some of the wealthy society set that he ran with in New York by feigning minimal ability in the sport.
I like to believe this is true—it’s the romantic in me.
His gambling addiction conquered or not, it was too late: exam time came, and Tesla found himself woefully unprepared. He asked for an extension to study but was denied. He never graduated from the Austrian Polytechnic School and did not receive any grades for his last semester there.
Now, I should point out Tesla never mentions flunking out in his autobiography, and O'Neill spins it in a more positive light in Prodigal Genius—saying Tesla simply chose not to return after taking up a job at an engineering firm. I think the fact that both are essentially silent on the matter is quite telling.
In September 1878, Tesla wrote to a pro-Serbian newspaper, the Queen Bee, requesting help in securing a new scholarship to continue his studies in either Vienna or Brno. He claimed he had to give up his military scholarship due to unspecified illness. He listed among his qualifications fluency in Italian, French, and English, and signed the letter “Nikola Tesla, technician.”
His request was turned down.
Likely fearing that his parents would find out about his failure, Tesla secretly packed his things, headed south over the border into Slovenia, and disappeared.
Next week, we'll join the search for Tesla as his father goes looking to see what's become of his son. And after a couple of aimless, frustrated montage years of his life, Tesla will have his first encounter with a name that will be entangled with his forever: Thomas Alva Edison.
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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.