Nikola Tesla has become something of an Internet hero. According to legend, he was a mad genius who almost never got the credit he deserved in the money-hungry world of science. It’s easy to argue that Tesla didn’t make it further because of his eccentricities: He hated everything, suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and might have been autistic. The truth, however, is far simpler: Many of his ideas just weren’t viable. Although many people would like to believe otherwise, Tesla was far from perfect.
1. ALLEGED EIDETIC MEMORY
It’s often claimed that Tesla never needed to write anything down because he had either a photographic or eidetic memory. While scientists have not ruled out the claim, the researchers who have studied the phenomenon have admitted that they can’t even prove its existence, although others have pointed out flaws in their methodologies.
As a brilliant scientist and inventor, it’s quite possible that Tesla had excellent visual memory, but it was never tested. It’s certainly not true that he never needed to write anything down—Tesla kept copious notes on his inventions and ideas, many of which have survived to this day. Scientists were thrilled by the possibilities they might contain, but upon examination, these notebooks were found to be highly speculative and contain no useful scientific knowledge.
2. IRRESPONSIBILITY WITH MONEY
Many people claim that Tesla died penniless, and some go so far as to say he always was. This is decried as a great injustice against such a brilliant mind. The truth, much like the man himself, is a little more complicated. There is some evidence that he could have made more money if his patents had been secured better or he had not been exploited by people like Thomas Edison. Tesla never cared much for the business aspect of his work, though, and even if he had made a fortune, he likely would have blown it.
Tesla had a reputation for hemorrhaging money. He lived in fancy hotels and sunk the rest of his money into increasingly ambitious—and expensive—projects. He had a history of borrowing money from friends and getting evicted from those hotels. He would sometimes even leave some of his notebooks behind as collateral for the debt when he moved out.
Tesla once commented on his poverty when the city tried to force him to pay a tax bill, admitting that he had no money and “scores” of other debts he owed. He explained that he had been living on credit at the Waldorf for several years. He had plenty of opportunities to pay off his debts and keep his patents from lapsing, but instead, he maintained his lavish lifestyle until the day he died.
3. STRANGE VISIONS
Tesla’s tall tales weren’t confined to his inventions or supposed interactions with Martians. He also believed that he received a variety of important visions. The first occurred when he was walking in the park with a friend after suffering a nervous breakdown due to his constant lack of sleep. According to Tesla, he had a vision of the entire model for his AC motor and started drawing it in the dirt. Considering that he had already stated that he had been thinking about the idea for about six years, he probably wasn’t being entirely truthful.
His second “vision” occurred much later in life, involving his beloved pigeons. He claimed that he was alone in his hotel room one night when a white pigeon for whom he harbored particularly great affection came to see him. He was then suddenly blinded by two powerful beams of light that communicated to him that he had finished all of his life’s work and would die soon.
4. NOBEL PRIZE RUMORS
Among the strangest claims about the Tesla-Edison rivalry concern a contested Nobel Prize. The rumor, which was reported at the time by such esteemed publications as The New York Times, was that Tesla and Edison had been offered a joint Nobel Prize one year. Later rumors claimed that the prize was given to someone else because the two refused to share an award between them, and some even believe that Edison tried to sabotage both of their chances out of spite.
The news came as quite a surprise to the Nobel committee, who had already chosen their winners for that year. In response to the rumors, they stated unequivocally that they wouldn’t ever withdraw an award just because the recipient refused it. Furthermore, both Edison and Tesla denied ever being given such an offer. Although both were serious—if unlikely—candidates on a handful of occasions, neither ever won the Nobel Prize.
5. POPULARITY IN HIS TIME
The modern mythology of Tesla rests on the belief that he was never given the funding he needed, never got the attention he deserved during his time, and suffered the injustice of a world that wasn’t ready for his amazing genius. None of this could be further from the truth.
While not every single idea of his was fully funded, which is true for most scientists at all levels of prestige, he received plenty of funding from rich donors. In addition to the generous endowments he received from household names like J.P. Morgan, Tesla was quite popular with the common man. He and Edison were both considered celebrity scientists in their day.
Despite the popular conception of him today as a reclusive, misunderstood genius, Tesla was quite the showman. He was known to demonstrate his famous coil in front of frothing crowds who lavished him with attention and support. He was also a media darling who certainly knew how to create buzz around his work and did so whenever possible. The idea that he could have turned the world into a technological utopia if only he had enough money and recognition is patently absurd.