Nikola Tesla is remembered as a brilliant, world-changing inventor who famously developed the Tesla coil, the alternating current electrical system, rotating magnetic field, and countless other concepts that were left unfinished at the time of his death.
These achievements are celebrated today, as Tesla’s legacy has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few decades. But what is often left out of the legacy is the man himself, and how his personal philosophies and unique lifestyle helped to shape his greatness.
Tesla was born in modern-day Croatia (then part of the Austrian Empire) in 1856. By the time he reached high school, his genius was evident in his ability to perform integral calculus in his head (although his teachers believed he was cheating). Although his father wanted him to become a priest, Tesla was able to convince him to be enrolled in the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, where he went on to earn high honors until his father’s death in 1879. This period saw him develop a gambling problem, which would cause him to eventually drop out and sever ties with his family.
Tesla’s time at Graz was underscored by a fervent work ethic, which caused his teachers to communicate with his father over concerns of his health and mental wellness. However, Tesla claimed that math and engineering were in his nature, and what seemed like work to others was simply instinct to him.
After wandering Europe, working as a draftsman and electrician, Tesla landed in France, where he began working for Continental Edison. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually relocating to New York City, where Edison hired him to tackle difficult problems at his Edison Machine Works in Manhattan. He found success at Edison, but eventually left over a wage dispute.
It was at Edison that Tesla found his calling as an inventor, and after leaving went on to found the Tesla Arc Light Company, where he began to make a name for himself. His notorious work ethic bred numerous new and revolutionary ideas. However, Tesla accredited his unique lifestyle to much of his success.
For one, he claimed to sleep for an average of only two hours a day. His work only stopped for short naps with the occasional long ‘recovery sleep.’ To others, this only reinforced their opinions that he was a manic workaholic. He once said: “There are so many things to do I do not want to spend time sleeping needlessly. In my family all were poor sleepers. Time spent in sleep is lost time, we always felt.”
Secondly, Tesla felt that nature and solitude were important keys to the creative process. He credited solitary walks in nature as the key to many of his greatest inventions. “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude,” he said. “Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
Lastly, Tesla was a vegetarian (with the exception that he ate egg whites as a source of protein). His diet was based in simplicity, with root vegetables, leafy greens, grains and dairy his main source of nourishment. He is noted for abstaining from tobacco, tea and coffee, but did enjoy whiskey, calling it “The elixir of life” at one time. He did abstain from alcohol during the government prohibition of it, however.
Tesla’s life was long and accomplished, but it was ultimately a selfless nature that drove his desire to improve the world and the lives of his fellow man, a rare trait for businessmen at the time. His achievements rank with the giants of the Industrial revolution, and will cause us to always remember him.