The Lonely, Mentally Disordered Genius of Nicola Tesla

Known as the man who “turned night into day,” Serbian-American inventor, Nicola Tesla was a visionary and pioneer in the field of electrical innovation. The inventor of the alternating current electrical system, Tesla was a lonely testament to both extraordinary genius and bizarre compulsions. In result, he was a reclusive, brilliant and eccentric man.

Early Life

Born on born on July 10, 1856 in what today is considered Croatia, Tesla’s interest in electricity began at a very early age, no doubt influenced by his talented mother, Djuka Mandic, who invented several small household appliances while he was a  boy. His father, Milutin Tesla, was an Orthodox priest who encouraged his son to join the priesthood, but Nicola’s interests laid elsewhere in the world of science.

During the 1870s, young Tesla moved about, studying at several European schools before settling in Budapest studying at the University of Prague. It was during this time that the idea of the alternating current induction motor with rotating magnetic field first came to him. Tesla became convinced that commutators, which are “the moving parts of a rotary electrical switch in some motors and generators that periodically reverses the current direction between the motor and the external circuit,” are unnecessary.

Tesla and Thomas Edison

Unable to sell his idea in Europe, in 1884 at the age of 28, Tesla headed for America where he briefly worked with Thomas Edison, whose DC-based electrical systems were fast becoming the national standard. Edison hired Tesla and together they worked on improving Edison’s existing inventions. The two men had vastly different personalities, and after a few months, parted company.

Tesla contacted Edison shortly before the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was the world’s first electric fair, requesting to use his light bulbs to illuminate the fairgrounds. When Edison refused, Tesla aligned with Pittsburgh industrialist, George Westinghouse, who outbid Edison. Tesla then made another light bulb that was better and easier to manufacture, forcing Edison however privately, to eat humble pie.

Tesla, Edison, and George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse first became interested in Tesla’s AC system in 1887 as a long distance power source, and in 1888, he bought Tesla’s patents for $60,000 in cash and stock in the Westinghouse Corporation. Edison, who was trying to market his DC current system, initiated a negative press campaign against Tesla. Unabashed, Tesla patented several more inventions including the Tesla coil, which is the foundation for all wireless technologies.

A man of bizarre compulsions

Always reclusive, in his later life Tesla became extremely eccentric, living in New York and devoting much off time to talking about death rays and feeding pigeons in parks. Celibate all of his life, he was besieged by unusual fears. He was terrified of germs and women wearing pearl earrings, and was totally obsessed with numbers. He always did things in threes, obviously suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder.

Death and legacy

Tesla died in January, 1943 at the age of 86. He was penniless despite the fact that during his lifetime he obtained more than 100 patents and created more than 700 inventions during in his lifetime. Unfortunately, other inventors officially patented many of his inventions (Gugliemo Marconi being one). These included electric generators and the induction motor. He was a pioneer in the discovery of radar technology, remote control, rotating magnetic fields and x-ray technology. His genius lives on with the alternating current system which remains the worldwide standard to this day.


Do you think genius is close to madness? Who are some other geniuses that come to mind?

Additional Images: Tesla Memorial Society of New York



M. Dee Dubroff
M. Dee Dubroff
My name is Marjorie Dorfman and I am also known as M Dee Dubroff. I am a freelance writer and former teacher originally from Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of New York University, I taught in New York City schools for a few years before finding my true calling as a writer. I now live in Doylestown, PA with one cat named Mr. Biscuit and my significant other, a graphics artist and former designer of postage stamps, both of whom keep me on my toes at all times.