Tesla's early life
1: The Man Behind the Mind
In the small village of Smiljan, Croatia (then Austria-Hungary), Nikola Tesla was born exactly at the stroke of midnight between July 9 and 10, 1856 -- an incidental schism that befits the beginnings of a man who always seemed out of time with the world around him.
From early childhood, it was apparent that Nikola possessed an extraordinary mind. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a minister who trained Nikola to strengthen his memory and reasoning skills through a variety of regular mental exercises. But Tesla gave the highest credit for his talents to his mother's side of the family, whom he referred to as a long line of inventors. Despite Djouka Tesla's lack of formal education, she created numerous original tools for sewing and other tasks around her household.
Tesla had an older brother, Dane, whom he considered his superior in every way. When Nikola was five and Dane was twelve, Nikola was jealous of Dane's white stallion, which their father said Nikola was too young to ride. One day Nikola used a blow gun to shoot a pea at the horse, causing it to throw Dane from its back. Dane later died from his injuries. Feelings of guilt over this tragedy haunted Tesla throughout his life. No matter how great his achievements, he always believed that Dane could have outdone him.
During his early life, Tesla was stricken with illness time and time again. He suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by hallucinations. Much of the time the visions were linked to a word or idea he might come across; just by hearing the name of an item, he would involuntarily envision it in realistic detail. The flashes and images caused Tesla great discomfort, and by the time he reached his teens he had taught himself to repress them from occurring except in certain times of stress. When they did happen, they sometimes had a nature that might be described as psychic.
In one case, the young Tesla recklessly attempted to swim beneath a large floating structure that extended further than he realized. Finding himself trapped in the dark water with no sign of the surface, a flash appeared, and with it a vision of a small opening to air. Tesla's vision turned out to be correct, and the strange curse apparently saved him from drowning. Upon the deaths of his father and mother, Tesla claimed to have detailed premonitions just before each passing. In his later years, Tesla boasted of successfully transmitting an image from his mind into that of a person in another room.
Shortly after his graduation from high school, Tesla suffered a devastating bout with cholera and nearly died. He was bedridden for nine months, and doctors announced that he would not live much longer. Tesla was occupying his still-active mind by reading as much as his body would permit, when he encountered a strange new kind of literature: "Innocents Abroad," by Mark Twain. Tesla was captivated by the humor and humanity of this up-and-coming American author, whose work so raised his spirits that he made a miraculously abrupt recovery to health. Years later in the United States, Tesla met Samuel Clemens and was able to thank him for having saved his life. Clemens went on to become one of Tesla's few close friends.
Tesla underwent another debilitating trauma a few years after recovering from cholera. This time, the nature of the illness and its causes were a complete mystery. Tesla's physical senses, which had always been remarkably acute, seemed to go inexplicably into overdrive, paralyzing him with an overabundance of sensation. The ticking of a pocket watch had become painfully deafening to him, even from several rooms away. He needed rubber cushion inserted beneath the feet of his bed to lessen the vibrations from outside passersby, which felt to him like an earthquake. Exposure to light was excruciating not only for his eyes, but to the surface of his skin, as well. After a time, the crippling condition eased, and Tesla returned to normal sensory perception with a mental breakthrough that led him to the invention of the alternating current motor.
The physical and emotional travails of Tesla's early life undoubtedly helped shape him into the singular man he was: a man of immense brilliance, and a nearly equal level of eccentricity. Tesla shunned physical contact with other people, with a special aversion to touching hair. To avoid shaking hands with people he met, he lied that he had injured his hands in a laboratory accident. He apparently never took part in a romantic relationship of any kind. A female acquaintance who grew enamored of Tesla reportedly once took the initiative to kiss him, causing the startled inventor to flee in agony. Still, Tesla exhibited some appreciation for feminine beauty by demanding that his secretaries conform to an exacting standard of dress and physique. His female employees were forbidden to wear pearls, which Tesla for some reason found hideously repulsive.
Other behaviors of Tesla's seemed to drift into the realm of compulsive-obsessive disorder. He required any repeated actions in his daily life (such as the footsteps he took in a walk) to be divisible by three, and would keep repeating them until he arrived at a suitable total. Quantities of twenty-seven were the most prized of all, since that number was three cubed. Tesla also felt compelled to calculate the exact volume of his food before he ate it. This involved measuring his meal portions with a ruler and dipping pieces in water to determine how many cubic centimeters they displaced. He was especially fond of saltine crackers because of their uniformity of volume. Many times, such as during the heat of a major project, Tesla would forget to eat altogether, and work for days without sleep. At one point his all-consuming devotion to the laboratory brought on an exhaustion so severe that for several days he lost all memory of who he was.
Tesla asserted that it was not until he reached adulthood that he discovered he was an inventor. He discounted his early years (perhaps unreasonably) as a time of undisciplined impulses, entirely lacking focus. But he did invent a wide array of creations and schemes as a child. The first was a simple hook-and-line device for catching frogs. All his young friends imitated it, and the mechanisms performed so well that the local frog population was nearly eradicated. He also built a miniature water wheel which was unique in that it propelled itself without blades. This memory would later inspire his innovation of the bladeless turbine.
The young Tesla created a remarkable machine powered by another natural energy source: June bugs (or, as Europeans call them, May bugs). He glued sixteen of the live insects to the blades of a small windmill-like structure, and they set the rotor spinning vigorously in their vain attempt to fly away. Some accounts have jokingly cited this effort as one of Tesla's rare failures, although the inventor himself remained rather proud of the June bug motor. In his autobiography, Tesla explained why he discontinued his research into insect energy:
"These creatures were remarkably efficient, for once they were started, they had no sense to stop and continued whirling for hours and hours and the hotter it was, the harder they worked. All went well until a strange boy came to the place. He was the son of a retired officer in the Austrian army. That urchin ate May-bugs alive and enjoyed them as though they were the finest blue-point oysters."
Adding one more entry to his long list of idiosyncrasies, after beholding that spectacle Tesla refused ever to touch another insect again.