Nikola Tesla, the eccentric, enigmatic, and brilliant scientist who revolutionized electricity and set the stage for future wireless technology, was born 160 years ago this month, on July 10, 1856. Throughout his life, Tesla registered more than 300 patents and envisioned many more inventions.
He is known as the father of alternating current (AC), the basis for much of our modern technology. Though he has experience a resurgence in pop culture lately, much of his life is still unknown. But there’s no doubt he was a fascinating man of mystery. Here are 10 fun facts about Nikola Tesla.
1. He was born during a lightning storm
In perhaps the best foreshadowing in history, Tesla was born around midnight during a fierce lightning storm in Serbia. The midwife thought it was a bad omen and that he would be a child of darkness, but Tesla’s mother prophetically said, “No, he will be a child of light.”
2. He had an obsessive personality
Playing into his stereotype of a mad scientist, Tesla suffered from many characteristics that today would likely be classified as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was obsessed with the number three and detested jewelry, round objects, and touching hair.
He was particularly wary of pearls and wouldn’t talk to women wearing them; he even sent his secretary home when she wore pearl jewelry. He was also an insomniac and claimed he only needed two hours of sleep at night, though he often took afternoon naps.
3. He was a germaphobe
After a near-fatal case of cholera as a teenager, Tesla became obsessive about germs and cleaning everything. He has an extensive and rigid personal hygiene routine, used 18 napkins to wipe his dining room every night, and wore white gloves to every dinner.
4. We can credit him for the idea of wireless Internet and smartphones
Believe it or not, in 1901, Tesla actually had the idea for a wireless way to gather information, code it in his lab, change the frequency, and broadcast it to a hand-held device—nearly exactly how our smartphones work today. Like many of Tesla’s great ideas, it was never created or tested.
5. He had an amazing memory.
Tesla had the power to memorize entire books and pictures with great detail, which is assumed to be part of the cause of his terrible nightmares as a child. He also had visions of numerous inventions filed away in his brain, many of which never made it onto paper. One of Tesla’s most unique attributes was the ability to visualize in 3D, allowing him to see all sides of an invention before it was created.
6. Mark Twain owes him for shaking his constipation issues
Tesla was constantly looking for more efficient energy sources and built a high-frequency oscillator, known as an earthquake machine, which shook his Manhattan neighborhood when he conducted experiments. Tesla invited his friend Mark Twain, who was known to have constipation issues, to stand on the machine’s platform while he turned it on; within minutes, Twain was running to the bathroom to relieve his problem.
7. He lived in multiple Manhattan hotels
Throughout his life, and especially towards the end, Tesla lived in a long line of Manhattan hotels. At the height of his career his lived in the Waldorf Astoria, which is part of the reason he had so many famous friends, including conservationist John Muir and bankers Henry Clay Frick and Thomas Fortune Ryan. However, Tesla was focused more on humanity and his experiments than money, so he was never rich and died quite poor, despite his famous friends.
8. Many of his inventions are still classified
Tesla died in 1943, but some of his inventions and experiments are still classified by the U.S. government. After his death, all of his possessions were sized by the Office of Alien Property and eventually released to his family, but a few select items are still behind lock and key.
9. The U.S. government thought German spies were using Tesla’s creations
Tesla built a 185-foot tower in Long Island, New York called the Wardenclyffe Tower. He used the massive machine to conduct many of his wireless power transmission experiments in the early 1900s and believed it had the power to suck electricity out of the sky.
Authorities became worried the Germans were using the tower for radio transmission during World War I and blew up the tower, though some people believe the story is a cover for Tesla to scrap the materials because he was out of money. The remains of the tower are being converted to a Tesla museum, funded through crowd funding and a $1 million donation from Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.
10. Without his inventions and research, our modern world would look quite different
Tesla’s experiments can be seen in numerous aspects of modern technology and everyday life, including florescent lighting, x-ray machines, radio, television, cell phones, and more. The words spoken by a presenter in 1917 when Tesla received the Edison Medal still ring true: “Suffice it to say that, were we to seize and to eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle. Yea, so far reaching is this work, that it has become the warp and woof of industry.”