From The Editors: Birdman On A Wire

  • Larry Bean

If the idea of outracing a Ferrari F430 in a battery-powered sports car is crazy, it is no crazier than was Nikola Tesla, namesake of the Tesla Roadster, the electric car pictured on this issue’s cover and described by Robb Report automotive editor Gregory Anderson in the Private Preview 2007 feature (page 104). Tesla had his quirks, yet none of those compulsions, phobias, or neuroses prevented him from creating some 700 devices and processes in the late 1800s and early 1900s and becoming known as the man who invented the 20th century.

Some will argue that neurotic behavior is not just a common characteristic of geniuses, but a necessary one. And there is no question that Tesla, who would have turned 150 this year—if he had lived only 10 years longer than he once predicted—was a genius. The list of inventions for which he has been directly or indirectly credited ranges from alternating-current (AC) power to the radio to computers to cell phones to Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars.

There also is little doubt that Tesla was, in pedestrian terms, nuts, which was apparent at the height of his productivity, around the turn of the last century. While he was living at the Waldorf-Astoria—he resided in hotels throughout his years in Manhattan, preferably in rooms whose numbers were divisible by 3—he would insist on having exactly 18 napkins brought to his dinner table. With those napkins, he polished the silver and glassware before every dinner.

Sleep was not a priority for Tesla. “Oh, I don’t sleep,” he once told an interviewer. “Sometimes I doze for an hour or so.” However, he did experiment on himself with what he called electric anesthesia. Jolting himself with 50 amps, he said, did not cause him to lose consciousness immediately, but it did produce “a lethargic sleep sometime after.”

He also spoke of a death ray, which at the time, at least, seemed preposterous. In 1934, on his 78th birthday, Tesla described to a New York Times reporter his plans for a weapon that could bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes that were as far as 250 miles away. “It will,” the reporter wrote, “cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks.”

And then there was Tesla’s relationship with pigeons, which led to strong suspicions about his mental state—if his death ray revelation had not already done so. By the 1930s, Tesla often could be found feeding pigeons at the city’s parks. Not long after he went public with his death ray plans, the Times wrote about his concern for the health and welfare of these birds, and how he often allowed them to convalesce in his hotel room. “The man who recently announced the discovery of an electrical death-beam, powerful enough to destroy 10,000 airplanes at a swoop,” the paper reported, “had carefully spread towels on his window ledge and set down a little cup of seed for his two pigeons.”

The two pursuits, however, were not altogether incompatible, for Tesla viewed the death ray as an instrument of peace. The ray would, he believed, make war impossible because it would, in the words of the Times reporter paraphrasing Tesla, “surround each country like an invisible Chinese wall, only a million times more impenetrable."

Shortly before his death in 1943, at the age of 84, Tesla had become completely delusional, as evidenced by his instructing a messenger to deliver a $100 loan to Mark Twain. The messenger, not familiar with Twain or his work, eventually learned that the writer had been dead for 33 years.

Tesla had sent the messenger to the Manhattan address where his own laboratory once stood. There he used to entertain Twain and other friends, when Tesla was in his prime as an inventor and a celebrity. During one of those lab sessions, Tesla, without being specific, mentioned that the vibrations from a mechanical oscillator he had built could be therapeutic. Twain, wanting to test the theory, stood on the platform attached to the machine and exclaimed, “This gives you vigor and vitality!” Against Tesla’s advice, Twain remained on the platform for several more minutes before shouting, “Quick, Tesla, where is it?” Tesla, well aware of the vibrations’ ability to accelerate the digestive process, directed his guest to the restroom.

On an uninitiated passenger crazy enough to travel with a driver intent on exploring the possibilities of a car that can reach 60 mph in four seconds and achieve its peak torque at zero rpm, the Tesla Roadster could have a similarly laxative effect.

Photo by UWE@FISCHER
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