There is a common theme among all the outsiders who faced adversity by breaking the mold of their field. I’d say that struggle, heartache, and triumph are the main factors that parallel each other, however, it’s betrayal by others, who lack the imagination and intelligence of these outsiders, that is MOST common. The story of Nikola Tesla is a prime example of that. He completely changed the world, and yet was betrayed by those around him, and died alone without receiving the credit he deserved.
Nikola Tesla was born on July 10th, 1856 in Smijlan, a town in the Austrian Empire (now known as Croatia). His father Milutin was an orthodox priest, and his mother Duka came from a family also involved with the orthodox priesthood. He was one of five children (Dane, Milka, Angelina, and Marica) and they lived in both Smijlan and Gospic, and Karlovac. It was in Karlovac where Tesla would find his passion for electricity through his physics professor. He mentioned that those lessons made him want “to know more about this wonderful force”.
Nikola was incredibly smart, to the point that he routinely annoyed his teachers. They always thought he was cheating, because he could solve calculus equations in his head. His high intelligence allowed him to continue his education at a university in Graz, Austria…. however the amount of work almost destroyed him. Tesla abandoned studies at school, due to exhaustion, and indeed never graduated.
Even without his degree, he received a job through Tivadar Pukás at the Budapest Telephone Exchange… where Nikola would eventually be promoted to Chief Electrician. He then went with Tivadar to Paris, where he worked at The Continental Edison Company, and eventually to the US with Edison Machine Works.
This is where Nikola met Thomas Edison himself. This is also where he would ultimately be betrayed by him. Edison abused Nikola’s tireless efforts in making new inventions, never paying him promised dues. From here Nikola would be betrayed again by two businessmen (Robert Lane and Benjamin Vail) who initially committed to helping him start Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. In the end, Lane and Vail formed a new company, and abandoned Tesla, leaving him penniless. He wound up working as a ditch digger for $2 a day.
Defeated but not destroyed, Tesla picked himself up, and with the help of Alfred Brown and Charles Peck, he formed another company. The Tesla Electric Company would prove to be quite successful, indeed entering into a licensing deal with George Westinghouse.
With the new successes of the alternative current (AC), largely developed by Tesla’s patents, Westinghouse and Edison began to battle with one another over Edison’s defense of his antiquated direct current (DC) system. This resulted in “The War of Currents”, a propaganda and smear campaign led by Edison to destroy Westinghouse and Tesla. Westinghouse would eventually buy out Tesla and their contract for a very large sum of money, which Nikola used to finance his experiments.
From there Nikola Tesla flourished, with inventions like the Tesla Coil, Polyphase, radio control, and the beginnings of wireless lighting. Unfortunately, a large fire overcame his studio. In fact there were rumors it was started by agents of Edison. Regardless of the cause, Tesla was once again at a loss.
Ever choosing to continue, Tesla picked himself up again and started over. Over the years, he creating hundreds of patents and inventions, winning esteemed medals. Although Tesla was quite famous in his time, his reclusive and often quirky behavior left him alone and largely friendless. Later in his life, he became an avid pigeon lover, spending most of his time with them, and often nursing injured pigeons back to health.
On January 7th, 1943, Tesla was found dead and alone at 94 in his hotel room.
Much like a lot of art outsiders, Tesla is posthumously known as one of the most brilliant men of our time.. and yet rarely got to achieve or be acknowledged in his own time as much as he is today. Despite all the heartache, betrayal, and feeling misunderstood, he persevered. He is brilliance and determination personified. Nikola Tesla teaches us, who strive with our craft on the outskirts of safety… that being unconventional holds power.. that being different and seeing the path that’s not seen… is power… and that, at times, we will be betrayed, hated, and attacked. ..
And that burden means we are doing something revolutionary.