Various Tesla book cover images

Nikola Tesla Books

Books written by or about Nikola Tesla

My Inventions

Nikola Tesla was the reclusive, brilliant electrical engineer who: Invented the Niagara power system that made Edison's system obsolete - Sold Westinghouse forty patents that broke the General Electric monopoly - Discovered the radio methods that Marconi converted into a fortune - Built a radio-guided torpedo before Ford ended the horse-and-buggy era.

My Inventions is Tesla's autobiographical legacy. It is essential reading for anyone seeking to penetrate the inventor's complex personality and mysterious life. Here Tesla reveals in fascinating psychological detail how a photographic memory and a runaway imagination almost fatally cursed his childhood in Yugoslavia. Here he tells us how he willfully harnessed his visions to invention, yet never outgrew many of his childhood fears and compulsions. In his own words Tesla retells the famous story of his Faustian quest for the electric motor the experts said could never be built - a quest that nearly cost him his sanity. Here, at last, readers can learn the truth about this amazing and misunderstood man of genius.

Editor's note:

Parts I through V of My Inventions were published in the Electrical Experimenter monthly magazine from February through June of 1919, with part VI following in October, 1919.

Tesla's idiosyncratic phonetic spellings have not been changed in this edition. All of the original illustrations have been reproduced, and six new illustrations have been added. Several of the original picture captions have been altered to improve accuracy or clarity. Only the promotional material with which the original editor introduced each of the six serial installments has been omitted altogether. This reflects the present editor's desire that Tesla's work be allowed to stand on its own, as it is eminently capable of doing.



Nikola Tesla wrote the six magazine articles comprising My Inventions in 1919, when he was 63 years old and well past the peak of his career. He was still a public figure, however, and his fame was solidly rooted: at age 31, four years after his 1884 emigration from Europe to the United States, he had dramatically presented to the world his polyphase alternating current system - the electrical power system today employed worldwide.1 (See p. 63 for a description.) Tesla's system made Edison's direct current system, itself inaugurated only in the early 1880's, almost obsolete by the turn of the century. These waning years of the 19th century were Tesla's most prolific period; the triumphant opening of the huge Niagara Falls polyphase hydroelectric plant in 1895 by itself would have secured his reputation, but he had long since moved into the dazzling field of "high frequency" mechanical and electrical vibrations. Tesla amazed his peers with mechanical oscillators which vibrated thousands of times a second and were capable of disintegrating steel; his electrical oscillators, unhindered by mechanical inertia, produced even more rapidly vibrating (or alternating) currents which seemed endowed with magical qualities. During the 1890's, these high frequency electrical currents became widely known as "Tesla currents."

The polyphase electric system revolutionized the way mankind used power soon after Tesla unveiled it in 1888, but the startling discovery of radio waves, announced by Heinrich Hertz in the same year, immediately overshadowed even the celebrated "battle" between Tesla's alternating and Edison's direct current systems. Hertz opened the door to wireless communication, yet before radio could become a reality, other equally stunning discoveries burst forth: electrons, x-rays, and radioactivity all entered the human vocabulary in rapid succession. The modern era of mind-boggling change, product of a spiraling world population and its ever-growing control of the lightning forces of electricity, had begun in earnest. Tesla's command of high frequency currents placed him at the forefront of late-nineteenth-century research into x-rays, diathermy, discharge lighting, robotics, and wireless - his lectures on these and other subjects were stunning successes. His work culminated with the 1899 demonstration in Chicago of an elaborate radio-controlled boat, followed in the same year by construction in Colorado of a giant experimental wireless transmitter.

Unfortunately, Tesla's unorthodox theories of wireless transmission (which he thought was more an air or earth current-conduction than a free space wave-propagation phenomenon) and his fixation on transmitting wireless power as well as messages prevented his pioneering wireless work from being formally recognized in the United States for many years. Only in 1943, (several months after his death) did the Supreme Court void Marconi's fundamental United States wireless patent because of prior work by Tesla, Oliver Lodge, and John Stone Stone2. The Court's belated reversal of quarter-century-old lower court opinions favoring Marconi's patent must rank as a landmark example of slamming the barn door after the horses had not only bolted but also died of old age: all of the patentees and patents involved in the suit had expired, and the plaintiff, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, had long since been superseded by the American-owned Radio Corporation of America. (The defendant in the case was the United States Government, which had taken control of all United States wireless technology during World War I, but had not paid the Marconi Company patent royalties.) Coming as it did in the middle of World War II, the decision was little noted, but even the Supreme Court could not have unmade Marconi's popular renown a generation after it was created.

Tesla's active wireless career foundered on the shoal of Marconi's entrepreneurial success before the twentieth century had fairly begun: Marconi's trans-Atlantic transmissions of 1901-02 were a public relations bonanza. Marconi undoubtedly utilized the best work of Tesla and others, but his system was less ambitious and less expensive than Tesla's. After 1902, Tesla was unable to raise capital to complete the giant Long Island transmitter, modeled on his 1899 Colorado test facility, that he had begun building in early 1901. He kept a toehold in wireless until World War I by licensing his potentially lucrative wireless patents, but his lack of either financing or corporate ties prevented his litigating the patents effectively. Tesla devoted most of this pre-war period to developing a simple but powerful bladeless turbine whose success he counted on to resurrect his wireless system; by the eve of the war, the Tesla turbine had excited the interest of Kaiser Wilhelm, among others. Development costs were prohibitive, however, and post-war interest never matched pre-war expectations. The war also aborted Tesla's last hope in the struggle with Marconi, an appeal in the French courts which some French experts had expected to catapult the Marconi Company from its monopoly position.3

My Inventions appeared during the time of the Versailles Peace Conference - the League of Nations was obviously much on Tesla's mind when he wrote Part VI. Tesla did not realize how timely a moment he had chosen for a review of his inventive career, but his period of creative glory was in fact past, although he continued to draw on a multitude of stored ideas. An autobiography doubtless would have been better received two decades before the war, when he was at his creative peak and his wealthy publisher friend P.F. Collier was encouraging him to make them both some money, but then he was far too busy. Tesla was convinced of his longevity, and often put off requests for the complete story of his life by saying he would get to it when he was 125 and had finished his researches. If it seems a great misfortune that his penury at half that age enforced an "early" end to his work, it is partial consolation that he used some of his free time to write about himself.

By 1919, Hugo Gernsback, publisher of the magazine Electrical Experimenter in which My Inventions appeared, had been entreating Tesla to write articles about his work for over a decade; in later years he even offered Tesla an associate editorship in hopes of getting the famous name on a magazine masthead.4 Gernsback was enthusiastic not only because he was himself a long-time Tesla admirer, but also because he knew Tesla's name remained one to conjure with: his controversial reputation would sell magazines. Tesla's various Electrical Experimenter articles were very popular and created such lasting impressions on readers that even today many people think of Gernsback whenever Tesla is mentioned. Gernsback himself is best remembered as a publisher and writer of science fiction, however, and Tesla's brief but highly visible association with him may not have enhanced the inventor's reputation in the scientific community. In the two decades following the publication of My Inventions, Tesla came increasingly to seem a visionary 'inventor without portfolio,' given to making extravagant claims to the press. Because perceptions of him have been distorted in some unfortunate ways by this public image of his twilight years, it is useful to trace the twin roots of Tesla's reputation for controversy and his peculiar relationship with the press.


Tesla was always a visionary, as My Inventions makes clear. From the time he first captured the public's attention he rarely hesitated to make bold prophecies and ambitious claims, but because his patents quickly proved among the most valuable in history, and because he was generating new inventions at a phenomenal rate, his statements seemed amazing but entirely credible. Truth was more amazing than fiction in the 1890's, and Tesla was not the only man with revolutionary dreams. Perhaps not coincidentally, the decade of the 1890's was also the heyday of "yellow journalism," and the press had a field day with inventors in general and Tesla in particular. His dazzling high frequency researches and the scientific magic shows he mounted for the millionaires with whom he socialized; his many eccentricities, exotic demeanor, command of many languages and literatures, and willingness to fantasize about the shape of the future with little or no prompting, all made him a favorite with publishers like his friends Hearst and Collier.

Tesla gradually became something less of a favorite with his peers, in part because he was a loner that most of them knew only through the wild stories in the press, and in part because he was inevitably associated with the career of the "Tesla patents" long after they became sole property of the Westinghouse Corporation. Many rival inventors became bitter when they found their progress in alternating current work blocked at all turns by Westinghouse lawyers determined to prosecute - some said persecute - every conceivable patent infringer. The Westinghouse Corporation in the 1890's was weakened by the high development costs of the polyphase system as well as by the rollercoaster economics of this period of feverish American industrialization. Only by playing its trump - the Tesla patents - for maximum effect could the corporation defeat the monopolistic ambitions of General Electric. The Westinghouse strategy was successful: the apparent strength of the patents (even before they were tested in court) induced General Electric to agree to a "cross-licensing" of patents with Westinghouse. General Electric became the senior member of the partnership, but both corporations were freed to produce a complete line of equipment while smaller competitors were frozen out. (This arrangement fell afoul of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1911, but by then the electrical duopoly which still dominates the United States market was well entrenched.) It is hard not to sympathize with the frustrations of gifted inventors like William Stanley, who, crushed in the middle of a corporate showdown, railed at the "patent pool trust," and reviled the name of Tesla.

The fact of the matter, of course, was that Tesla had very little to do with the Westinghouse Corporation after he sold his patents. He worked as a consultant in Pittsburgh for a year, and later gave court testimony when it was required of him, but he had no business sense nor any real interest in commercializing his work - he simply desired unlimited funds for new experiments like other inventors. For a time it appeared to the naive that Tesla's lucrative royalty agreement ($2.50 per motor horsepower) would give him "Rockefeller's fortune," but in 1896 Tesla became as much a pawn of the patent trust as anyone. General Electric, not in business to enrich independent inventors, made outright purchase of the Tesla patents a precondition to patent pooling, and the polyphase royalties, worth millions on paper, were signed over for $216,000. When he was questioned in court about this transaction some years later, Tesla admitted ignorance of the details of the sale - he always left such matters to his business partners!5 The powerful Tesla patents were a focus of much animosity, but Tesla himself - a perpetually abstracted man who actually seemed uncomfortable with money - was the furthest thing from a robber baron.

The public, however, rarely glimpsed the real man. In the words of Tesla's friend, science writer Kenneth Swezey, Tesla "never quite left his world, the thoughts and problems on which he was working": he often would draw sketches on tablecloths while awaiting meals, or would abruptly interrupt conversations to return to his pressing thought experiments.6 The public knew that Tesla ate in elegant restaurants, but did not realize that his obsessions about food, and his compulsion to keep up appearances, locked him into habits he could not change no matter how destitute he became: typically, he might borrow from Peter in order to pay for Paul's dinner, and was incessantly in debt. Similarly, the public was aware of Tesla's glamorous social life - and indeed the attentions of the wealthy at first helped reassure Tesla he had "arrived" - but few people understood that Tesla was a totally driven man: he tolerated the idle pursuits of the rich primarily because he needed patrons for his ambitious projects. Finally, the public read so much hyperbolic praise of Tesla at the start of his career that their perceptions - and even his perceptions - of Nikola Tesla were permanently distorted: like a gifted actor transformed by Hollywood into a star, Tesla became a victim of his public image. The impossible expectations of inventor and public alike resulted in an apparent 'credibility gap' once Tesla became unable to silence criticisms with the customary flood of new work, and those rivals who had resented his earlier success were quick to emphasize how the mighty had fallen.

Reginald Kapp, whose father Gisbert was Tesla's friend and peer, once observed that "Tesla presents an interesting study of the way in which a man's personality may both generate his intellectual achievements and set a limit to them,"7 an ironic situation common among inventors. The same passionate conviction that mesmerized millionaires, the same stubbornness that shed conventional wisdom and made Tesla a great, not just a good inventor, and the same relentless optimism that kept him bouncing back from the edge of despair also prevented him from recognizing his own errors, and ultimately drove him to invest himself most heavily exactly where he was most doomed to fail. Tesla always projected supreme self-confidence, aggravating less sanguine inventors who little suspected how this role trapped him into making ever-greater demands on himself as his fortunes faltered. Tesla had a need for recognition that My Inventions shows to be deeply rooted in childhood, and he was paradoxically capable of deploring his sensationalized press coverage one moment, and fostering it with startling predictions and promises the next. The technical press, although loath to dismiss Tesla's claims outright because of his formidable reputation, began to insist that he more concretely support them. The popular press was more forgiving, however: Tesla the controversial visionary could sell newspapers and magazines just as fast as Tesla the scientific superman ever had.


The turning point in Tesla's relations with the press came in June, 1900, with his publication of "The Problem of Increasing Human Energy."8 Tesla returned to New York in 1900 having exhausted all of his funds on his Colorado wireless researches. Hoping to attract new money for a projected "World System" of wireless power and message transmission, he arranged with his friend Robert Johnson, editor of the Century magazine, to print a lengthy article on his recent work. Johnson had been instrumental during the 1890's in introducing Tesla to millionaire investors, most of whom were predisposed to admire the inventor because of the stranglehold the "Tesla patents" had on alternating current technology. The Century article represented Tesla's first completely intentional effort to use the power of the press to raise money; to that end he studded the article with photographs of spectacular electrical discharges that still evoke wonder today, even when it is realized that the photographs are time exposures showing many different discharges. The article was as successful as Tesla could have hoped: J.P. Morgan was sufficiently impressed to invest $150,000 in Tesla's wireless system.

"The Problem of Increasing Human Energy" also aroused considerable controversy, however. Despite Robert Johnson's plea to "give us an informing article and not a metaphysical one,"9 Tesla devoted little space to concrete descriptions of his wireless work, and entire sections to expansive plans for remaking the world along scientific, energy-efficient lines. Tesla delighted in pushing his mechanistic theories of life to their logical extremes - not only was each man an automaton, but mankind as a whole obeyed the laws of physics just as surely as gas molecules obey the 'gas laws.' (At the beginning of World War I Tesla calculated with startling accuracy the duration of the war by extrapolating from previous wars according to his theories.10) Tesla's efforts to divine the future through a bold, poetic synthesis of history, philosophy, and science met the same fate as similar efforts by his near-contemporary, the free-thinking historian Henry Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams).11 Both men were labelled by a literal-minded world as, at best, eccentric, or at worst, as unfaithful to the rules of their professions. Yet today, the world actually pulses with electrical intelligence and power 'like a living organism,' much as Tesla predicted it would with his "World System." Opinion is still divided whether Adams' vision of destruction or Tesla's of salvation by technology is more plausible, but ambitious, cross-disciplinary attempts to read the future are no longer dismissed as unprofessional: the pace of technological and societal change has become so rapid that futuristic thinking may hold our only hope of keeping pace.

Tesla did not wade into the "Human Energy" controversy unaware; his letters indicate that he expected criticism of both his futuristic ideas and his "World System" claims. He was playing for high stakes - as Marconi biographer Orrin Dunlap observed, Tesla might well have become the "father of radio' in the eyes of the public instead of Marconi.12 Tesla was gambling his reputation, much as Edison had once gambled his by proclaiming in the most spectacular terms the success of his lighting system before it had even operated in the lab. Extravagant claims are often a necessary part of entrepreneurship - they attract criticism but also investors. Like Edison and Marconi, Tesla had total confidence in his untested new system, but unlike them he was not a natural entrepreneur. Marconi knew himself to be in a race to perfect radio, and predicated his every action on its advertising value. By contrast, Tesla wanted to unveil his completed "World System" one morning and have all competitors retire defeated from the field. His polyphase success had been quick and sweeping, he had easily attracted venture capital from his millionaire acquaintances, and he could invent rings around Marconi. Marconi, of course, was smart enough to surround himself with talented people, but what ultimately doomed Tesla was his own limitless ambition. Marconi wanted only to send messages, but Tesla's real purpose (disguised from J.P. Morgan, who must have looked at the Century article's pictures without reading the text) was to wirelessly electrify the entire earth, instantaneously making available to the world's remotest hamlet all the benefits of the electrical age, free for the taking! Tesla was so intent on this utopian goal that he hardly bothered to publicize his wirelessly-controlled boat, which in 1898 was years ahead of the devices of his radio and robotics competitors.

Whatever one thinks of the practicality of Tesla's plans to rhythmically 'disturb the electrical condition' of the earth, making power available everywhere, it is a pity that he was never able to fully test it, after having come tantalizingly close to completing his huge Long Island transmitter. Tesla never completely recovered from watching his favorite "child" suffer slow financial starvation. After an initial period of severe depression, he recovered the semblance of his former positivism, and recommenced inventing, but he never gave up hoping to revive his greatest project. Considering Tesla's roots in the mid-nineteenth century, this fixation on the lost opportunities of the past, which so impeded his acceptance of and by twentieth-century science, hardly seems surprising - few men can be avant-garde in successive centuries. My Inventions shows Tesla still remarkably ready, at age 63, to laugh at his own grandiose ambitions, but by the end of his long life his visionary predilections, weakness for the press, and longing to recreate past triumphs had eroded this perspective. Tesla's final years were marked by startling announcements of perpetual energy machines and ultimate weapons that apparently never existed outside of his mind, and whose workability it is therefore impossible to judge. Perhaps he thought he could use the newspapers to galvanize public attention as he once had used the Century magazine, but - never having learned the perils to amateur publicists of trying to play the press - he succeeded mainly in making himself a newspaper oddity, a colorful relic from the already distant nineteenth century. Ultimately, Tesla and the press settled into a familiar yearly ritual, wherein the inventor invited reporters to a lavish birthday dinner he could ill afford, and regaled them with schemes more visionary than those of the year before. Tesla outlived most of his contemporaries, and followed the pattern of other great inventors: old age only reinforced the stubbornness that had, in youth, enabled him to withstand the world's unanimous doubts and overturn its conventional wisdom.


It is to Tesla's youth that one must look to find the seeds of his creativity, although Tesla's most ardent admirers and detractors alike tend to focus on the imaginative flights of his old age. (Detractors cite these as the fantasies of a hopeless dreamer, while admirers regard them as the inspirations of an infallible prophet.) Fortunately, Tesla in My Inventions places particular emphasis on his youthful experiences as determinants of all that followed, and his irreplaceable and fascinating testimony has been a primary source for all Tesla biographers. However, Tesla's focus in My Inventions is primarily an interior one, and readers need some sense of the historical and geographical context of his childhood. He was born of Serbian parents in Croatia, was educated in Croatian, Austrian and Czech schools, and found his first engineering job in Hungary - many different groups have proudly claimed him for their own. His native Lika (pronounced 'Leeka'), in the Croatian republic of what is today Yugoslavia (land of the south or 'yugo' Slavs), was long part of the Austrian Empire's Military Frontier, a militarized zone that stretched a thousand miles along the empire's border with the Turkish (Ottoman) empire to the south and east. A majority of the Frontier's residents were southern Slavs - Serbs, Croats (Croh-ahts), Slovenes - and almost all of its men were life-long soldiers who might at any time be sent off to fight distant wars. The Frontier was expected to be self-supporting, but because the men had numerous army duties even in peacetime, farming often became the province of women and children. Lika, a mountainous and infertile karst region perpetually at the edge of famine (it remains today one of the poorest parts of Yugoslavia) produced some of the Frontier's toughest and most resourceful men and women.

The Frontier was hundreds of years old at Tesla's birth, and changes in warfare, as well as the wane of Turkish power, had finally made it obsolete. It was returning to civilian administration when Tesla reached draft age, and as a result Tesla saw his military obligation (never mentioned in My Inventions) reduced from sixty-four to a mere three years; Tesla in fact avoided the army altogether by enrolling in technical school. Tesla was fortunate in other ways: his father was a Serbian Orthodox priest and an educated man (the two were not necessarily synonymous at that time); his mother came from a distinguished clerical (Serbian Orthodox) family; and many maternal and paternal relatives were influential priests or military officers. Moreover, the Frontier, which had so long stagnated as an Austrian military zone, had had its horizons immensely broadened by the brief Napoleonic occupation during Tesla's grandfather's time. Europe had flowered in the centuries since the Turkish invasions had been checked, but the Frontier, trapped between East and West, had remained a complete hostage of the past until the modern army and modern ideas of Napoleonic France swept through. Although Tesla was himself born into a repressive period which immediately followed the great European revolutions of mid-century, the winds of change were not easily smothered, and the young and ambitious Tesla took advantage of them to sail away to a newer world.

In My Inventions, Tesla only alludes to most of the ancient traditions that he left so far behind. He was steeped in the heroic oral literature with which the South Slavs commemorated their almost timeless battles against Islamic invaders, and he grew up amidst one of the world's most complex geo-political situations - one such as only millennia of wars, migrations, and imperial edicts, acting on a tapestry of different cultures, races and religions, can produce. Many ancient tensions remain today - Catholic, Orthodox, or Moslem; German, Hungarian or Slav; Serb, Croat, or Albanian: each group must co-exist with the others but is hindered by memories of old conflicts and the need to retain a cultural identity. The Balkans are perched, as ever, between competing empires (although the names have changed) and Islam is once again casting a long shadow into Europe. These influences on Tesla, ignored in My Inventions, are unfortunately far too complex to be developed here, but they certainly deserve study by anyone desiring to understand Tesla's world better.

Finally, it must be observed that Tesla's interior focus in My Inventions gives the reader an incomplete picture not only of Tesla's surroundings, but also of the childhood experiences which he recognizes as being so important. Autobiographies almost by definition leave out many of the most critical parts of a person's life, parts he or she cannot see clearly or perhaps would rather forget. It is imperative for serious students of Tesla's life to give My Inventions a very close reading, and where there seem to be omissions or discrepancies, to seek out secondary sources. European writers have done some insightful detective work concerning Tesla's early li£e, but American biographers, more fascinated by Tesla's glamorous American period than his difficult formative years, have uniformly contented themselves with unimaginative digests of My Inventions. This writer's own views on the subject of Tesla's early life, developed in the biography, And In Creating, Live, will not be detailed here; Tesla should be afforded the right to tell his own story, and readers the right to form their own opinions, before extensive interpretation is entered into.


Unfortunately for the many readers already familiar with either John O'Neill's 1944 biography of Tesla, Prodigal Genius, or later biographical accounts derived from it, approaching Tesla's autobiography without preconceptions is difficult, if not impossible. O'Neill admired Tesla and had the benefit of several good sources (including Tesla's nephew Sava Kosanovich), but his book has been primarily responsible for much of the mythology that today surrounds Tesla's name. Prodigal Genius is a mixture of fact and fiction, with few footnotes and no bibliography to help the reader differentiate between the two.* Any books or articles which cite O'Neill as a source must be approached very cautiously; furthermore, the reader of My Inventions must pay particular attention to passages that seem confusing or surprising in light of what he or she may already know - O'Neill's version of events, which permeates so much of what people think they know about Tesla, could be intruding unbidden.

* O'Neill prepared a partial bibliography which was never published. A copy exists in the Smithsonian's Swezey file. (See footnote 4)

An excellent example of how a myth, once given birth, can perpetuate itself indefinitely, is the story of Tesla's "prevision" of his mother's death, told in Prodigal Genius and repeated in every American biography since.13 O'Neill was a fervent spiritualist who was convinced that Tesla had psychic powers, although Tesla himself wrote in My Inventions that he only once had an experience that he for a time thought might be "supernatural." This was a vision of his mother on a cloud full of angelic figures which came to him (p. 104) at about the time of her death. Tesla was then bedridden (not far from his mother) himself, having been overcome by the strain of lecturing in Europe, next rushing home "without an hour's rest," and finally, attending his mother's bedside during her last weeks of life. Some time after her death, when he had recovered his equilibrium, Tesla rationally explained the vision to himself (p. 105), but O'Neill apparently never accepted this explanation. When Tesla had died and could not protest, O'Neill invented another supernatural episode - the "prevision" story - and made it the centerpiece of his case for Tesla's psychic abilities.

Many of the errors in Prodigal Genius can be attributed to O'Neill's rush to get into print - he was in failing health yet was determined to publish America's first Tesla biography. In the case of the "prevision" story, however, he deliberately edited a passage of My Inventions (pp. 94-95) to make it seem that Tesla saw in advance his mother's death and the events surrounding it. Tesla actually described a "post-vision," which took place at the climax of an amnesiac episode sometime after his mother's death in 1892. (On page 94 he says the episode grew out of his exhaustion from struggling with his grounded transmitter, while on page 106 he says he only began his wireless investigations in 1893.*) Tesla's account is very clear to anyone who has not read O'Neill's version first: Tesla describes how he forgot all of his previous existence except earliest infancy, and how his memory returned only gradually, working its way forward in time. Ultimately, the peculiar nervous breakdown he was experiencing climaxed as had the previous one: Tesla underwent the tremendous "pain and distress" of witnessing his mother's death for a second time! O'Neill quotes Tesla's description of this trauma verbatim from My Inventions, but disguises his source* and deletes the one sentence that clearly placed Tesla's mother's death in the past and not the future: "I remembered how I made the long journey home without an hour of rest and how she passed away after weeks of agony!" (O'Neill poetically compressed to a single evening the six weeks separating Tesla's return home in February and his mother's death in April!14) So many writers have now repeated O'Neill's and each other's versions of this "prevision" story that Tesla's fascinating and revealing account of amnesia has been totally submerged in a sea of mystical speculation.

* Tesla's lectures and correspondence indicate that wireless was in the back of his mind in 1892, and moved to the forefront only after his mother's death. A December 17, 1934 letter to George Viereck, abstracted (with selected quotations) in the New York Public Library's Tesla collection, clearly states that Tesla's breakdown came "after evolving my system of wireless transmission of energy."

In My Inventions, Tesla mentions his exasperation at being adopted by devotees of the supernatural. He was generally very skeptical about psychic phenomena, despite his childhood exposure to the endemic superstition of Lika and his adult admiration for the British scientist and psychic researcher William Crookes. In combination with all of Tesla's misadventures with journalists (and in death, biographers) the unsought association with the supernatural had by mid-twentieth century clouded Tesla's reputation. Fortunately, however, the indefatigable educational efforts of the late Kenneth Swezey and other Tesla admirers have regained for Tesla's name the respect it once commanded."15 In 1956, the centenary of Tesla's birth, the unit of magnetic flux density in the worldwide Systeme International (meter-kilogram-second) of measurements was named in his honor. The American engineering establishment now numbers him among its greatest alumni, no small honor for a man of foreign birth. It is to be hoped that reissuing Tesla's autobiography may, in this time of renewed interest in his career, help dispel some of the lingering misconceptions that even today make Tesla the subject of sensationalist journalism and the object of cult worship. Tesla and his public both deserve much better.

* O'Neill called his source an "unpublished manuscript," probably to evade the copyright. He could get away with this deception, repeated several times in Prodigal Genius, because Hugo Gernsback's Experimenter Publishing Company, holder of the copyright, had passed into new ownership in 1929. Gernsback, a great Tesla admirer who would undoubtedly have read Prodigal Genius, must have been aware of the copyright infringement, but no longer had any financial interest in the matter.

Ben Johnston


  1. Nikola Tesla, "A New System of Alternate Current Motors and Transformers," Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Vol. 5, pp. 308-324, July, 1888.
  2. United States Reports, Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court, Vol. 320 (October Term, 1942); Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America v. United States, pp. 1-80.
  3. Emile Girardeau, "Pourquoi Nikola Tesla, Createur de la Radio-Electricite. A-t-il Ete Longtemps Meconnu?", address originally delivered in Belgrade, 1938. Reprinted in Tribute to Nikola Tesla, Belgrade. 1961.
  4. Letter, Hugo Gernsback to Tesla, May 25, 1929, Tesla Museum, Belgrade. Excerpted in Kenneth Swezey collection, Smithsonian Institution.
  5. Letter, Kenneth Swezey to Royal Lee, April 15, 1956, Smithsonian Institution.
  6. Alexander Nenadovic, "The Centenary of Tesla's Birth," Politika, Belgrade, July 8, 1956, p. 680. (Translation from Serbo-Croatian.)
  7. Letter, Reginald Kapp to Kenneth Swezey, Sept. 2, 1958, Smithsonian Institution.
  8. Nikola Tesla, "The Problem of Increasing Human Energy," Century magazine, June, 1900, pp. 175-211.
  9. Microfilm letter, Robert Johnson to Tesla, March 6, 1900, Library of Congress. (Original in Tesla Museum.)
  10. Nikola Tesla, "Science and Discovery are the Great Forces Which Will Lead to the Consummation of the War," New York Sun, Dec. 20, 1914.
  11. Henry Adams, "A Dynamic Theory of History" in The Education of Henry Adams, New York, 1918, and "The Rule of Phase Applied to History" in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, New York, 1919, among other essays.
  12. Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr., Marconi, The Man and His Wireless, New York, 1937, p. 33.
  13. John J. O'Neill. Prodigal Genius, New York, 1944, pp. 264-265.
  14. Ibid., p. 101.
  15. Kenneth Swezey, "Nikola Tesla," Science, May 16, 1958, pp. 1147-1158.
Date published:
June, 1999
8.3 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
Page count:
New Editor's