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The Human Side of Nikola Tesla: A Physicist’s Perspective

Science and, more importantly, the scientific method is a system based on techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.

While the scientific process relies on empirical data in drawing conclusions, there is one thing that science nonetheless must always rely upon: its dependence on human formulation, and interpretation of the resulting data.

I recently had the pleasure of being able to speak with Arthur W. Wiggins, who held the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Physics at Oakland Community College in Michigan. Wiggins, along with his coauthor Charles M. Wynn Sr. Wynn, have written a number of books that include titles like The Joy of Physics, and, more recently, their new book The Human Side of Science: Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and Other Personal Stories behind Science’s Big Ideas.

Of our many mutual interests as far as the “big names” of science go, Wiggins and I spent some time discussing the life and work of Nikola Tesla. Our discussion ranged from aspects of Tesla’s early life, to the famous disappearance of years of collected secret files and notes, after their acquisition by the U.S. Office of Alien Property.

“Tesla is a guy I’ve studied for a long time,” Wiggins told me. “He had an older brother that Tesla’s parents actually figured would turn out to be the ‘brains’ of the family. So he was kind of in his older brother’s shadow, but when his older brother became a teenager, there was some kind of an accident, which has not ever been made entirely clear. His brother died, and Nikola, as well as his parents, seemed to have the notion that Nikola may have been somehow responsible.”

According to the vague details available, the story of Dane Tesla’s demise seems to go something like this: at age 12, he died after falling from a horse which, according to the family, the younger Tesla had accidentally spooked, causing it to throw Dane from its back.

“All of his life, he felt that he had to try harder, because his brother was no longer alive. Oh my gosh, did he ever try harder,” Wiggins said.

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“Of course, Tesla did some fascinating things,” Wiggins notes. “But early on, he got sort of tangled up in technology.” Tesla first began working in Europe for the Edison Company, and eventually emigrated to the United States where, upon meeting Edison in person, the two embarked upon a famous deal that would go very sour.

“Tesla was a very good trouble-shooter,” Wiggins recalled. “He was tasked by Edison with fixing a particular problem,” which involved redesigning Edison’s then somewhat less than resourceful DC motors. Edison had proclaimed that he would pay Tesla $50,000, a sizable fortune for that day, if Tesla could achieve this. Needless to say, Tesla prevailed, though upon reporting to Edison with his completed task, Edison balked telling the brilliant Serbian that he “didn’t understand our American humor,” and reneged on the promise. Thus began a long and contentious relationship between the two inventors.

“Tesla had nothing nice to say about Edison,” Wiggins told me. At the end of Edison’s life, Tesla had been one of the few to offer an unfavorable eulogy on the man, writing the following:

“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene… His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”

Within a few years of Edison’s passing, Tesla’s own life was drawing to a close. Broke, eccentric, and badly in debt, Tesla was living on credit at the New York Hotel at the time he died, which coincided with the controversial acquisition of his papers by the U.S. Department of Alien Property. For decades, theories have been offered as to what kinds of innovations Tesla might have kept in these documents, as well as whether the U.S. Army, the FBI, or other agencies might have used the information within for development of secret programs and weapons based on Tesla technologies.

“That’s a fascinating story, and there have been a lot of people after those files.” However, as far as a secret cache of files being spirited away by the U.S. government, Wiggins thinks otherwise.

“One of the difficulties was that it isn’t really obvious that he had many files. He had a couple of calamities in which things really went south on him financially. He also had suffered fires that resulted in destruction of his lab in Colorado Springs, and he felt like he was getting gypped in many ways, and kept an awful lot of his information in his head.

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“Of course, that sort of calls into question what sort of documents they did get,” Wiggins told me. My suspicion is — and this is just based on a lot of reading and it’s a guess — is that he probably didn’t leave documents about the critical things he was thinking about. Instead, he probably left documents that were more like receipts, bills, correspondences, and things of that nature.

“My suspicion is that whatever documents they got were probably trivial,” Wiggins concludes. “The results of that are that whatever thoughts he had, he probably took with him.”

While we may never know the full extent of the plans and designs the aging Tesla had envisioned toward the end of his life, his numerous achievements continue to fascinate, and inspire, the devoted fans of his life and work.

For more on Wiggin’s views about Tesla and his work, as well as other famous scientists to have come and gone, check out his latest book with coauthor Charles Wynn, The Human Side of Science: Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and Other Personal Stories behind Science’s Big Ideas (Prometheus, 2016).

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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