inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


The Cult of Nikola Tesla

Popular culture tends to endow Nikola Tesla with almost godlike powers. Today we separate Tesla fact from Tesla fiction.

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He lived from 1856 to 1943, and is credited with giving us alternating current, the electric induction motor, and a host of other miraculous and unprecedented technologies.

Tesla invented alternating current, the technology that runs the world.

No he didn't. Even before Tesla was born, other European inventors had built experimental generators and AC distribution grids. Tesla was the one who brought it to the United States, refined it, and patented it.

Tesla invented the electric induction motor, the same basic design that's now the standard worldwide.

He may have developed the idea independently, but Galileo Ferraris built a working prototype two years before him. Again, Tesla was the one who patented the design in the United States. When Westinghouse bought it from him, they'd already bought at least two other similar patents from other inventors.

He used to sit in his lab, surrounded by lightning bolts, because he knew how to master them.

No. This photograph is a double exposure, made by Century Magazines for publicity in 1899. Tesla probably knew better than anyone how dangerous it would have been to actually do this.

His greatest invention was free electricity distribution to everyone around the globe, but since his investors couldn't figure out how to charge the customers they stopped funding it.

This is true, but note that his idea was only a distribution system; the electricity would still have to be generated . It was not free energy. And we now know that his system would have never worked efficiently enough to be useful.

The government raided his apartment when he died and confiscated all his notes, for national security reasons.

Yeah, they did. We were at war with Germany, and desperately needed to know whether his dubious claims of a death ray were true. Unfortunately nothing like it was ever found.

Tesla was a true genius, private, eccentric, possessed of extraordinary memory and bizarre habits, and with a headlong descent into mental illness during his later years. It's turned him into one of the cult figures of our day. At least as much fiction as fact have swirled around him, as his name has been hijacked more than any other figure. If you want to truly appreciate how awesome Tesla was, then your very first step should be to know what he did, rather than to wrongly sensationalize him.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Cheney, M., Uth, R. Tesla: Master of Lightning. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1999. 87-95.

Childress, D. The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla. Chicago: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1993. 249.

O'Neill, J. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. New York: I. Washburn, Inc., 1944.

PBS. "The Missing Papers." Tesla - Life and Legacy. Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 24 Jan. 2001. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <>

Tesla, N. Colorado Springs Notes. Beograd: Nolit, 1978. 333.

Villarejo-Galende A., Herrero-San Martin A. "Nikola Tesla: Flashes of Inspiration." Revista de Neurologia. 16 Jan. 2013, Volume 56, Number 2: 109-114.


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