Let me talk for just a moment about the character of Tesla. Much has been written about the public persona of Nikola Tesla, usually dealing with the creation and implementation of his inventions and discoveries. They show a man of intellect, dedication and perseverance, but an over abundance of these quantities creates a picture of a somber and sober person with a single-mindedness that seems to preclude a more human side.
Much has also been speculated on the private side of Nikola Tesla. This speculation was much influenced by his fastidious dress, his formal manners and his precise writing style, Aside from the more outrageous speculations, the conclusion was usually drawn that this was an introverted and driven workaholic, without a fully developed personal side. However, put in the context of the times, dress, manners and precision in writing were really hallmarks of the decades on either side of the turn of the century. We have very few instances of verifiable anecdotes from his closest friends because such gossip rarely found its way into print. (What a change from today's celebrity bashing.) But, in context or out of context, these characterizations of Tesla's private personality have been perpetuated.
Now, over a period of time, I have thought of this and it occurred to me that I may very well have a unique insight into Tesla's private personality through a comparison with my father. The parallels in their lives far exceed the common gene pool formed by their blood relationship. (My Grandmother was Tesla's sister, Angelina.)
Except for being 30 years apart, the list of parallels is really staggering:
Lika, the Croatian county of their birth in what is now Yugoslavia, had a special status and responsibility for Serbs as it was part of the Austro-Hungarian military frontier. The Ottoman Empire's boarder was that close to Vienna, a situation that lasted for a period of hundreds of years.
Both Tesla and my father were sons of Serbian Orthodox priests and that's a very severe and demanding faith. (I don't know if anybody here is Serbian Orthodox, I'd like to say that I'm Episcopal for that very good reason.)
Both received a technical education far from home, which was necessary in those days. There was no higher education readily available in the provinces. You had to go, as in my fathers case, to Budapest.
Both became engineers and worked for similar lengths of time for the Budapest Telephone System.
Doth emigrated to the United States at 28 years of age.
And, as inventors, made their most important inventions in their middle to late thirties.
Both exhibited qualities of dedication and patience and modesty and a philosophical turn of mind.
Both were strong and vigorous and died at the age of eighty seven. But, both suffered from a certain naivete, particularly in business. Both acquired, but let slip from their hands, a considerable fortune.
Now, I knew my father pretty well, even better from the perspective of the years since his passing And 1 see a human being with human qualities and frailties, and it seems reasonable to attribute to Tesla some measure of these same qualities and frailties.
This brings me to an unexpected point. My father had a sense of humor and therefore, Tesla must have had a sense of humor that has been overlooked in the myth of his private self. (There certainly aren't any books that are titled "Favorite Jokes of Nikola Tesla".)
My father was a story teller, and usually was recalling things that happened when he was a boy. I heard them all dozens of times. I can't repeat them because they'd lose their essence in his way of telling them but my father could never finish these stories without collapsing in laughter. He would get into the memory of some story and would just get helpless with laughter. We all knew what the end of it was and he'd struggle through ultimately. It was an infectious laugh and we didn't mind the same old stories. I still remember them clearly.
And so, in closing, I just want to say that I've taken a long way around, and had a chance to remember my father. But the next time that you think of Nikola Tesla, that discoverer of great concepts, think of him convulsed in gales of laughter, trying to tell some boyhood yarn.
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