Nikola Tesla had one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. He developed the alternating current system as well as the Tesla coil and made some absolutely incredible advances in early wireless communication.
That mind, though, was also plagued with madness. Tesla has been called eccentric, but that hardly scratches the surface of his problems. He was, by all modern definitions, cripplingly mentally ill. Behind his genius was a man who struggled through intense delusions and compulsive behavior, a man tormented by his own mind.
10 He Had A Family History Of Mental Illness
Tesla was born into a family filled with mental instability. His memoirs leave almost no question that both his father and his brother were mentally ill.
Tesla’s father liked to talk to himself. He would get caught up in furious arguments with himself, the tone of his voice changing as he argued, acting out different characters yelling at one another.
Tesla’s brother suffered from hallucinations, but his life was short-lived. One day, Tesla’s father was attacked by wolves, and his horse threw him off and ran home. Both his sons were waiting there, and Nikola watched in horror as his brother was trampled under the feet of the family’s stampeding horse.
9 He Suffered From Regular Hallucinations
Shortly after seeing his brother die, Tesla started to experience hallucinations. He would see spontaneous flashes of blinding light, which he likened to “the air around me filled with tongues of living flame.” When someone mentioned an object, it would appear before Tesla’s eyes so vividly that he couldn’t tell if it was real or imagined. He would often become frustrated during conversations, distracted by the struggle to tell if what he was seeing was real or imaginary.
The hallucinations only got worse as his life went on. They were, however, also the key to his brilliance. The flashes of light were often accompanied by images he’d never imagined before. One of the images that appeared before him was the design for the alternating current motor, which he quickly sketched into the sand with a stick to ensure he remembered it.
8 He Claimed To Receive Messages From Aliens
While testing a device, Tesla picked up a strange signal from outer space. It seemed to be a repeating pattern, almost like someone was counting, and he was convinced it was traveling between Venus and Mars.
He first tried to explain it unsensational terms, but he began to let himself believe that he’d made alien contact. “The feeling is constantly growing on me,” Tesla wrote, “that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.” By 1900, he’d accepted his own conclusion. In a letter to the Red Cross, he wrote, “We have a message from another world, unknown and remote. It reads: one . . . two . . . three . . . ”
Tesla’s claim was, of course, controversial. Many believed that the mad scientist had finally gone completely out of his mind. Years later, though, he was vindicated. It was found that Tesla had indeed received a signal from space. He’d picked up a lighting storm on Jupiter.
7 He Never Slept For More Than Two Hours
Tesla claimed that he would never sleep for more than two hours in a day, and legends have it that he once worked 84 hours straight without a second of rest. He would often stay up all night, lighting up his laboratory with experiments and strange sounds that kept his neighborhood awake. It got to the point that the police were used to getting concerned calls about Tesla.
His lab assistants, though, dispute that he only slept for two hours a day. They reported that he made it through a day with scattered power naps—still sleeping far less than healthy, but at least a bit more than two hours.
He got extra rest, too, through pure exhaustion. Reportedly, Tesla would sometimes collapse in the middle of his work and fall asleep, his body too tired to go on.
6 He Had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Tesla had some strange habits, and they became worse as time went on. He had a few rituals he would insist upon.
Before eating, Tesla would calculate his dinner’s exact cubic volume. He claimed it was a ritual he’d picked up during childhood and couldn’t shake. He would also stack exactly 18 napkins in a pile before he touched his food. It had to be exactly 18—because 18 is divisible by three.
Tesla did everything in threes. He was often overcome by a compulsion to walk around the block three times, and he would count his steps while he did it. When he stayed in hotels, he insisted on a room number that could be divided by three and demanded that 18 towels be delivered each morning.
Some of the maids would ask him why he needed 18. Tesla would just go silent and not say a word.
5 He Was Afraid Of Touching People
Tesla had an intense fear of germs that controlled every part of his life.
He felt incredibly uncomfortable making physical contact with other human beings. He felt flat-out revulsion if he touched someone’s hair and would feel sick if he saw someone wearing earrings. He wore gloves so he wouldn’t make skin-on-skin contact when shaking hands. If he couldn’t avoid such contact, he’d immediately rush off to wash his hands.
Tesla blamed his work in the lab. He’d spent some time looking at the microscopic creatures living in his drinking water and became deeply unnerved. “If you would only watch for a few minutes the horrible creatures,” he wrote about the experience, “you would never again drink a drop of unboiled or unsterilized water.”
4 He Was Too Afraid To Marry A Woman
A popular piece of trivia states that Tesla believed his genius came from never having sex. Tesla started the story himself. “I do not believe an inventor should marry,” he told a reporter, explaining that a woman would take up too much of his attentions, which were better dedicated to science.
Tesla said it—but he probably didn’t believe it. He died unmarried, having never made love, but it might not have been entirely by choice. He caught the attention of his share of women. He even had a burgeoning romance with a French actress, who gave him a handkerchief that he carried with him his whole life. Tesla, however, never made his move.
Later in life, he’d talk about his bachelorhood in different terms. He said he’d made “too great a sacrifice” in not marrying. When he was young, he had put women “on a lofty pedestal” that made him feel unworthy of them. He now longer saw his chastity as the source of his genius but simply a fear of women that had cost him the joys of life.
3 He Thought Drinking Whiskey Would Let Him Live To 150
Not a day went by without a glass of whiskey making its way to Tesla’s hands. He wasn’t just an alcoholic; he was convinced he’d found the secret to health.
Tesla came from a line of men who drank heavily and lived long lives, and he was convinced that there was a correlation. Following the great family tradition, he drank heavily, claiming it gave him bursts of energy and kept him alive.
When the US entered prohibition, he had no way to get his hands on his elixir of life. He didn’t take it happily. Tesla cursed the government for robbing him of liquor—and said that they’d shortened his life span to a mere 130 years.
2 He Paid A Hotel Bill With A ‘Death Beam’
By the 1930s, Tesla’s fortunes had turned for the worse. A few rough deals and rougher business partners had left him on the edge of bankruptcy, and he began to live by passing through hotels.
One morning, after a stay in the Governor Clinton Hotel, a clerk came for Tesla’s bill, and he realized that he didn’t have the money. Instead, he handed them a box. It contained a death beam, he told them, and it was worth $ 10,000.
“Be careful,” he warned them. “It will detonate if it is opened by an unauthorized person.” The hotel took the box, either because they believed it was valuable or because they didn’t want to argue with a man who went around carrying a death beam.
In 1943, after Tesla had died and World War II had reached its height, the FBI seized all of his assets and sent a team in to gather the death beam. They very carefully opened the box, dreading what would come . . .
Inside was nothing more than a spare, standard electrical part.
1 He Fell In Love With A Pigeon
In his final years, Tesla spent his time feeding pigeons. One in particular caught his eye. She was, in his words, “a beautiful bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings.”
The pigeon would follow Tesla around and come when he called. One time, when the pigeon was ill, he spent days in bed with her, nursing her back to health. He believed he and the pigeon understood each other. “I loved that pigeon,” he told a friend. “I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me.”
A day came, though, when the pigeon flew to Tesla’s window with terrible news. Tesla knew that she was trying to tell him that she would die. Beams of light shot out of her eyes, he claimed, and then life escaped her.
Tesla had completely lost his mind. In his final days, he was an old madman, love-starved and alone, getting through on the joys of a hallucinated love affair with a pigeon. He died shortly after. He was found by a maid, in his hotel room, completely alone.
+ Further Reading
Tesla was a fascinating man with an equally fascinating and unusual life. Here are some more articles about him from the Listverse Archives: