Nikola Tesla - a pure genius and ultimate humanitarian

Gordana Vunjak-Novaković; Professor, Columbia University, City of New York; Member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, USA

Nikola Tesla has been a part of my life since I was a little girl. He was born to a Serbian family in Lika, the Military Frontier where Serbs have lived for many centuries, the very same area my father’s family comes from; the two families are even distantly related. Every day, I would look at one of the most beautiful monuments to Nikola Tesla, in front of the School of Engineering in Belgrade, where I studied and later worked. Another bust of Tesla is due to be erected in front of the Saint Sava Church in downtown Belgrade, the largest Orthodox church in the world. Now in New York, I often see the Nikola Tesla Corner, at his last residence at Bryant Park. Needless to say, I have many books about him and his legacy. And most recently I was delighted to join the “Tesla Village”, a virtual town of 33,000 people from all around the world who joined forces to save Tesla’s last laboratory and build the Tesla museum.

Shortly after I came to Columbia University, there was a symposium celebrating his contributions to our civilization, on the 150th anniversary of his birth. His bust is also in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering where I now work. Columbia University is the place where Tesla presented, in May 1888, one of the most significant lectures in the history of science, describing the rotating magnetic field that is at the heart of alternating current motors and today’s use of electrical energy. The impact of this discovery was transformative – through harnessing the power of the Great Falls of Niagara and into the era of light and power.
Within just two years, Tesla developed the first neon and fluorescent illumination – fifty years before these came to use, took the first x-ray photographs, and illuminated a vacuum tube wirelessly – marking the beginning of his lifelong obsession - the wireless transmission of energy. As Charles F Scott said: “The evolution of electrical power from the discovery of Faraday to the initial great installation of the Tesla polyphase system in 1896 is undoubtedly the most tremendous event in all engineering history.” LaGuardia said it in just a few words: “Should Tesla’s work be suddenly withdrawn, we would slump into darkness”.

We know that Tesla – the patron saint of electricity - was very tall (6’6”), handsome and well dressed, and ascetic. He was grateful for his creativeness to both his parents - his mother Djuka (“able to make three knots on an eyelash”) and his Serbian priest father. He was imaginative without being bound to what existed or seemed to be possible, passionate about discovery, and fanatic about work. He had many unusual talents: spoke 8 languages, could memorize an entire book, and visualize complete devices in his head and build them without making a drawing. A story says that he drew a diagram of the AC motor in the sand with a stick, while reciting Goethe's Faust. He was a pure and natural genius and a true humanitarian – at the level of greatness that goes beyond caring for money or recognition. He generously allowed Westinghouse to renegotiate a patent deal that enabled the financially strapped company to establish the electricity standard we have today.
I was recently asked to speak for the Harlem Biospace, a technology incubator in New York City, about what an entrepreneur can learn from Tesla’s legacy. This was quite a challenge, as Tesla was the principal architect of the modern age without being an entrepreneur like Edison or Westinghouse who commercialized his timeless discoveries. Going back to the topic of the Harlem Biospace lecture, I thought of the following lessons we could learn from Tesla.
Dreaming big and never giving up. Tesla was destined to become a priest, but found a way to become an engineer and focus on discovery. He survived cholera, bankruptcy, the loss of two of his laboratories and a lot of hardship without ever abandoning his dream.
Inventing a better world. He spent life working tirelessly and making big leaps in science and engineering towards a new and better world, without any material gain for himself.

Learning what is special about yourself. Early on, Tesla observed that he could visualize with the greatest ease even the most complex things. He could build new machines without models, drawings or experiments, just from the pictures in his mind.

Working for the humankind. Tesla said: “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through a human heart like that felt by inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything…”.

Tesla showed that being a great entrepreneur — one who commercialized a critical standard that powers innovation 125 years later — isn’t necessarily about the money. He acted as a quintessential engineer and humanist, by finding ways to utilize the resources of the planet to the benefit of humankind.

Article from the book: "The essential Nikola Tesla: peacebuilding endeavor"

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