Nikola Tesla’s Grades from High School & University: A Fascinating Glimpse

In the his­to­ry of sci­ence, few peo­ple got a raw­er deal than Niko­la Tes­la. Cru­el­ly cheat­ed and over­shad­owed by Edi­son and Mar­coni (who patent­ed the radio tech­nol­o­gy Tes­la invent­ed), the bril­liant intro­vert didn’t stand a chance in the cut­throat busi­ness world in which his rivals moved with ease. Every biog­ra­ph­er por­trays Tes­la as Edison’s per­fect foil: the lat­ter played the con­sum­mate show­man and savvy patent hog, where Tes­la was a reclu­sive mys­tic and, as one writer put it, “the world’s sor­cer­er.”

“Unlike Tes­la,” writes biog­ra­ph­er Michael Bur­gan, “Edi­son had bare­ly gone to school: Tes­la was amazed that a man with almost no for­mal edu­ca­tion could invent so bril­liant­ly.” (He would have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion of Edi­son years lat­er.)

Tes­la began his own edu­ca­tion, as you can learn in the sur­vey of his high school and uni­ver­si­ty grades above, with much promise, but he was forced to drop out after his third year in col­lege when his father passed away and he was left with­out the means to con­tin­ue. As PBS writes, Tes­la showed pre­co­cious tal­ent ear­ly on.

Pas­sion­ate about math­e­mat­ics and sci­ences, Tes­la had his heart set on becom­ing an engi­neer but was “con­stant­ly oppressed” by his father’s insis­tence that he enter the priest­hood. At age sev­en­teen, Tes­la con­tract­ed cholera and crafti­ly exact­ed an impor­tant con­ces­sion from his father: the old­er Tes­la promised his son that if he sur­vived, he would be allowed to attend the renowned Aus­tri­an Poly­tech­nic School at Graz.

It was dur­ing his time at tech­ni­cal school that Tes­la first devised the idea of alter­nat­ing cur­rent, though he could not yet artic­u­late a work­ing design (he was told by a pro­fes­sor that the feat would be akin to build­ing a per­pet­u­al motion machine). He solved the engi­neer­ing chal­lenge after leav­ing school and going to work for the Cen­tral Tele­phone Exchange in Budapest.

While walk­ing through a city park with a friend, recit­ing Goethe’s Faust from mem­o­ry, Tes­la recounts in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, a pas­sage inspired him “like a flash of light­en­ing” and he “drew with a stick on the sand the dia­gram shown six years lat­er in my address before the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Elec­tri­cal Engi­neers.” The sto­ry is one of many in which Tes­la, a vora­cious read­er and infi­nite­ly curi­ous auto­di­dact, draws on the exten­sive knowl­edge that he gath­ered through self-edu­ca­tion.

His patent applications—Croatian schol­ar Danko Plevnik notes in the intro­duc­tion to a series of essays on Tesla’s self-schooling—show “the eru­di­tion of a learned man, broad knowl­edge which by far sur­passed the knowl­edge he could acquire through for­mal edu­ca­tion only.” In his lec­tures, arti­cles, and speech­es, Tes­la demon­strates a “famil­iar­i­ty with phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence his­to­ry and inven­tion-relat­ed thought, method­ol­o­gy of sci­ence, as well as oth­er areas of knowl­edge that were not includ­ed in the sub­jects and cours­es he attend­ed through his school­ing.”

Not only did he mem­o­rize entire books of poet­ry, but he could accu­rate­ly fore­see the future of tech­nol­o­gy, his keen insight honed both by his stud­ies of the sci­ences and the human­i­ties. Until fair­ly recent­ly Plevnik writes, “Tesla’s edu­ca­tion was referred to spo­rad­i­cal­ly, as if it had not influ­enced his sci­en­tif­ic reflec­tion, exper­i­ment­ing and inven­tions.” That is in large part, many Tes­la schol­ars now argue, because the best edu­ca­tion Tes­la received was the one he gave him­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Elec­tric Rise and Fall of Niko­la Tes­la: As Told by Tech­noil­lu­sion­ist Mar­co Tem­pest

Niko­la Tes­la Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed the Rise of the Inter­net & Smart Phone in 1926

Elec­tric Pho­to of Niko­la Tes­la, 1899

Albert Einstein’s Grades: A Fas­ci­nat­ing Look at His Report Cards

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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