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