How did my obsession with Nikola Tesla begin? I remember the night well — and it was a long night! A friend had mentioned the name Nikola Tesla in passing. “Do you know who Nikola Tesla is?” I did not. I spend a lot of time with my nose in books — I was teaching a class on Shakespeare at the time — and I knew almost nothing about the history of electricity or much about the name Tesla at all, except that it had something to do with a new electric car. I went home and looked it up on the internet. And I came upon an astonishing picture — a black-and-white photograph of Nikola Tesla in his Manhattan laboratory with Mark Twain.
Surely, I thought, this photo must be fake. I knew a lot about Mark Twain. I’d never heard of him posing for photographs in the laboratory of a so-called crazy inventor. I spent that night searching for everything I could find about Nikola Tesla. It turned out the photo was not fake. Nikola Tesla was close friends with some of the most significant writers, actors, inventors, and progressives during one of the most fascinating eras in American history: The Gilded Age.
A Serbian born in what is now Croatia, Nikola Tesla was expected to become a priest or a soldier. He defied his family’s wishes. As a young man he travelled by ship to New York and would bring America, and the rest of the world, into a new age of electricity and modern technology. Nikola Tesla was an inventor, a seeker, a poet, a peacemaker, a nemesis to some, a dear friend to many. He left a voluminous archive of letters, telegrams, and correspondence. Much of his story has not been told.
That night led to months and then years of research. Along the way, I determined that I would visit every single place where Nikola Tesla had lived, worked, or studied. I scoured the archives in New York; Washington, DC; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and other cities. I took several trips to Serbia, Croatia, Austria, France, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic I was fortunate to often have the company of dedicated research assistants: my husband George Vujnovich, whose family is from the Croatian island of Sucuraj, which helped me enormously in understanding the complex culture and history of Serbia and Croatia that shaped Tesla’s youth. My sons Sean and Nathan, with their degrees in engineering, helped with understanding some of the more technical aspects of Nikola Tesla’s inventions and experiments. Research assistants, sometimes former students or grad students, have assisted with research and fact-checking along the way.
In my next blog post I will begin where Nikola Tesla himself began: in the beautiful village of Smiljian, now part of present-day Croatia, a beautiful yet war-torn hamlet where Niko discovered his love of animals and nature, and first began to dream of changing the world.