Today marks the 158th birthday of Nikola Tesla, a man so bizarre and scientifically curious that it’s easy to imagine him figuring out a method to cheat death and live to see this year, if only Thomas Edison or his suspected OCD weren’t interfering….
Tesla brought true advancements to the fields of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and talking about death ray urban legends while tipsy at parties. And although his scientific achievements are vital to the way we live today, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that what we as fans of science fiction truly laud him for is for being a wildly imaginative outsider.
Tesla was that person imagining how to build a robot during a boring family dinner. Tesla was that person reading a book in a quiet room just off of the main party. Tesla was that person who then felt obligated to read all of that author’s books.
Imagining the scientist doing this during the late 19th century/early 20th century conjures grandiose surroundings and, given the legacy he left, ascribes a larger purpose to these anti-social behaviors. But thinking back to when we did the same things? Not so much. (There’s way more stained drywall and video game posters, for one.) But we recognize intrinsically that these two approaches to life are the same behavior, and we feel that same glittering potential in ourselves that Tesla must have acted upon. That sneaking suspicion that we’re clever enough to change the world. That we can make it cooler or better; that we can single-handedly bring the future we’ve always imagined into the present day.
When seen in that context it feels eminently correct that Tesla is the celebritized scientist that he is. Sure, he was weird, and he certainly had his fair share of bullies, but he did something with that weirdness and now our world is….
Well…I’m certainly not qualified to judge whether it’s better, but it’s certainly way more interesting. So here’s to Super Nerd Nikola Tesla. Happy birthday, sir. Mind the pigeons.
This post originally appeared July 10, 2013 on Tor.com
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and couldn’t alternate a current to save his life.