10 Electrifying Facts About Nikola Tesla

By Napoleon Sarony - postcard (radiographics.rsna.org), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nikola Tesla, who was born on this day in 1856, has long been a fascinating and enigmatic figure. While his contributions to science went underappreciated for years, his work is finally being recognized, and the compelling details of his personal life keep interest in him alive. Here are a few highlights from his intriguing life.

1. HE HAD A TREMENDOUS TALENT FOR VISUALIZING INVENTIONS—BUT WAS ALSO PRONE TO OTHER STRANGE VISIONS.

Tesla was able to visualize objects, including inventions he was building, in his head, down to the minutest detail. His method of working was pretty unorthodox compared to other inventors, as he rarely created sketches or drawings, relying instead on the power of his own imagination to work out details. Beginning in early childhood, Tesla experienced flashes of light, which were sometimes followed by inspiration or solutions to problems. These visions could sometimes take on the character of a spiritual experience, but Tesla, a man of science, discounted any such interpretation, valuing them only for their scientific benefit. 

2. HE PIONEERED MANY SIGNIFICANT MODERN INVENTIONS BEYOND ALTERNATING CURRENT.

For many, Tesla is associated with the “War of the Currents”—waged with onetime employer and later rival Thomas Edison—over the form of electricity that would become standard. Edison championed direct current, or DC, while Tesla and ally George Westinghouse fought for alternating current, or AC. AC, of course, eventually won out over DC, despite Edison’s attempts to malign Tesla’s invention by pushing the electric chair as a method of execution to show how dangerous AC was. However, Tesla also conducted pioneering work in electric light, electric motors, radio, x-ray, remote control, radar, wireless communications, and robotics, and created his famous transformer, the Tesla coil. Tesla was in many cases not properly recognized for his contributions, with other inventors receiving credit for improving on what he began. He obtained around 300 patents in his lifetime.

3. HE HAD EXTREMELY REGULAR, EVEN OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE, HABITS, AND WAS A GERMAPHOBE.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Throughout his life, Tesla displayed a formidable work ethic, keeping a regimented schedule. Some claim he slept only two hours a night. He often took his dinner at the same table at Delmonico’s in New York, and later at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. He had an all-consuming fear of germs and required a stack of 18 napkins. He was obsessed with the number three, and was prone to carrying out compulsive rituals related to three. When he was young, he would develop a fit at the sight of pearls, and couldn’t bear to touch hair.

4. HE CLAIMED TO HAVE NEARLY CREATED AN EARTHQUAKE IN MANHATTAN.

Tesla’s electro-mechanical oscillator, a steam-powered electrical generator, was developed as a possible replacement for inefficient steam engines used to turn generators, but couldn't compete with steam turbines. Tesla reportedly regaled friends with a tale in which his experiments with the oscillator at his lab at 46 East Houston Street in Manhattan set off vibrations that generated a resonance in several neighboring buildings, shaking the ground and prompting calls to police. When the machine began oscillating at the resonance frequency of his own building, Tesla surmised that he was in danger of creating an earthquake, and allegedly smashed the device with a sledgehammer. The claims—which earned the machine the nickname “Tesla’s Earthquake Machine”—were later debunked by Mythbusters (the team felt vibrations from hundreds of feet away using a re-creation of Tesla's machine, but didn't create any earthquakes).

5. HE ELECTRIFIED BUTTERFLIES AND BLEW OUT POWER STATIONS IN COLORADO.

Tesla moved his operations near Colorado Springs in 1899 in order to take advantage of the great amount of space available for experimentation and the free supply of AC power he had been offered there by the El Paso Power Company—and because he believed the thin atmosphere might be conducive to his goal of wireless power transmission. Experiments in a lab with an 80-foot tower, 142-foot metal mast, and enormous Tesla coil formed massive bolts of artificial lightning that supposedly created thunder and errant sparks 15 miles away, surprising people and frightening horses, and surrounding butterflies with halos of St. Elmo’s fire. The bolts also blew out dynamos at a local power company and caused a blackout. It’s not clear if Tesla succeeded in the wireless transmission of power, however.

6. HE WAS A SNAPPY DRESSER AND ATTRACTED THE LADIES.

By all accounts, Tesla was a striking individual. At 6 foot 2 and just over 140 pounds, he was very tall and slender, with dark, deep-set eyes. He was also a fashionable and fastidious dresser, and while he could be reclusive while deeply engaged in work, he was fascinating company when he felt like being social. Not only did he attract the friendship of famous people like Mark Twain, but he also drew the attentions of women, some of whom confessed to being “madly in love” with him. Much of Tesla’s personal life remains a mystery, however, and he never married.

7. HE DIDN’T REALLY SIT IN A ROOM SURROUNDED BY LIGHTNING BOLTS.

That famous photo of Tesla sitting on a chair in his laboratory and calmly examining his notes while tremendous bolts of lightning flash around him was likely the result of a double exposure. Yet the image, taken at his Colorado lab and used as publicity to generate capital for new projects, captures the public’s fascination with a scientist whose prowess made him seem a magician to many. 

8. HE WANTED TO ILLUMINATE THE ENTIRE EARTH, LITERALLY.

Tesla believed that his work had the potential to light the Earth’s atmosphere, banishing darkness and bringing in a new era of light. He theorized that gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere were capable of carrying high-frequency electrical currents, and successful transmission of such currents there could create a “terrestrial night light” that would make shipping lanes and airports safer and illuminate whole cities. But like most of Tesla’s loftier aims, this goal was never realized, and its possibility remains unproven. 

9. THE SECRET PURPOSE OF HIS GIANT TOWER ON LONG ISLAND WAS THE WIRELESS TRANSMISSION OF POWER.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As the 20th century arrived, Tesla was locked in a race with Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to be the first to transmit messages across the Atlantic Ocean. Tesla began securing funding, much of it coming from financier J.P. Morgan, to build a wireless transmission station on Long Island with a massive, 186-foot tower. The station would be called Wardenclyffe. Tesla, however, had his own agenda. He wanted to use Wardenclyffe to fulfill his long-held dream of transmitting electricity wirelessly. When Marconi beat Tesla to the punch in 1901, transmitting the letter s across the Atlantic with much more modest equipment, Tesla was forced to reveal his ulterior motives to Morgan and to beg for additional funding to complete his tower. Morgan, however, indicated that he was no longer interested in the project and pulled his support. This move, along with other factors, would ultimately spell the project’s doom. 

10. WARDENCLYFFE IS BEING TURNED INTO A MUSEUM.

Wardenclyffe fell into disrepair after the collapse of Tesla’s ambitions there and destruction of its tower in 1917. The main building, designed by architect Stanford White, remained and was alternately left abandoned or used for industrial purposes. Nonprofit group The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe began a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012 with the goal of buying the property, and closed the deal in 2013. A plan is underway to convert the site into a Tesla museum and science education center, with work ongoing. The site is not yet open to the public, but visitors are allowed for special events, like Tesla’s birthday celebration in July. 

10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that in 2016 Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. To celebrated the film's 15th anniversary, here are some facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. Deb is based on Jerusha Hess.

Jared Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.'"

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. "The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before."

2. Napoleon's famous dance scene was the result of having extra film stock.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.”

Heder told HuffPost he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt "pressure" to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. Napoleon Dynamitefans still flock to Preston, Idaho to tour the movie's locations.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. Idaho adopted a resolution commending the filmmakers.

'Napoleon Dynamite' filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess
Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. Napoleon was a different kind of nerd.

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told HuffPost. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. The title sequence featured several different sets of hands..

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. Napoleon Dynamite messed up Netflix's algorithms.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. Napoleon accidentally got a bad perm.


© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LaFawnduh's real-life family starred in the film.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A short-lived animated series acted as a sequel.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

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