Nikola Tesla: One of the world’s most influential mad scientists

Tesla was undoubtedly one of the most ingenious inventors the world has ever known. He is best known for his designs and contributions to the modern alternating current electricity system. He created the Tesla coil, which is used in radio today, and was a pioneer in the discovery of radar technology, X-Ray, and remote control. He is also considered by many to have been a stereotype of the ‘mad scientist’, and many suspect that some of his eccentricities were due to the fact that he likely suffered from OCD.

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in what is now Croatia. Mental illness very clearly ran in Tesla’s family. His father would often talk to himself, and reportedly got into furious arguments with himself. His brother also displayed traits of mental illness, reportedly experiencing hallucinations. His brother would suffer an early death however when he was trampled by the family horse, an event Nikola sadly witnessed.

Despite experiencing hallucinations himself after witnessing his brother’s death, his genius and creativity outshone any mental illness, at least in his youth. He showed brilliance from a very young age, and by the time he went to university he was challenging his professors and improving on their theories and inventions. He famously challenged Thomas Edison after he left university and went to work for him, proposing and designing a different model to Direct Current (alternating current) to make the transfer of electricity more efficient and safer.

However, even early on he showed some very obsessive personality traits. He was known for working all hours of the day and night with only a couple of hours of sleep. Some of his professors during his university days grew so worried about him that they wrote home to his parents, expressing concern for his health.

It is unclear as to whether the stress of his notoriously strained relationship with Edison exacerbated his underlying mental health problems, but what is clear is that as he grew older they became more noticeable and more severe. One of his most obvious obsessions was his fixation with the number 3, and all numbers divisible by 3. He would walk around a city block 3 times before entering a building, work out the cubic root of his meal before eating it as well as stack 18 napkins before eating. If he stayed in a hotel he would only stay in a room in which the number was divisible by three. He also had an intense phobia of germs. He would refuse to shake hands with people and hated touching human hair. He had a fear of round objects, especially jewellery. It was said that the sight of a woman wearing earrings would make him feel physically sick.

For most of his life his genius clearly outweighed his struggles; aspects of his obsessive personality such as his focus, his ability to so clearly visualise what he was trying to make clearly benefited his career as an inventor. By his death in 1943 he had hundreds of patents to his name, and had helped to push science into the modern age.