Tesla around 1890. Image: Wikipedia
Over the past decade, the influential scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla has enjoyed an enormous popular resurgence. His life story has inspired a popular puff piece from the Oatmeal, the funniest Drunk History episode ever, and David Bowie's surprise role as the Serbian genius in The Prestige. He has become a staple of popular culture, and the Tesla Memorial Society is well on its way to establishing July 10, his birthday, as Nikola Tesla Day.
This twenty-first century wave of Tesla love is incredibly validating, and not just because it has restored his place in history as one of the most influential thinkers of all time. It's also poignant given Tesla's sad downward spiral in his later years, ending with his death in 1943—he passed away alone and bankrupt, and his work slipped into relative obscurity for decades. The same phenomenon is currently taking place with mathematician Alan Turing, whose final years were even more demonstrably tragic than Tesla's and whose contributions were similarly influential.
But unlike Turing, Tesla had some pretty glaring scuff marks on his scientific body of work. (I defy you to find anything negative about Turing; the guy was eerily perfect.) So, while Tesla's delayed deification is gratifying—and I am as guilty of propagating it as anyone—there's really nothing more fun than taking a fan favorite down a few pegs.
And what better way to knock Tesla off his pedestal than by thrusting his belief in eugenics into the spotlight? Oh, it was the 1930s, you might say. Eugenics was all the rage back then. But anyone who defends Tesla with the "historical context" angle has never read what he actually said about the subject.
"The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established," Tesla wrote in Liberty magazine's February 1935 issue, as part of an article in which he predicted the future. "In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit."
A scan of Tesla's 1935 Liberty story. Image: Hello-Earth.com
The most disturbing part of this quotation is clearly Tesla's use of phrases like "less desirable strains" and his clear disgust over this deplorable "new sense of pity." But his ideas also betray muddy thinking about natural selection on a scientific level. Tesla is making the common mistake of equating "survival of the fittest" to survival of individuals that deserve to pass on their genes, that somehow earned the right to reproduce.
But as any evolutionary biologist knows, "selection" isn't nearly as active a process as the word suggests. "Fittest" is partly a matter of luck; when a new niche opens up, whatever organism has the best mix of attributes to exploit that environment will, over time, be more successful than others. The dinosaurs were a fit group of clades for millions of years, but chuck a space rock at them and suddenly birds and mammals are better equipped for the times.
Unfortunately, Tesla's reasoning only deteriorates further from there. "The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct," he wrote. "Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult."
"Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny," he continued. "A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal."
What does "desirable" mean? Who is "eugenically unfit"? The fact that Tesla singles out "the insane" also demonstrates a massive self-awareness fail on his part. Here we have a man who compulsively squished his toes 100 times per night, calculated the cubic volume of every meal he ate, and fell madly in love with a pigeon. He was the exact archetype of the mad scientist, and could easily have fallen under the category of "the insane," as he broadly described.
Though his inexplicable support for eugenics was by far Tesla's biggest blind spot, it wasn't his only one. He thought stimulants like coffee and tea were "poison" and would be phased out by the year 2000, but in the same paragraph praises alcohol as "a veritable elixir of life."
And while he was definitely screwed over financially by Thomas Edison in his early career, Tesla's later money problems were his own doing. And let's not get into his claims that he made an earthquake machine that almost leveled his laboratory.
There's no question that Tesla's bad ideas were vastly outnumbered by his brilliant ones, and he does deserve all the posthumous fandom he's receiving. But it wouldn't be fair to let Nikola Tesla Day pass by without giving him a few birthday bumps first.