After emigrating from Croatia in 1884, Nikola Tesla, inventor of alternating current, the rotating magnetic field, and the Tesla coil, lived most of his life in New York City hotel rooms, often forced to vacate due to his habit of keeping wild pigeons in his quarters. He died while living at the Hotel New Yorker, then the city’s tallest building, and a widely believed legend claims that Tesla fell to his death while reaching for the white pigeons that he referred to as his wife. The truth is more banal: Tesla died 1943, of a blood clot, at the age of 86.
But it’s true that Tesla’s eccentricity played a huge part in his legend. It is also true he was as much of a writer as he was an innovator, authoring an autobiography (in which he recalls “Of all things I liked books best”) and numerous papers with memorable titles like: Soldiers Ills Cured by Electricity, Will Man Freeze the Earth to Death? and the immortal Tesla Would Pour Lightning from Airships to Consume Foe, in which he predicted nuclear weapons, soberly decrying them as “without reason or excuse; a horror greater than a thousand infernos.”
Given his longevity, bookishness, and outstanding oddness, it’s not terribly surprising that one of Tesla’s few friends was the writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, alias Mark Twain.
Having met at a New York social club to which both men belonged, Mark Twain credited Tesla with curing his debilitating constipating with an oscillator that vibrated his bowels until he narrowly made it to the restroom in time to experience his remedy. In 1895, when the controversy over Tesla’s alternating current and his longtime rival Thomas Edison’s direct current—the so-called War of Currents—raged across the scientific community, Twain repaid Tesla by volunteering to use his body as a conductor, which brought more visibility to Tesla’s cause (not to be outshone, Edison demonstrated the supposed dangers of alternating current by electrocuting an elephant, though not until 10 years later, well after the War of Currents had run its course).
One of the strangest effects of the friendship between Twain and Tesla was the accidental discovery of x-rays, though Tesla didn’t know it at the time. After examining a photograph of he and Twain that had been lit by a device known as a Crookes tube, he noticed splotches that he took to be a flaw in the development process.
Weeks later, with the discovery of “X-radiation” by scientist Wilhelm Röntigen, Tesla realized what he was seeing was the x-rays of the camera itself. Of Twain’s books, Tesla remembered: “One day I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read before and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state. They were the earlier works of Mark Twain … Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr. Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.”
The Tesla/Twain friendship will soon be getting the Hollywood treatment in a fictionalized adventure story to be produced by CBS Films, while Tesla is being played by Mad Max: Fury Road actor Nicholas Hoult in the forthcoming The Current War, which depicts the famous feud between Tesla and Edison.