Nikola Tesla, one of the most important inventors of the 20th century, died impoverished in the hotel. Had he been long forgotten because he came from the Balkans?

Portrait of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla on his 78th birthday. He threw away leather gloves and hats if he had worn them for more than a week. Photo: United Archives/imago

If the quiz question asks what Robert Bosch, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison have in common, a qualified majority will not choose plumber or car manufacturer, but rather inventor. If Albert Einstein were replaced by Nikola Tesla, there would most likely be many more car brand crossovers.

Although interest in Nikola Tesla has seen a small boom in recent years, this is disproportionate to the importance of his discoveries and developments.

Alida Bremer: “Tesla or The Compliance of the Circles”, Youth and Young People

Manfred Geier: “Alternating currents of the spirit”, Matthes & Seitz

In 2023, two books were published in Germany on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of his death: the novel “Tesla or the conclusion of the circles” by the Croatian-German author Alida Bremer and the biography “The alternating currents of the spirit”, written by the philosopher. Manfred Geier focused on Tesla's ideas and experiments between magic and science.

Nikola Tesla already had the ingredients for a biographical film worth a million dollars during his lifetime. The fact that it does not exist to this day is a mystery. The inventor of electrical power transmission, who was born in inland Croatia in 1856 and emigrated to New York, was celebrated in his lifetime as a pop star for his genius, his eccentricity and his style.

Dandy in the luxury hotel

He placed great importance on expensive clothing, threw away leather gloves and hats after wearing them for more than a week, followed a strict vegetarian diet, and lived exclusively in luxury hotels such as the New Yorker, where he died in 1943. He never paid rent. because hoteliers were happy to be able to grace themselves with prominent guests and bankers like JP Morgan took care of their bills and the financing of their research.

Tesla became known to a wider audience because he turned his scientific lectures into spectacles. He stood in the center and discharged the alternating current that bears his name on his clothes and hair, creating crazy effects.

Because Elon Musk named his electric cars after the Balkan inventor, Croats and Serbs would immediately elect him president for life.

But why didn't Nikola Tesla become as famous a name as his teacher Thomas Edison? It cannot be due to a lack of revolutionary inventions: in addition to electric motors and generators, Tesla has registered more than 700 patents and, as the inventor of wireless power transmission, is considered not only a pioneer of radio technology, but also a pioneer of smartphones and the Internet.

It may not be because of its name either: neither does it have a jungle over the letters of its name, nor does it skimp on vowels as is usual in the Balkans (children go to the vrt, stingy people are called škrt and an island is called Krk). But the fact that Nikola Tesla's urn and his legacy are not in a museum in New York but in a museum in Belgrade and that not the New York airport but the Belgrade airport is named after him could be a reason. elderly.

Ahead of its time

So, is it ultimately because an inventor from the Balkans still counts less today than one from Western Europe or the United States? Or maybe it was because of Tesla's personality, which was not considered entirely serious? He not only made outrageous predictions about technology, but also about society, predicting, for example, that women would “scare civilization with their progress.”

Alida Bremer's novel “Tesla or the Ending of the Circles” addresses, among other things, the question of whether immigrants from the Balkans have more difficulties than others.

The writer, translator and author Bremer has been working tirelessly for decades to promote Croatian literature in Germany. She knows all too well the difficulty of bringing attention to Balkan stories in this country. She designed her novel very intelligently. Instead of installing the famous inventor as the main character, she chooses another Croatian: Ante Matijaca. He is also a historical figure, a doctor originally from Croatia, near Tesla's homeland, whom she greatly admires and whom she met personally in New York.

The initial disappointment that the novel is not primarily about Tesla evaporates very quickly. Because Alida Bremer tells the rarely told story of Croatian emigration to the United States through Ante Matijaca, much less important in world history, in a vivid, moving and dense way. Although it was numerically smaller than that of other nations, it was enormous in relation to the number of inhabitants.

Ante Matijaca is one of those who did not go from rags to riches, but still managed to study, earn respect, have money, have a family and have a good life in general. In 1905, as a teenager, he traveled alone by ship to New York, where he was to be picked up by a doctor who was a friend of his parents. But he doesn't come, so Ante stays at the immigrant collection center on Ellis Island. They threaten him with being deported to his country without even having set foot on the American continent. But a boy from Trieste, whom he met at the crossing, convinces the Italian community to support him, and Ante also begins the adventure in the United States.

History of Croatian ingenuity

From then on we lived with him throughout the 20th century: as a Red Cross doctor, he returned to Europe during the First World War and helped the wounded in Montenegro. During World War II, he ends up in prison in England because he is believed to be a spy for being in contact with Nikola Tesla, suspected of aiding the Nazis due to his invention of wireless transmission of information.

Ante's recipe for success is discipline and the absolute will to prove that someone from the Balkans can achieve something. His best friend, Ernesto, who comes from Trieste and thanks to whom he was able to stay in the New World, cannot do so. While Ante is fascinated by Tesla's technical mind and is inspired by it in his medical work, Ernesto sees Tesla's genius in the combination of science and poetry. While Ante concentrates on science and makes a career, Ernesto dies, like Tesla in the end, a penniless artist without ever having published a poem.

Alida Bremer tells the story of the Croatian inventive and pioneering spirit, but also a centuries-old story of Croatian narrow-mindedness, backwardness and inferiority complexes. Proof that Balkan achievements are ignored is also provided by debates among Croatian exiles about the second most famous Croatian naturalist and philosopher: Ruđer Josip Bošković, who died in Milan in 1787. Bošković is responsible for fundamental discoveries in astronomy and He is considered the founder of atomic physics. But unlike his French contemporaries such as d'Alembert, his name is known only to specialists.

The Croatians and Italians who argue in the novel cannot answer whether it is due to Bošković's origins or actually his name (it can be found in dozens of different spellings). In the case of Tesla, however, there seems to be one: the highly intelligent dandy simply was not a good businessman. He sold his patents to a windy businessman for cheap, making him billions. And Tesla also had all kinds of important inventions stolen from his competitors.

Currently in Croatia there is a new inventor of the electric car who is completely unknown to the general public, but who is celebrated as a prodigy and a genius in the world of automobile enthusiasts: Mate Rimac. He has long since broken several records of Elon Musk and his Tesla. Unlike Bošković, Tesla or Matijaca, Rimac did not have to emigrate to succeed: the headquarters of the former Franco-Italian-German brand Bugatti is now located in the Croatian capital, Zagreb. However, as long as Rimac stands firm and does not buy a social media company, the other Zampano of electric cars will of course remain the best known.