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December 2016
Tesla and the pigeon of death

Tesla and the pigeon of death

01 December 2016

Keith Wilson - Electrical engineer

Nikola Tesla’s name is synonymous with pioneering electrical developments, and he is accepted as the originator of many devices – not the least of which is the AC induction motor – which we now take for granted. His inventions form the basis of much of the technology we currently use and although controversial, his life is now celebrated by engineers and history pundits alike.

However, this was not always the case and during his lifetime, Tesla rarely received the recognition he deserved for his work. Ironically, when in 1917 the American Institute of Electrical Engineers finally decided to award him a medal for his contribution to technology, it was the Edison Medal. This was indeed bittersweet recognition, as the accolade was set up by Thomas Edison’s supporters – the same Thomas Edison who took Tesla’s patents and made a fortune out of them without crediting him. The award meeting took place at the Engineering Society Building in New York on May 18. Modestly, the 60-year-old Tesla graciously accepted the award for his lifetime achievements, and then proceeded to hold an extremely lengthy acceptance speech that went on for hours, much to the desperation of his captive audience. 

This event was proof, once again, that despite his outstanding intellect, Tesla lacked social skills and refused to observe societal norms, considering that only science is ever of any use to human beings. All other things were considered to be trivial and non-important in the greatness of the universe he was hoping to build.

Unfortunately, as he aged, Tesla started showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was potentially a high-functioning autistic.

He gradually withdrew from public life and his quirks slowly took over. He became obsessed with hygiene and when he shook people’s hands he felt compelled to wash his hands three times. The fixation on number three and its multiples was affecting every area of his life – for instance he had to have 18 napkins at the dinner table and he would count the steps he walked during a day. Tesla also claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight. By his own admission, he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit” – he even sent his secretary home one day upon seeing her choice of accessories!

As Tesla’s world became more and more contorted, he found solace in observing and feeding pigeons. Having remained a bachelor his entire life, his twilight years were spent fixating on a specific white female pigeon, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being.

Allegedly, the white pigeon visited Tesla one night. The bird flew in his hotel room though an open window. He believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. Tesla apparently saw “two powerful beams of light” in the bird’s eyes: “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.”

The white pigeon died in the inventor’s arms, which made a profound impact on his already anguished psyche. He believed that the pigeon’s death symbolized his own mortality and that he had now accomplished all that he was supposed to.

Nikola Tesla died in 1943, in debt, at his apartment in the New Yorker hotel. His passing was at the time unremarkable and only decades later was his reputation restored as one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century

Tags: death, electrical, inventor, Nikola, pigeon, Tesla