The miraculous vision of Nikola Tesla

According to a legend he later spread himself, Nikola Tesla discovered the basic operation of the alternating-current motor after a vision appeared to him in Budapest’s City Park, where he quickly drew his mental images in the sand with a stick.

One of the greatest inventors of all time, Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 and had achievements in exploring electricity, magnetism and mechanical engineering. Young Tesla arrived in Budapest from Prague with a promised job to assist Tivadar Puskas and his team at their telephone center, just being built at the time. With support from his relatives, he managed to get a job, but not the type he dreamed of: instead of making professional progress, he only did scut work initially and earned little money at the Central Telegraph Office. He could hardly make ends meet and only slept a few hours a day.

You can read more about his health condition in this period in The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, which was published decades later:

“In Budapest I could hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between me and the time-piece. A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance of a few miles fairly shook my whole body. The whistle of a locomotive twenty or thirty miles away made the bench or chair on which I sat, vibrate so strongly that the pain was unbearable. The ground under my feet trembled continuously. I had to support my bed on rubber cushions to get any rest at all. The roaring noises from near and far often produced the effect of spoken words which would have frightened me had I not been able to resolve them into their accumulated components. The sun rays, when periodically intercepted, would cause blows of such force on my brain that they would stun me. I had to summon all my will power to pass under a bridge or other structure, as I experienced the crushing pressure on the skull. In the dark I had the sense of a bat, and could detect the presence of an object at a distance of twelve feet by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead. My pulse varied from a few to two hundred and sixty beats and all the tissues of my body with twitchings and tremors, which was perhaps hardest to bear. A renowned physician who have me daily large doses of Bromide of Potassium, pronounced my malady unique and incurable.”

But a cure was found in the end: Tesla’s friend and helping companion, Antal Szigety (or Szigeti in other sources) was said to get him exercise, which brought his vigor back. They went for walks in a park nearby, the park where Tesla had his miraculous vision while citing Goethe’s Faust:

“At that age, I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe’s ‘Faust’. The sun was just setting and reminded me of the glorious passage, ‘Sie ruckt und weicht, der Tag ist uberlebt, Dort eilt sie hin und fordert neues Leben. Oh, da kein Flugel mich vom Boden hebt Ihr nach und immer nach zu streben! Ein schöner Traum indessen sie entweicht, Ach, au des Geistes Flügeln wird so leicht Kein körperlicher Flügel sich gesellen!’ As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightening and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand, the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and my companion understood them perfectly.

The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal and stone, so much so that I told him, ‘See my motor here; watch me reverse it.’ I cannot begin to describe my emotions. Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life could not have been more deeply moved. A thousand secrets of nature which I might have stumbled upon accidentally, I would have given for that one which I had wrested from her against all odds and at the peril of my existence…”

But Tesla had to wait for several years before his idea materialized; from Budapest he first travelled to Paris in 1882 and later continued his journey to the United States.

Others have also claimed the discovery of the principle of the rotating magnetic field: besides Tesla’s vision, which was later dated to 1882, Galileo Ferraris said he built his own model already in 1885. But neither of them had a proof of these preceding events. All that survived was Tesla’s patent from 1888 and Ferraris’ study published months later.

As for the legend of drawing images in the sand, it is always difficult to confute an event that was described and frequently told as a true story by the person who took part in it. In addition, Tesla’s life had plenty of mystical elements similar to the one above, which, besides his genius, contributed to his popularity. But based on the Serbian inventor’s recollection of his symptoms above, we can certainly say he didn’t run short of adjectives and liked to add some color to his stories when he wrote about his life. (For example: “The whistle of a locomotive twenty or thirty miles away made the bench or chair on which I sat, vibrate so strongly that the pain was unbearable.”)

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