10 Electrifying Facts About Nikola Tesla

By Napoleon Sarony - postcard (radiographics.rsna.org), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nikola Tesla, who was born on this day in 1856, has long been a fascinating and enigmatic figure. While his contributions to science went underappreciated for years, his work is finally being recognized, and the compelling details of his personal life keep interest in him alive. Here are a few highlights from his intriguing life.

1. HE HAD A TREMENDOUS TALENT FOR VISUALIZING INVENTIONS—BUT WAS ALSO PRONE TO OTHER STRANGE VISIONS.

Tesla was able to visualize objects, including inventions he was building, in his head, down to the minutest detail. His method of working was pretty unorthodox compared to other inventors, as he rarely created sketches or drawings, relying instead on the power of his own imagination to work out details. Beginning in early childhood, Tesla experienced flashes of light, which were sometimes followed by inspiration or solutions to problems. These visions could sometimes take on the character of a spiritual experience, but Tesla, a man of science, discounted any such interpretation, valuing them only for their scientific benefit. 

2. HE PIONEERED MANY SIGNIFICANT MODERN INVENTIONS BEYOND ALTERNATING CURRENT.

For many, Tesla is associated with the “War of the Currents”—waged with onetime employer and later rival Thomas Edison—over the form of electricity that would become standard. Edison championed direct current, or DC, while Tesla and ally George Westinghouse fought for alternating current, or AC. AC, of course, eventually won out over DC, despite Edison’s attempts to malign Tesla’s invention by pushing the electric chair as a method of execution to show how dangerous AC was. However, Tesla also conducted pioneering work in electric light, electric motors, radio, x-ray, remote control, radar, wireless communications, and robotics, and created his famous transformer, the Tesla coil. Tesla was in many cases not properly recognized for his contributions, with other inventors receiving credit for improving on what he began. He obtained around 300 patents in his lifetime.

3. HE HAD EXTREMELY REGULAR, EVEN OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE, HABITS, AND WAS A GERMAPHOBE.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Throughout his life, Tesla displayed a formidable work ethic, keeping a regimented schedule. Some claim he slept only two hours a night. He often took his dinner at the same table at Delmonico’s in New York, and later at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. He had an all-consuming fear of germs and required a stack of 18 napkins. He was obsessed with the number three, and was prone to carrying out compulsive rituals related to three. When he was young, he would develop a fit at the sight of pearls, and couldn’t bear to touch hair.

4. HE CLAIMED TO HAVE NEARLY CREATED AN EARTHQUAKE IN MANHATTAN.

Tesla’s electro-mechanical oscillator, a steam-powered electrical generator, was developed as a possible replacement for inefficient steam engines used to turn generators, but couldn't compete with steam turbines. Tesla reportedly regaled friends with a tale in which his experiments with the oscillator at his lab at 46 East Houston Street in Manhattan set off vibrations that generated a resonance in several neighboring buildings, shaking the ground and prompting calls to police. When the machine began oscillating at the resonance frequency of his own building, Tesla surmised that he was in danger of creating an earthquake, and allegedly smashed the device with a sledgehammer. The claims—which earned the machine the nickname “Tesla’s Earthquake Machine”—were later debunked by Mythbusters (the team felt vibrations from hundreds of feet away using a re-creation of Tesla's machine, but didn't create any earthquakes).

5. HE ELECTRIFIED BUTTERFLIES AND BLEW OUT POWER STATIONS IN COLORADO.

Tesla moved his operations near Colorado Springs in 1899 in order to take advantage of the great amount of space available for experimentation and the free supply of AC power he had been offered there by the El Paso Power Company—and because he believed the thin atmosphere might be conducive to his goal of wireless power transmission. Experiments in a lab with an 80-foot tower, 142-foot metal mast, and enormous Tesla coil formed massive bolts of artificial lightning that supposedly created thunder and errant sparks 15 miles away, surprising people and frightening horses, and surrounding butterflies with halos of St. Elmo’s fire. The bolts also blew out dynamos at a local power company and caused a blackout. It’s not clear if Tesla succeeded in the wireless transmission of power, however.

6. HE WAS A SNAPPY DRESSER AND ATTRACTED THE LADIES.

By all accounts, Tesla was a striking individual. At 6 foot 2 and just over 140 pounds, he was very tall and slender, with dark, deep-set eyes. He was also a fashionable and fastidious dresser, and while he could be reclusive while deeply engaged in work, he was fascinating company when he felt like being social. Not only did he attract the friendship of famous people like Mark Twain, but he also drew the attentions of women, some of whom confessed to being “madly in love” with him. Much of Tesla’s personal life remains a mystery, however, and he never married.

7. HE DIDN’T REALLY SIT IN A ROOM SURROUNDED BY LIGHTNING BOLTS.

That famous photo of Tesla sitting on a chair in his laboratory and calmly examining his notes while tremendous bolts of lightning flash around him was likely the result of a double exposure. Yet the image, taken at his Colorado lab and used as publicity to generate capital for new projects, captures the public’s fascination with a scientist whose prowess made him seem a magician to many. 

8. HE WANTED TO ILLUMINATE THE ENTIRE EARTH, LITERALLY.

Tesla believed that his work had the potential to light the Earth’s atmosphere, banishing darkness and bringing in a new era of light. He theorized that gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere were capable of carrying high-frequency electrical currents, and successful transmission of such currents there could create a “terrestrial night light” that would make shipping lanes and airports safer and illuminate whole cities. But like most of Tesla’s loftier aims, this goal was never realized, and its possibility remains unproven. 

9. THE SECRET PURPOSE OF HIS GIANT TOWER ON LONG ISLAND WAS THE WIRELESS TRANSMISSION OF POWER.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As the 20th century arrived, Tesla was locked in a race with Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to be the first to transmit messages across the Atlantic Ocean. Tesla began securing funding, much of it coming from financier J.P. Morgan, to build a wireless transmission station on Long Island with a massive, 186-foot tower. The station would be called Wardenclyffe. Tesla, however, had his own agenda. He wanted to use Wardenclyffe to fulfill his long-held dream of transmitting electricity wirelessly. When Marconi beat Tesla to the punch in 1901, transmitting the letter s across the Atlantic with much more modest equipment, Tesla was forced to reveal his ulterior motives to Morgan and to beg for additional funding to complete his tower. Morgan, however, indicated that he was no longer interested in the project and pulled his support. This move, along with other factors, would ultimately spell the project’s doom. 

10. WARDENCLYFFE IS BEING TURNED INTO A MUSEUM.

Wardenclyffe fell into disrepair after the collapse of Tesla’s ambitions there and destruction of its tower in 1917. The main building, designed by architect Stanford White, remained and was alternately left abandoned or used for industrial purposes. Nonprofit group The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe began a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012 with the goal of buying the property, and closed the deal in 2013. A plan is underway to convert the site into a Tesla museum and science education center, with work ongoing. The site is not yet open to the public, but visitors are allowed for special events, like Tesla’s birthday celebration in July. 

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
buxtree/iStock via Getty Images

The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
yanikap/iStock via Getty Images

Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
rmbarricarte/iStock via Getty Images

As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
Eerik/iStock via Getty Images

The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
a_Taiga/iStock via Getty Images

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
jessicaphoto/iStock via Getty Images

The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
Serjio74/iStock via Getty Images

The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

11 Gifts for the Curious Kids in Your Life

The Play Gym by Lovevery
The Play Gym by Lovevery

No matter their age, you want to find gifts that will keep the kids in your life entertained, stimulated, and give them a sense of accomplishment—even during playtime. Luckily, these 11 gifts will do all of that, and will encourage their curiosity to grow.

1. The Play Gym by Lovevery; $140

Baby playset
Lovevery / Amazon

Specially designed by experts to stimulate infants for their first year, this play mat grows with your favorite baby. It has five developmental zones and multiple activities—like teethers, mirrors, and colorful flash cards. And, when baby becomes a toddler, the mat converts into a tent fort for further imaginative play.

Find It: Amazon

2. Real Insect Superpowers Comic Book; $18

Follow the adventures of the Supersonic Assassin, the Malevolent Mimic, and other insect superheroes as they smash, zap, hypnotize, and sting in this 88-page book that's part comic, part nature encyclopedia.

Find It: Uncommon Goods

3. Droid Inventor Kit; $100

This is definitely the droid you’re looking for. Recommended for kids in grades eight years and up, this customizable robot comes with an app that defines more than 22 missions as well as easy block-based coding activities. And for any Star Wars fans, the Droid makes 20 different sounds, just like from the movies

Find It: Amazon

4. Solar System Chalk; $40

Solar system chalk
Uncommon Goods

This nine-piece chalk set features all the planets in the solar system, along with Pluto. Each piece has multiple colors, which represent the planets' cores, layers, and crusts. And for each set sold, $2 will be donated to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to support autism research.

Find It: Uncommon Goods

5. Jr. NASA Rocket Scientist Lab Coat; $20

Jr. NASA coat
Aeromax / Amazon

Get kids excited about science early with this lab coat, which comes in sizes for boys and girls. Alongside three pockets, the jacket also has the NASA logo and the words “Rocket Scientist.” When your astronaut-in-training is done playing, the coat can be tossed in the washing machine.

Find It: Amazon

6. 3Doodler 3D Pen Set; $50

This wireless pen allows kids to freestyle draw in the air—the eco-plastic filament cools in place quickly, giving kids plenty of practice with spatial reasoning without the costs of a full 3D printer.

Find It: Amazon

7. Giant Coloring Poster; $19

Giant coloring poster
O'Kroshka / Amazon

If your kid is going to color on the wall, you may as well give them a designated place to do so. Children can use pencils, markers, and paints on this 33''x 45'' poster that depicts all types of animals in a zoo. This gift will not only encourage creative expression, but it can also help kids work on their motor skills.

Find It: Amazon

8. Root-Vue Farm; $39

A little girl poses behind the Root Vue farm
Young Explorers

Whether they join FFA or not, kids can get a head start on understanding horticulture with this indoor garden system. Plant the included seeds—for carrots, radishes, and onions—and watch them obsess over the underground view of their harvest.

Find It: Amazon

9. Geosafari Jr. Kidnoculars; $9

Kid-proof and specially designed for tiny hands and faces, these binoculars can help preschoolers get to know the world around them. Play a game like “I Spy” and have them find squirrels in trees, clouds in the sky, or all those Cheerios they spilled behind their bed.

Find It: Amazon

10. Dimpl Baby and Toddler Learning Toy; $13

This brightly colored sensory toy holds a young one's attention with 100% food-grade silicone bubbles they can press and poke—perfect for keeping kids occupied in a stroller or car.

Find It: Target

11. Otamatone; $30

The face on this highly kawaii ribbon synthesizer is made of rubber, and by manipulating it with one hand you can make cool sounds (the other hand controls the pitch along the ribbon controller). With a bit of practice, you can even play real music—check out this entertaining cover of "Take On Me."

Find It: Amazon

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