November 30th is the birthday of Mark Twain, the nom de plume of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Known for his wit and books featuring unforgettable characters such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain was also a good friend of Nikola Tesla. So good that Tesla decided to have a little fun with him one day in his laboratory.
Tesla enjoyed many delightful evenings at dinner parties thrown at the fine Lexington Avenue brownstone of poet and editor Robert Underwood Johnson and his beautiful wife, Katharine. Among the “wide range of famous and lively luminaries” that adorned the Johnson’s home were Samuel Clemens, naturalist John Muir, and various musicians, actors, and actresses that routinely graced the New York stages. For his part, Tesla would regale the others with recitations of both poetry and his inventions, and commonly the evening would end with Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Anton Dvořák or other guests following Tesla back to his laboratory to witness firsthand some of his electrical marvels.
One day Mark Twain dropped by the laboratory and Tesla decided to have a little fun with him. He asked Twain to step up on a small platform and then set the thing vibrating with his oscillator. Twain was thrilled by the gentle sensations running through his body.
“This gives you vigor and vitality,” he exclaimed.
After a short time Tesla warned Twain that he better come down now or risk the consequences.
“Not by a jugfull,” insisted Twain, “I am enjoying myself.”
Continuing to extol on the wonderful feeling for several more minutes Twain suddenly stopped talking. Looking pleadingly at Tesla he yelled:
“Quick, Tesla! Where is it?”
“Right over there,” Tesla responded calmly. Off Twain rushed to the restroom, embarrassed by his condition. Tesla smiled; the laxative effect of the vibrator was well known to the chuckling laboratory staff.
Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla remained friends until Samuel Clemens’ death in 1910. Tesla lived on to 1943. Shortly before his own death in a lonely two-room suite at the New Yorker Hotel, Tesla was thinking of his old friend. While he had become a naturalized American citizen over a half-century earlier, Tesla’s cremated remains now rest in a spherical “Tesla ball”–shaped urn at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.
For his part, Samuel Clemens knew how to make an entrance – and an exit – in style. He was born in a year where Halley’s Comet buzzed the Earth, and died at age 74 the very next time Halley’s Comet returned to our view. While we’ll always remember Clemens’ alter ego of Mark Twain, we’re just now rediscovering his friend and practical joke player, Nikola Tesla.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book is on Abraham Lincoln, due out in 2017.