Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and the Assassination of President William McKinley

Fate can be a cynical maiden. Such is the case with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. His death involved not only Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison but the son of another assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln.

William McKinley Assassination

President McKinley’s assassination happened just six months into his presidency while he was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, yet another World’s Fair to highlight rapidly changing technology and cultural exchange. McKinley had a busy schedule but managed to slip in a visit to the nearby Niagara Falls. After seeing the gorge with its beautiful falling waters (being careful to remain on the American side to avoid the inevitable political chatter), the President toured Goat Island where a statue of Nikola Tesla would be erected many years later.

One of the main goals of the Niagara Falls trip was to visit the hydroelectric plant. This, of course, included the alternating current generators and motors designed by Nikola Tesla. It was the alternating current from Tesla’s Niagara Falls system that lit up the entire exposition, including the centerpiece “Electric Tower” and the Temple of Music. There were also electric trains, ambulances, and other vehicles moving people to and fro between different parts of the fair and the Falls.

After marveling at the ingenuity of Tesla’s designs at Niagara, McKinley returned to Buffalo for a reception at the very same Temple of Music being lit by the power of those falls. While shaking hands with well-wishers, McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. It was September 6, 1901.

In an ironic twist of fate, Tesla’s rival Thomas Edison could have saved McKinley’s life. Doctors were unable to locate the bullet in McKinley’s abdomen, and an early X-ray machine designed by Edison was on display at the Fair. McKinley’s doctors, however, deemed the apparatus too primitive to be of use. Edison quickly sent his most modern X-ray machine from New Jersey up to Buffalo, but aides to the President refused to use it for fear of radiation poisoning. While McKinley at first appeared to be recovering, gangrene set into the wound and he died on September 14th, Edison’s machine sitting nearby unused.

And the Lincoln connection? Robert Lincoln was in attendance at the fair at the invitation of President McKinley. Robert, of course, had been nearby when his father, Abraham Lincoln, became the first President assassinated, as well as with President Garfield when he was gunned down. McKinley became the third President close to Robert that was assassinated. Not surprisingly, Robert no longer accepted invitations by Presidents, nor I suspect, were many invitations forthcoming.

[The above is excerpted from my e-book, Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla – Connected by Fate.]

David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in July 2016.

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10 thoughts on “Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and the Assassination of President William McKinley

    • Technically it was Roentgen who gets credit for discovering X-rays. Tesla had made what amount to “X-ray” discoveries before Roentgen, but lost them in a fire that destroyed his lab. After Roentgen published, both Tesla and Edison (and others) experimented with X-rays.

  1. While concern for radiation was perhaps before its time (Roentgen wasn’t the only experimenter who succumbed to it), I suspect it would have been better than gangrene.

    Not sure I would have phrased it that Edison could have saved him – he certainly tried and that doesn’t really sound like he did – but failure to take advantage of Edison’s machine might have cost McKinley his life.

    Poor Robert. He must have been heartily sick of people getting killed via guns in his presence.

    • Both Tesla and Edison (and Edison’s assistant) suffered from radiation exposure, and both decided to stop working with it because of their experiences.

      I agree that the problem was that political advisers were afraid to use the machine, which as you note, was rather dumb given the choices. Gangrene was common at that time, so the uncertainties of radiation should have been a minor concern. As it turns out, it killed him.

      Robert had an interesting life. While rising through the political ranks he also had to deal with the difficult situation of his mother and the loss of all of his siblings while still young. That said, he did manage to hang out with a lot of important people, became incredibly important himself, and very wealthy.

      I recently visited Robert’s sarcophagus at Arlington National Cemetery. I’ll visit Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, IL in September.

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