One of the most important events of Nikola Tesla’s youth relates to Tesla’s childhood cat Mačak. As Tesla writes in a letter to a friend’s daughter, at one point during a cold snowy day Tesla “felt impelled to stroke Mačak’s back.” He notes that what he saw “was a miracle which made me speechless…Mačak’s back was a sheet of light, and my hand produced a shower of crackling sparks loud enough to be heard all over the place.” Tesla’s father explained that this must be caused by electricity, like that of lightning, and this thought convinced Tesla that he wanted to pursue becoming an “electrician.”
This experience with Mačak kept Tesla wondering how to harness the amazing electrical power of nature. But first Tesla had to overcome the tradition that required him to enter a course of study for the clergy. After all, his father was a clergyman and with Dane gone the duty of following in his father’s footsteps fell to Nikola. Doing so was also “the fondest wishes” of the mother he so adored. But to Tesla the idea was abhorrent. “This prospect hung like a dark cloud on my mind,” he later wrote in his personal recollections. It simply had no appeal to him. His mind was just too inquisitive, too demanding of deep thought, too eager to explore the development of new ideas. No, the clergy was definitely not something to which Tesla aspired.
Then he got sick. And his life, while at first in danger of being extinguished, took a whole new turn.
Cholera was a deadly disease in the 1800s, especially in villages like those where Tesla grew up. An epidemic of cholera took off in Tesla’s native land and nothing could be done to battle it. “People knew nothing of the character of the disease,” Tesla would later relate, and sanitation was nearly nonexistent. Tesla lamented the lack of understanding of the causes of the epidemic. The townspeople “burned huge piles of odorous shrubbery to purify the air,” thinking that somehow the stench would stem the horrible tide of death. Or perhaps it was merely to cover up the stench of death itself. In any case, the real problem was the water, and the people “drank freely of the infected water and died in crowds like sheep.”
Tesla at the time was away from home, just finishing his eleven years of public education. Unfortunately, rather than staying away—and against “peremptory [sic] orders” from his father—Tesla rushed home to Gospić. Stricken down with cholera almost immediately upon his return Tesla spent the next nine months struggling to stay alive with “scarcely the ability to move” and exhausted of all vitality. Despite being given up for dead by the local physicians, who must have been right most of the time given the number of people who succumbed, Tesla survived the experience “on account of my intense desire to live.” His father still wanted Nikola to join the clergy, but in an effort to stimulate the life forces of his ailing son, promised to let Tesla study engineering should he recover.
After hearing this, Tesla’s recovery was miraculous. His desire to live restored, Tesla showed amazing vitality in less than a week, something quite unexpected after nearly nine months of constant illness. Perhaps as a result of having the onus of the priesthood lifted off his shoulders (or perhaps as a result of creative memory from a resourceful man decades later), Tesla returned to health quickly with the knowledge that he was to enter engineering school within only a few months.
His childhood was over. And his long and eventful path toward becoming “the inventor of the 20th Century” was about to begin.
[Adapted from my book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity]
David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (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.
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