Thursday, January 21, 2016

Was Nikola Tesla Gay?

My reflexive response to this question is: get a life. This is a puerile inquiry that seeks to pigeonhole a person rather than understand him.

A more considered answer might be: Tesla is an important historical figure and who we are as a people is an important question. So, let's go there.

I will address this matter by looking at the broad issues of whether there is evidence of his sexual attraction to men or evidence of his acting upon this attraction.

Tesla was a lifelong bachelor with no known romantic interests, male or female, attached to him. He did maintain friendships with both men and women with more of the closer relationships being with men^1. 


There are two competing arguments which may apply to Tesla.

First, there is the Elton John argument. In the liner notes of a 1970s album, he explained the reason why he was not associated with women: his career made him too busy. Applying this standard to Tesla, we say his protestations of being too busy for a relationship were a cover-up.

Second, there is the Duke Ellington argument. He wrote an autobiography titled, "Music Is My Mistress." In one anecdote, he explains to his wife-to-be that even though they would be married, music would always be his true love. In applying (and extending) this standard to Tesla, his passion for his work crowded out his sexual nature. Invention was his sole mistress. 


(continued below)

This post is part of an ongoing series on the inventor Nikola Tesla. Some of the more popular posts are:
An Introduction to Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla Vs. Sherlock Holmes 
Nikola Tesla Vs. Adrian Monk 


Katharine Johnson, longtime platonic friend of Nikola Tesla.

From an 1896 New York Herald interview:

"I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of his brain unfolding to success, as he watches some crucial experiment prove that through months of waiting and hoping he has been in the right. Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything."


He is asked, "Do you believe in marriage. Mr. Tesla, for persons of artistic temperament?"

"For an artist, yes; for a musician, yes; for a writer, yes; but for an inventor, no. The first three must gain inspiration from a woman's influence and be led by their love to finer achievement, but an inventor has so intense a nature with so much in it of wild, passionate quality, that in giving himself to a woman he might love, he would give everything, and so take everything from his chosen field. . . . It's a pity, too, for sometimes we feel so lonely.^2"


Nearly three decades later, Tesla gave an interview which formed a feature story titled, "Mr. Tesla Explains Why He Will Never Marry.^3" The interviewer had an annoying habit of adding commentary to most every quote from Tesla. Indeed, a word count finds one thousand words for Tesla, one thousand for the reporter. Tesla never addresses the subject of marriage, but does bemoan the current state of womanhood.

"I had always thought of woman as possessing those delicate qualities of mind and soul that made her in these respects far superior to man. I had put her on a lofty pedestal, figuratively speaking, and ranked her in certain important attributes considerably higher than man. I worshiped at the feet of the creature I had raised to this height, and, like every true worshiper, I felt myself unworthy of the object of my worship.

"But all this was in the past. Now the soft-voiced gentle woman of my reverent worship has all but vanished. In her place has come the woman who thinks that her chief success in life lies in making herself as much as possible like man
in dress, voice and actions, in sports and achievements of every kind.^3"

This viewpoint stands in stark contrast to an interview published in Colliers taking place just three years later in which the "new" woman is held in high esteem, even awe.


"This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.

"It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.^4"


There is also this note: Tesla told a reporter in 1927, "I have never touched a woman. As a student, and while vacationing at my parents' home in Lika, I fell in love with one girl. She was tall, beautiful and had extraordinary understandable eyes."^5

In the above quote I find an aspect of Tesla that is at once charming and fascinating. He was startlingly frank about his vulnerabilities. Would another leading figure confess to never having touched a woman? Would another put on record the stories of his nervous breakdowns?

My favorite biography of Tesla was written by W. Bernard Carlson. He does the best job of demythologizing Tesla by showing how his work was incremental and collaborative. He addressed Tesla's sexual orientation while although offered little substance. One piece of innuendo surrounded a friendship with Richmond P. Hobson, a war hero, who wrote in a note:


"Now my dear fellow, if you are doing nothing for the next 3/4 of an hour come over a short tete a tete—I feel I have not seen half enough of you on this visit and I have so much to talk with you about . . . Devotedly yours, Richmond."^6



Richmond P. Hobson, 1898

Carlson also relates this conversation attributed to two members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Richard Sogge and Leland Anderson which is stated to have taken place in 1956:

"You know it is a good thing that the institute is honoring Tesla in this way—it will go a long way toward diminishing his reputation for voyeurism which was embarrassing the older members. The stories of Tesla's sexual episodes were at one time the talk of the Institute. . ." ^7

Voyeurism might make sense: Tesla had an extreme dread of germs and human contact and this as much as any other reason might have explained his lack of intimate relationships.

My verdict is that it is unlikely that Tesla had any physical relationships. As to whether he might have been attracted to men in a sexual way, there are hints, but there is too little information to make a solid determination.


References:

1. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson. Princeton University Press, 2013. p. 237-243.

2. New York Herald interview. As reprinted in the Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1896, p.3.

3. Mr. Tesla Explains Why He Will Never Marry. Galveston Daily News, Galveston, TX, p.  23. August 10, 1924.

4. When Woman Is Boss. An interview with Nikola Tesla by John B. Kennedy. Colliers, January 30, 1926.

5. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson. Princeton University Press, 2013. p. 239.

6. ibid, p. 242.

7. ibid, p. 240.

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Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game, Rook's Page Publishing.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook editions through Amazon and other online retailers. 
Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, is available from Rook's Page Publishing. It features Nikola Tesla as detective.


His recent mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

8 comments:

  1. Hello Martin, I just wish to say that I came across your title and it made me nauseous at first, to be frank. I was not sure what you were trying to say. Then in reading I realized you took Nikola's defense. The 1800s and 1900s were dominated by men as you well know, also everybody had a body odor because hygiene was different. Women, I heard, were the worse. Nikola had a great germ phobia because he almost died from diseases, and I am certain that he was very put off by smelly folks. As far as spending time with men, if he wished to push forward, women surely would not give him that opportunity. Still nowadays the majority of the planet is ruled by men. To me it is exceedingly unlikely he liked men, other than close friendships. We need to leave him be about such subject, it is very disrespectful. A man of his importance and prestige should be honored and the sex thing left aside. I do not understand our society where all revolves around sexual activity, too many people worry about such trivial matters nowadays and I see it as plain stupidity and lack of intelligence. As far as I am concerned, I do know Nikola very privately. The man is catastrophically shy but he is all man. And that is how I wish to close my message. Thank you very much for your article.

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    1. Still we wonder just for shits. To me it would make sense that he would be either, gay, sneaky, or just an alien god, requiring no Human contact lol
      If Tesla want born, the same stuff would be invented. It's not inventions, it's just discovery. He was probably smart. But i think he would not mind girls, I mean their quite alright. Yet he didn't. Soooo , what's up with that? I didn't know Tesla, maybe I like him, maybe i hate him. I never met him. I cannot know him. I cannot truly say what is our is not.

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    2. If he was gay, I would not see it as bad. He would have just been himself. Maybe back in the good old days people were not as perverted. But hey. Alexander had rumors. It wouldn't point to positive or negative. It would just simply be facts or not. Without judgement. You set tight boundaries, when you make an inquiry a matter of disrespect. When it's just a question. Your emotion overrode your logic. I as a Wonderer, wonder, and you can just say I'm looking to bash Tesla, but it's because possibly, you define gay as taking away credit for invention, and being a bad thing, as some others would not. It would not discredit him, to have loving passion for men. We all love each other, maybe he was gay, and didn't have sex, he may have just enjoyed company, or anything. Tesla is Tesla, no matter what an orientation is.

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    5. Still we wonder just for shits. To me it would make sense that he would be either, gay, sneaky, or just an alien god, requiring no Human contact lol
      If Tesla want born, the same stuff would be invented. It's not inventions, it's just discovery. He was probably smart. But i think he would not mind girls, I mean their quite alright. Yet he didn't. Soooo , what's up with that? I didn't know Tesla, maybe I like him, maybe i hate him. I never met him. I cannot know him. I cannot truly say what is our is not.

      Delete
  2. Regards,

    A beautiful French woman

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  3. Hello, beautiful French woman.

    I think the question is demeaning: it seeks to pigeonhole a person. The reason I felt it needed to be addressed is that it does come up. Tesla had a number of phobias, and at times it is apparent that these caused him great pain and isolation.

    In assembling the various notes on this subject, after reading that he had said he never touched a woman, I almost wished Tesla was gay: so that he could have had some contact with others.

    Tesla was a singular individual and does not fit into pigeonholes.

    mho

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