Thursday, May 5, 2016

Tesla Versus The Nobel Prize

The article as it ran in the November 6, 1915 Boston Journal.

On November 5th, 1915, the London Daily Telegraph made the announcement:

  The Swedish government has decided to distribute the Nobel prizes next week as follows:

  "Physics, Thomas A. Edison and Nikola Tesla; literature, Romain Rolland (French), Hendrik Pontoppidan (Swede); chemistry, Prof. Theodor Sveberg."


With Tesla and Edison being U.S. citizens, this announcement was picked up by newspapers all over America.

The story proved to be false. The British father and son team of William and William Lawrence Bragg won the prize for their work on X-ray crystallography. Tesla had not been nominated that year and would never win a Nobel Prize.

Although I had heard of this historical error, I did not realize how extensive and persistent it was. Even after the correct winners were announced, even after the Nobel Prize ceremony, Tesla continued to be named as the winner and named with a greater frequency than the Braggs.

Using an aggregator of American newspaper stories, over the months beginning with November 1915, 94 articles appeared in various newspapers  regarding Tesla and the Nobel Prize. (An additional 7 mentioned Edison as a winner without Tesla being named.)

Of these articles.
  • 51 came with the initial announcement. Clustering around November 5th/6th some of these articles presented Edison and Tesla as "possible" winners, while others were certain.
  • 10 belonged to a set beginning within a week. These were composed as a follow-up, talking with Tesla about his plans for and his visions of the future which included wireless telephone, lighting at sea, and wars without bombs.
  • A mere 7 articles mentioned Tesla did not win the prize. These began on November 13th and in each case mentioned the correct winners.
  • 19 cited Tesla as the winner of the Nobel prize while describing his patents for an electrical device to destroy bombs at a distance. These began December 8th, two days before the Nobel Prize ceremonies.Typical of these was a Boston Herald article dated, December 8th which began, "Nikola Tesla, the inventor, winner of the 1915 Nobel physics prize, has filed patent applications on the essential parts of a machine, the possibilities of which test a layman's imagination and promise a parallel of Thor's shooting. thunderbolts from the sky to punish those who angered the gods."
  • 3 cited Tesla as the winner of the Nobel prize while discussing Tesla's views on the elimination of war. These began January 30th, 1916.
  • 4 were miscellaneous, e.g., Nobel Prize given out tomorrow: Edison and Tesla are winners.

In contrast, the actual winners, William Bragg and his son, merited 22 articles.

Another way to look at this is:

  • 56 articles reported Tesla as receiving the Nobel Prize from the time of the announcement until the correction.
  • 7 articles correcting the error. (Additional articles reported the Braggs winning without correcting the previous error).
  • 13 articles reported Tesla as receiving the Nobel Prize from the time of correction up through the day of the ceremony.
  • 18 articles reported Tesla as receiving the Nobel Prize after the ceremony had taken place.

In contrast:
  • 14 articles reported the Braggs as receiving the Nobel Prize up to the time of the ceremony.
  • 8 articles reported the Braggs receiving the Nobel Prize after the ceremony. 

Thomas Edison was no rookie when it came to reports that he had won the Nobel Prize. On October 19, 1911, the Boston Herald ran a report with the headline: Edison Wins Nobel Prize for Physics. Similar articles ran in newspapers across the country. After the correction was made, Edison stated he would decline the award, anyhow: it was best given to an inventor early in his career who needed the money.

Some have suggested that Tesla and Edison were the original winners of the prize but that the recipients were changed due to Edison and Tesla's rivalry (or for other reasons). This did not happen. The nominations for the prize from 1915 have become available and Tesla's name was not among them. Furthermore, the initial report included several other recipients, all of whom failed to receive the award that year.

From an article in the Olympia Daily Recorder published 3 weeks after the Nobel Prize ceremony.

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

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


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, features Nikola Tesla as detective.


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