An electrifying letter from Nikola Tesla
JUL 21, 2023
Born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia, Nikola Tesla was an inventor whose invaluable impact on the modern world is difficult to comprehend. During the course of his eighty-six years he made numerous breakthroughs in the realm of electrical engineering, particularly around his AC induction motor, and by the time of his death, the ‘Father of Electricity’ had approximately 300 patents to his name. In Washington DC in 1939, aged eighty-three and in failing health, Tesla met Pola Fotić, the daughter of the Yugoslav ambassador to the United States, and they bonded over their shared love of cats. Soon afterwards, from his home in New York City on this day in 1939, Tesla wrote to his new friend and revealed one of the reasons behind his lifelong fascination with electricity.
New York, July 23, 1939
My Dear Miss Fotitch,
I am forwarding to you the “Calendar of Yugoslavia” of 1939 showing the house and community in which I had many sad and joyful adventures, and in which also, by a bizarre coincidence, I was born. As you see from the photograph on the sheet for June, the old-fashioned building is located at the foot of a wooded hill called Bogdanic. Adjoining it is a church and behind it, a little further up, a graveyard. Our nearest neighbours were two miles away. In the winter, when the snow was six or seven feet deep, our isolation was complete.
My mother was indefatigable. She worked regularly from four o’clock in the morning till eleven in the evening. From four to breakfast time—six a.m.—while others slumbered, I never closed my eyes but watched my mother with intense pleasure as she attended quickly—sometimes running—to her many self-imposed duties. She directed the servants to take care of all our domestic animals, she milked the cows, she performed all sorts of labor unassisted, set the table, prepared breakfast for the whole household. Only when it was ready to be served did the rest of the family get up. After breakfast everybody followed my mother’s inspiring example. All did their work diligently, liked it, and so achieved a measure of contentment.
But I was the happiest of all, the fountain of my enjoyment being our magnificent Macak—the finest of all cats in the world. I wish I could give you an adequate idea of the affection that existed between us. We lived for one another. Wherever I went, Macak followed, because of our mutual love and the desire to protect me. When such a necessity presented itself he would rise to twice his normal height, buckle his back, and with his tail as rigid as a metal bar and whiskers like steel wires, he would give vent to his rage with explosive puffs: Pfftt! Pfftt! It was a terrifying sight, and whoever had provoked him, human or animal, would beat a hasty retreat.
Every evening we would run from the house along the church wall and he would rush after me and grab me by the trousers. He tried hard to make me believe that he would bite, but the instant his needle-sharp incisors penetrated the clothing, the pressure ceased and their contact with my skin was gentle and tender as a butterfly alighting on a petal. He liked best to roll on the grass with me. While we were doing this he bit and clawed and purred in rapturous pleasure. He fascinated me so completely that I too bit and clawed and purred. We could not stop, but rolled and rolled in a delirium of delight. We indulged in this enchanting sport day by day except in rainy weather.
In respect to water, Macak was very fastidious. He would jump six feet to avoid wetting his paws. On such days we went into the house and selected a nice cozy place to play. Macak was scrupulously clean, had no fleas or bugs, shed no hair, and showed no objectionable traits. He was touchingly delicate in signifying his wish to be let out at night, and scratched the door gently for re-admittance.
Now I must tell you a strange and unforgettable experience that stayed with me all my life. Our home was about eighteen hundred feet above sea level, and as a rule we had dry weather in the winter. But sometimes a warm wind from the Adriatic would blow persistently for a long time, melting the snow, flooding the land, and causing great loss of property and life. We would witness the terrifying spectacle of a mighty, seething river carrying wreckage and tearing down everything moveable in its way. I often visualise the events of my youth, and when I think of this scene the sound of the waters fills my ears and I see, as vividly as then, the tumultuous flow and the mad dance of the wreckage. But my recollections of winter, with its dry cold and immaculate white snow, are always agreeable.
It happened that one day the cold was drier than ever before. People walking in the snow left a luminous trail behind them, and a snowball thrown against an obstacle gave a flare of light like a loaf of sugar cut with a knife. In the dusk of the evening, as I stroked Macak’s back, I saw a miracle that made me speechless with amazement. Macak’s back was a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house.
My father was a very learned man; he had an answer for every question. But this phenomenon was new even to him. “Well,” he finally remarked, “this is nothing but electricity, the same thing you see through the trees in a storm.” My mother seemed charmed. “Stop playing with this cat,” she said. “He might start a fire.” But I was thinking abstractedly. Is nature a gigantic cat? If so, who strokes its back? It can only be God, I concluded. Here I was, only three years old and already philosophising.
However stupefying the first observation, something still more wonderful was to come. It was getting darker, and soon the candles were lighted. Macak took a few steps through the room. He shook his paws as though he were treading on wet ground. I looked at him attentively. Did I see something or was it an illusion? I strained my eyes and perceived distinctly that his body was surrounded by a halo like the aureola of a saint!
I cannot exaggerate the effect of this marvellous night on my childish imagination. Day after day I have asked myself “what is electricity?” and found no answer. Eighty years have gone by since that time and I still ask the same question, unable to answer it. Some pseudo-scientist, of whom there are only too many, may tell you that he can, but do not believe him. If any of them know what it is, I would also know, and my chances are better than any of them, for my laboratory work and practical experience are more extensive, and my life covers three generations of scientific research.