Friday, May 6, 2011

Historical Steampunkers: Nikola Tesla

I’ve written a couple entries about historical characters to insert in steampunk adventures or stories, but I have not yet mentioned the 500-pound gorilla in the steam room: Nikola Tesla. His scientific achievements are extraordinary and well-known. A very long column would still not cover his accomplishments, but the list would include alternating current, radio, robotics, and the wireless transmission of power. But his real claim to membership in a cast of characters lies in his personality.

Tesla was what the folks in my extended family call “a strange agent.” He was probably the archetype for the modern mad scientist. He apparently suffered from synesthesia, a neurological condition in which sensory or cognitive stimulation produces involuntary  experiences (hallucinations) in other senses. In Tesla’s case, particularly difficult problems sometimes produced blinding flashes of light accompanied by visions which provided solutions to the problem at hand. He also experienced vivid hallucinatory flashbacks to events earlier in his life,

He had a photographic memory, which allowed him to memorize complete texts. He also had the ability to visualize devices in extraordinary detail and precision, so he often dispensed with blueprints and technical drawings, working entirely from his mental image of the finished device.

He remained celibate throughout his adult life. He claimed it helped keep his mind focused (which always reminds me of Sterling Hayden as Colonel Ripper in Dr. Strangelove). He was reticent and retiring in private, but prefered elaborate and dramatic demonstrations of his inventions. When he spoke at conventions, he insisted on a large Tesla coil shooting electricity throughout the room, to the general discomfort of his audience.

As he grew older, he became increasingly paranoid, developed hypersensitivity to light and noise, and escalating symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. He became obsessed with pigeons and was fascinated by the number three, eventually finding it impossible to stay in a hotel room whose number was not evenly divisible by three. For the last years of his life he lived in a two-room suite on the thirty-third floor of the Hotel New York – suite 3327

So . . . one really strange guy, with lots of quirky behaviors to keep your readers or adventurers amused and uncertain as to what happens next. But Tesla has an even greater gift to offer steampunk storytellers, and I’ll cover that next time.

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