From fishing rods to death rays: the man who invented the 20th Century

An eccentric Balkan scientist whose inventions changed the world is finally being recognised in his homeland. Vesna Peric Zimonjic in Belgrade tells the extraordinary story of Nikola Tesla
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The Independent Online

Brow furrowed in deep concentration and eyes fixed on the crystal-clear waters in front of him, a small boy with dishevelled tufts of hair crouched on the river bank and waited to catch a frog. He wasn't exactly an expert, being less than 10 and having never seen a fishing rod before; but somehow Nikola Tesla knew he would succeed. With little knowledge but an instinctive sense of what was needed, he had set about fashioning one of his own, using little more than a hammer, two stones, wire and a strong piece of string.

Stretching his arm as far as he could without tumbling into the brook, thrusting his strange, makeshift contraption out into the distance, he watched and waited for a tug on the line. And, sure enough, one came within minutes. A fat, comfortable-looking frog on a tree stump succumbed to his homemade prowess, and the young fisherman marched home proudly to his parents, quarry in hand.

It may have been nothing more than a ramshackle fishing rod, and the childhood achievement may have been forgotten almost as quickly as it was fulfilled, but in one respect it was crucial. For the solitary boy who worked so hard on his first creation by the banks of the river was so inspired by his ability to dream up and create things that he carried on studying and inventing for the rest of his life - and ended up becoming one of the world's greatest scientists and inventors.

Born of Serbian parents in the Croatian hamlet of Smiljan in the 1850s, Nikola Tesla was the shy, eccentric scientist whose electronic inventions are reflected ubiquitously in the modern world. His legacy to the western world is all around us, from neon lighting to X-rays to the radio, and, though towards the end of his life his achievements went largely unnoticed, posthumously they have been hailed as some of the most important break-throughs in scientific understanding. Tesla was, his admirers insist, the man who contributed more than anyone else to the high-speed, hi-tech world in which we live. He was, put simply, the man who invented the 20th century.

Now, more than 60 years after he died an impoverished loner and a virtual unknown in his adopted country, the United States, one of the most famous children of the Balkans is gaining the recognition he deserves. Today, Serbia and Croatia begin celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth with the Croatian President Stipe Mesic and Serbian President Boris Tadic in attendance.

Not only are the ceremonies heralded as a fitting way to remember a great and long underappreciated countryman; they are also being greeted as the first occasion for both nations to draw a line under their bloodstained shared history and to rejoice in their common heritage.

"I am proud of my Croatian homeland and my Serb origin", Tesla wrote in his book My Inventions in 1919. Now, finally, it seems, his feelings will be reflected in the way in which he is remembered.

It was from the small and remote village of Smiljan that Tesla, son of an Orthodox priest, started down the road of invention, creation and discovery. It was also there, on the banks of the river, that he first realised his remarkable gift - and made his first fishing rod. "Whenever someone told me a word, I had a vision of it, a vivid picture of an object the word stood for," he wrote later. "I did not feel easy about it, but later found out that I should follow my visions and turn them into something real."

These were only the first hints, experts say, of the unusual gift of a boy who would go on to register more than 700 inventions and 100 patents. Tesla was the master of visualising his ideas first and only later on turning them into models and practice. Recalling his first invention, he wrote in his autobiography that, although he had never seen a fish hook, he "pictured it as something wonderful, endowed with peculiar qualities".

The long list of Tesla's research includes work that enabled Wilhelm Roentgen to discover X-rays in 1895. It also led to the invention of neon light and the modern-day radio, and eventually provided the electronic basis needed for mobile phones, radar and, some say, the internet. His most remarkable discovery was the development of alternating current (AC); Tesla showed that AC produced bigger amounts of electricity and transmitted it over greater distances, thus superseding direct current.

His groundbreaking work means that nowadays he is often referred to as a genius and a visionary by fellow scientists. But during his lifetime his research, too tantalising for others to ignore, was often pounced upon by fellow electronics engineers to forward their own inventions. The radio is a prime example. Officially invented by Guglielmo Marconi at the turn of the 20th century, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1943 - the year of Tesla's death - that it had been the work of the Croatian-born scientist, and that he should be credited with its invention.

Such posterity would have been unimaginable for Tesla's humble parents, who wanted him to be a priest and never once imagined he would make a living out of something as abstract as science. Despite their warnings, the young Tesla left Croatia for Graz in 1877 to study engineering; he moved to Prague afterwards, and then Budapest, where he worked briefly as an engineer for a telephone company. He soon found out the job was limiting and non-creative. As usual, his friends said, his head was buzzing with ideas and a constant craving for creativity, which, to his frustration, he was unable to share with others.

The US, with its relatively progressive scientific culture, seemed the right place to go, and Tesla went to New York in 1884. Five years later he became a US citizen and began working with the inventor Thomas Edison and, later, the American industrialist George Westinghouse. The latter bought and successfully developed Tesla's patents, the most prominent being the introduction of alternating current for power transmission.

While in the US, Tesla became known by many as the quintessential "mad scientist." He had few close friends, among them the writers Robert Underwood Johnson, Mark Twain and Francis Marion Crawford, and worked alone in his Colorado laboratory for hours on end, often through the night and with little or no sleep. Most people were driven away from the eccentric genius by his obsessive streak and intense, often disturbing, outbursts. Although tall and strikingly handsome, he never married; some claimed he was afraid of women, others that his inventions were his loves and that he could never have given himself so devotedly to a wife as he did to his ideas. "There is no bigger joy or pleasure of soul than the one when an inventor sees the creation of his brain turn to life," he wrote.

Or maybe it was just that he was repulsed by modern women, reacting with horror at their pearls and, in particular, earrings. An ascetic man, afraid of germs and handshakes, he had a special hatred of peaches, whose skin caused him to recoil in disgust. Instead of appreciating his genius, many who met him dismissed him as a madman whose eccentricities betrayed a deeply troubled mind.

The Serb psychiatrist Zarko Trebjesanin believes that despite his seeming modesty, Tesla had a narcissistic streak which revelled in publicity. "He tended to present his discoveries in a shocking and sensational manner that fascinated the public," Trebjesanin says. "He loved to be photographed like a great magician, in his lab, illuminated by artificially induced lightning."

Tesla was described as "a godsend to reporters who sought sensational copy", but a problem to editors who were uncertain how seriously his prophecies should be regarded.

As he grew older, Tesla's ideas became more and more outlandish. Caustic criticism, perhaps understandably, greeted his theories of interplanetary communication; even more so his belief in the invention of so-called "death rays" which could destroy airplanes at the flick of a switch.

Tesla died aged 87 in a New York hotel, a lonely man who had none of the riches normally heaped on scientists of his calibre. He spent the mornings of his later years feeding pigeons in his local park, an anonymous face among many others in a country which had come to deride his work and dismiss him, ironically for a man so crucial to the creation of the modern world, as a relic of the past.

Now, however, the world has been forced to reappraise the man and his work. Unesco has declared 2006 the "year of Nikola Tesla" and his homeland, peaceful after so many years of war, is determined to give proper thanks to its greatest son.

Hundreds of performances, ceremonies and workshops dedicated to Tesla will be held in Serbia, while the Croatian parliament made an official apology last month for having failed to recognise his talent earlier. Hundreds of people are now flocking to the Belgrade museum devoted to his life's work, and the international scientific community has at last paid tribute to this unconventional man who always said he was working "for the benefit of mankind as a whole".

Perhaps the ultimate accolade came with the naming of a crater on the Moon after Tesla, as well as a small planet far away in the solar system. You can't help thinking that the little boy working so hard to make his first rod out of stones and string would have been rather proud.