Making Nikola Tesla a Saint Makes Us All DumberS

Mike Rugnetta over at the PBS Idea Channel has an interesting video about how popular history is made. Specifically, our popular understanding of the late inventor (and internet folk hero) Nikola Tesla. He argues that there are essentially two Teslas: The historical Tesla who did things like promote eugenics, and had very human imperfections, and the mythologized Tesla that so many well-intentioned people have idolized in recent years.

I touched on many of these ideas earlier this year at the South by Southwest conference, but I came to slightly different conclusions. Rugnetta argues that the mythical Tesla (or what he calls “simulated Tesla”) should be left to stand largely unchallenged because the Legend of Tesla serves some greater purpose in modern society. “Maybe like the inverse of Batman and Gotham, Tesla isn’t the historical figure we deserve, but the one that we need… or want,” Rugnetta says.

I argue that even though popular history is messy, and by its very nature imperfect, we should always be working toward an understanding of historical figures that’s as accurate as possible. In all cases, this means accepting that even the greatest men and women of history were only human. Unlike Rugnetta, I don’t believe that creating gods of men does society any favors. As new evidence emerges and new research is undertaken, we should always be working toward a more accurate version of history—both in the academic and popular spheres.

One of our great difficulties that we're confronted with when it comes to studying Nikola Tesla specifically is that many of the myths come from his first biographer, John J. O'Neill, who published his book in 1944. Written without any endnotes, the book contains many supposed facts about Tesla's life (like the idea that he never needed to write anything down, or that he died "penniless," both of which are untrue) that would make their way unquestioned into later biographies like Margaret Cheney's Tesla: Man Out of Time. These myths would also make their way into future PBS documentaries, History Channel docudramas, and Matthew Inman's error-riddled webcomic.

But it's not difficult to see how O'Neill could get so much wrong, when his explicit goal was to deify the man. O'Neill quite literally compares Tesla to a god, which I might humbly suggest is not the most reasonable place from which to start a biography.

Even as he walked among the teeming millions of New York he became a fabled individual who seemed to belong to the far-distant future or to have come to us from the mystical realm of the gods, for he seemed to be an admixture of a Jupiter or a Thor who hurled the shafts of lightning; an Ajax who defied the Jovian bolts; a Prometheus who transmuted energy into electricity to spread over the earth; an Aurora who would light the skies as a terrestrial electric lamp; a Mazda who created a sun in a tube; a Hercules who shook the earth with his mechanical vibrators; a Mercury who bridged the ambient realms of space with his wireless waves-and a Hermes who gave birth to an electrical soul in the earth that set it pulsating from pole to pole.

History is full of complex figures. Henry Ford was a vicious anti-Semite who promoted lies about a Jewish quest for global domination; those men who wrote the U.S. Constitution and extolled the virtues of freedom quite paradoxically owned other human beings; and Gandhi shared his bed with teenage girls (which he claimed was a kind of willpower test). Acknowledging these facts does nothing to take away the various positive contributions that these very flawed people made to society. But we have to start by acknowledging them as fallible human beings who sometimes did terrible things.

Busting myths (about Tesla, or anybody else) should always be the goal of the popular historian. Anything less and we risk romanticizing a past that never was. And as I recently argued at a conference in Sweden last month, romanticizing the past affects our future. When we portray the people of yesterday as living in a black-and-white world, we start to draw the wrong conclusions. Sometimes this romanticization of the past breeds a sense of futility, like in the case of the Apollo space program. Other times our romanticization of something like a lone inventor harms our understanding of how innovation actually occurs, like in the case of the Edison versus Tesla myth.

Exploring history with as much nuance as humanly possible, though, gives me a strange sense of optimism. Tesla wasn't a god who died a penniless martyr. He was a man who lived an interesting and full life, celebrated in his own time. When Tesla's 1899-1900 notebooks from Colorado Springs were discovered in the 1950s, the Tesla Museum in Belgrade actively sought to suppress their publication because they would bust the myth that he never worked things out on paper. The notebook wouldn't be published until 1978, after much in-fighting at the museum. When we reject new evidence that may paint historical figures as more fully formed human beings, everyone loses.

Our modern media landscape (and especially online discussion) isn't exactly known as a bastion of nuance. But it's really our only hope if we want to move into the future with any semblance of clarity. We can turn Tesla into a god all we like, but doing so only sets us up for disappointment. And frankly, makes us all dumber.

Image: Screenshot from the 2012 History Channel docudrama The Men Who Built America