Fall 2014

Wings of Desire

Nikola Tesla’s fantastic secret

Dominic Pettman

Obscure object of desire. Although the fact that its subject perfectly matches the description of Tesla’s “beautiful bird” has led to claims that this photograph depicts the scientist’s beloved, it was in fact more likely one of a number of photos purchased by the inventor in 1938 to be used as part of a presentation outlining a mixture he had developed for a natural diet for the birds. Courtesy Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade.

Over the past twenty years or so, Nikola Tesla has become a folk-hero for the millennial tech-generation, who consider him the godfather of all visionary scientific mavericks, and thus a key precursor to their own “disruptive” aspirations. But during the twilight years of his life, Tesla was a much more withdrawn shadow of his former dynamic self, when he had been equal parts inventor and showman. At the end of the nineteenth century, during the battle for standardized electrical currents, Tesla found that his alternating current (AC) model put him in direct competition with his former boss, Thomas Edison, who favored direct current. Despite the fact that AC systems eventually emerged the winner, Edison’s standing continued to rise while Tesla was relegated to a footnote in history books, at least until the resuscitation of his reputation toward the end of the last century.

In 1934, near the end of Tesla’s working life, the Westinghouse Corporation—under whose sponsorship the inventor had conducted some of his most significant experiments with high-voltage generators, high-frequency communication, induction motors, radiography, and magnetic fields—agreed to pay his bills at the New Yorker hotel where he was staying in relative poverty. As his patents became less and less regular, and he turned to more reflective and speculative writings, the Serbian émigré would punctuate his day by walking to either the main branch of the New York Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or Bryant Park in order to feed the pigeons. This habit, as it turned out, was more than a pleasant way to rest his rather restless mind. Indeed, this activity began to become more important to Tesla than his scientific meditations, or even his own official legacy (as his biographer at the time, John Jacob O’Neill, noted in some detail in a book entitled Prodigal Genius).

In one anecdote, Tesla goes missing during a prestigious event assembled in his honor in 1917: the award of the Edison Medal at the Electrical Engineers Club (which, as it happened, overlooked Bryant Park). Since 1915, rumors had been circulating that both Tesla and Edison had sabotaged their own chances to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics by refusing to share the honor (a rumor vigorously denied by the Nobel Committee, but which was taken as fact by contemporary commentators). Whether or not the rumors were true, Tesla was not thrilled about the prospect of receiving a medal bearing the name of his former boss and subsequent rival, but was eventually convinced to suffer the ceremony. As the distinguished gentlemen of the committee waited impatiently for the recipient to show himself—along with an auditorium full of whispering and shrugging club members—one breathless scout eventually found the elusive inventor outside, in the center of “a large circle of observers.” As O’Neill tells it,

[There] stood the imposing figure of Tesla, wearing a crown of two pigeons on his head, his shoulders and arms festooned with a dozen more, their white or pale-blue bodies making strong contrast with his black suit and black hair, even in the dusk. On either of his outstretched hands was another bird, while seemingly hundreds more made a living carpet on the ground in front of him, hopping about and pecking at the bird seed he had been scattering. It was Behrend’s [the scout’s] impulse to rush in, shoo the birds away and, seizing the missing man, rush him back to the auditorium. Something caused him to halt. Such an abrupt action seemed almost sacrilegious. …

Appealing to Tesla not to let him down, nor to embarrass those who were waiting at the meeting, Behrend prevailed upon the inventor to return to the auditorium. Little did Behrend know how much more the pigeons meant to Tesla than did the Edison Medal; and little could anyone have suspected the fantastic secret in Tesla’s life, of which the outer manifestation was his faithful feeding of his feathered friends. To Behrend it was just another, and in this case very embarrassing, manifestation of the nonconformity of genius.[1]

The “fantastic secret” alluded to here involves another instance of what I call “creaturely love”; in this case, not between two humans, but a famous scientist and a pigeon.

As O’Neill notes, when Tesla “started the practice [of feeding pigeons], and no one knows just when that was, he was always dressed in the height of fashion and some of the world’s most famous figures could frequently be seen in his company, … joining him in scattering the bird seed, but there came a time when he paid less attention to his clothes, and those he wore became more and more old-fashioned.”[2] The biographer even begins to introduce a note of scandal, or at least impropriety, in Tesla’s movements, as this conspicuously anachronistic figure is found haunting the largely deserted Fifth Avenue after midnight. “The natural assumption was that Tesla was engaged [in] a definite line of thought,” writes O’Neill, “and did not wish his mind to be diverted from its concentration on some knotty scientific problem. How far this was from the truth!”[3] Instead, these “midnight pilgrimages” disturbing the “nocturnal roost” of the birds did indeed involve a “lady friend.”

By 1921, Tesla was even bringing some pigeons back to his room at the St. Regis hotel, providing basket nests near open windows so that his guests could come and go as they pleased. After a while, “great flocks of them would come to his windows and into the rooms, and their dirt on the outside of the building became a problem to the management and on the inside to the maids.”[4] Sometimes, if a bird showed signs of distress or illness, Tesla would fail to show up at his office, preferring instead to nurse the creature back to health. The hotel eventually gave their eccentric guest an ultimatum: the pigeons must go, or he would face eviction. And so he moved to the Hotel Pennsylvania, where the scenario repeated itself, before happening once again at the Hotel Governor Clinton. Finally, Tesla and his cageless aviary found sanctuary at the New Yorker hotel in 1933, where he stayed the final ten years of his life. (The record is silent, sadly, on whether the management here was more tolerant, or if he managed to scale back the feathered visitors to his quarters.)

After being struck by a taxicab in the fall of 1937, Tesla found it increasingly difficult to make the journey from his hotel room to feed the pigeons. On days that his legs would not carry him the distance, he made sure to send a Western Union messenger to scatter seeds on his behalf. The anxiety over whether his proxy had successfully accomplished this mission colored many telephone conversations with Western Union. Tesla would repeat instructions and demand assurances, as if the task involved his firstborn rather than a flock of the least beloved of birds. As the quintessential instance of the “mad scientist,” Tesla and his unusual behavior were probably considered one of the bizarre but appreciable side effects of his prodigal genius. But to his attentive biographer, this compulsion was in fact evidence of “the world’s most fantastic, yet tender and pathetic love affair.” To quote the section in full:

Tesla told me the story; but if I did not have a witness who assured me that he heard exactly what I heard, I would have convinced myself that I had had nothing more tangible than a dream experience. It was the love story of Tesla’s life. In the story of his strange romance, I saw instantly the reason for those unremitting daily journeys to feed the pigeons, and those midnight pilgrimages when he wished to be alone. I recalled those occasions when I had happened to meet him on deserted Fifth Avenue and, when I spoke to him, he replied, “You will now leave me.” He told his story simply, briefly and without embellishments, but there was still a surging of emotion in his voice.

“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years; thousands of them, for who can tell —

“But there was one pigeon, a beautiful bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I would know that pigeon anywhere.

“No matter where I was, that pigeon would find me; when I wanted her I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. She understood me and I understood her.

“I loved that pigeon.

“Yes,” he replied to an unasked question. “Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew, and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life.

“Then one night as I was lying in my bed in the dark, solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. I knew she wanted me; she wanted to tell me something important so I got up and went to her.

“As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me—she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes—powerful beams of light.

“Yes,” he continued, again answering an unasked question, “it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.

“When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life’s work was finished.” …

There was nothing more to say. We parted in silence. The talk took place in a corner of the mezzanine in the Hotel New Yorker. I was accompanied by William L. Laurence, science writer of the New York Times. We walked several blocks on Seventh Avenue before we spoke.[5]

Is it ironic or apt that a man who had dedicated much of his life to the future of wireless communication would fall for the ancient, living technology of a carrier pigeon? And is it ironic or apt that a man whose final years as an inventor were dedicated to a fearful direct-energy “teleforce” weapon (dubbed the “death ray” by the press) fell in love with the key symbol for peace?

We cannot know what thoughts or emotions were coiled inside Tesla’s mind and heart as he feared for the life of his nameless, winged mistress, and then mourned her passing as he would a lover. But we can discern, and appreciate, the creaturely affection that he experienced, and ultimately spoke of matter-of-factly, once the race for absolute human technical mastery had been assumed by others. For the man who invented the rotating magnetic field, “animal attraction” or “animal magnetism” was not simply a figure of speech, but an everyday experience and personal responsibility, and one that did not stop at the border between species. As such, this patron saint of the cybernetic triangle—one linking human, animal, and machine—sends us a message from the age of high industry and scientific discovery concerning love itself as the invisible but overwhelming alternating current that animates existence, and can sometimes be explicitly shared among creatures.

It might seem that this nameless bird was not in a position to reciprocate Tesla’s affections. And yet who could speak for this pigeon of pure white, with light gray tips on her wings? Who could say what she “felt” for the tall, melancholy, strangely dressed creature who fed, nursed, and caressed her? As with the love between two humans, or between Balthus and his cat Mitsou, or a human and an operating system like Samantha in the 2013 film Her, fully symmetrical affection is not the criterion by which we can determine whether love is in effect. We need not invoke the transmigration of souls to account for the connection or recognition that occurred. Nothing mystical need have taken place; no modern Ovid is necessary to account for the romantic sacrilege. Finitude is what all creatures share. No matter how carefully philosophers try to build a semantic or ontological wall between ourselves and other animals, we all perish. We all die. Humans may anticipate their end with more conscious and unconscious dread than do our fellow animals, but we need only see the survival instinct in action to appreciate that all creatures cling to life with furious intensity when the spark of their inexplicable existence is threatened.

Love is the name we give to this furious intensity when we direct it outward, beyond the survival of the self, to the compassionate caretaking of another pulse, pounding fragile and finite, under another skin.

  1. John J. O’Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla (Hollywood, CA: Angriff Press, 1981), pp. 234–235. The book was originally published in 1944.
  2. Ibid., p. 308.
  3. Ibid., p. 308.
  4. Ibid., p. 312.
  5. Ibid., pp. 316–317.

Dominic Pettman is a professor of culture and media at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, New York. His books include In Divisible Cities (Punctum Books, 2013) and Human Error: Species Being and Media Machines (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). His next book is entitled Creaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More, and Less, than Human.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.