Nikola Tesla, A Passion for Poetry
By Lydia Emanuel
Nikola Tesla emigrated from Europe to the United States in July of 1884, and in 1891 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time, he was well on his way to building his reputation as a great scientist. He had already invented the induction motor and the Tesla Coil, and he had also registered an estimated 50 patents1 (which was just a fraction of his lifetime output of over 300 patented inventions).
Although nowadays we recognize Tesla primarily as a prolific inventor and futurist, he also had a perhaps less well-known passion for poetry and literature. He began writing poetry from childhood, but felt his poems were too personal to share with the public.2 Tesla claimed that it was an excerpt from the German poet Goethe that inspired him to complete his alternating current motor.3 Tesla was also said to be a polyglot, speaking several languages, and being very well read. For example, before emigrating to America, he had already plunged into the works of Mark Twain, to whom he later confided that it was Twain’s stories that helped him to recover from the bout of cholera that nearly ended his life.4 Tesla also complained that he compelled himself to finish reading all one hundred volumes written, in very small font, by the French philosopher, Voltaire.5
One of his very favorite poets was Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj who was widely acclaimed in Serbia for his children’s stories and poetry. When Tesla first arrived in America, he had four cents in his pocket and a book of Zmaj’s poems.6
In 1892, Tesla set sail from New York leaving on January 16th to return once again to Europe. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: he needed to augment his income and cement his patents overseas.7 He embarked on an impressive lecture circuit, speaking to fellow scientists and potential investors about his discoveries, and inspired great interest wherever he went. In London, he addressed the Institution of Electrical Engineers who anticipated a large turnout and held the lecture in the packed Royal Institution which had capacity for an audience of 800. 8 His tour then took him to Paris, and then to Croatia and Serbia9 where he was deeply concerned about his mother’s health. He spent several emotional weeks at her bedside before her death and burial on Easter Sunday.10, 11 He was crushed by her loss, and took over a month to grieve before continuing on to speak at the University of Zagreb and then Budapest.12
It was close to the end of May when he came by train to Belgrade. Tesla had never been to Belgrade before, but when he got off the train he was treated to a “hero’s welcome” 13 that was in keeping with the great national pride accorded for the return of a famous native son.14 Although his stay in Belgrade was less than two days, he nevertheless was part of an impressive program that included meeting various levels of Belgrade’s academia and citizenry, visiting the national museum, attending a ceremonial dinner (see Figure 1) at the Vajfertovac Restaurant15 which included numerous officials, scientists and other eminent guests. By far, one of the greatest honors was having an audience with King Alexander I Obrenovic who accompanied Tesla on his tour of some important sites and institutions. The King also bestowed the Grand Officer of the Order of St. Sava title upon him for his contribution to Science.16 However, being legally a citizen of the United States, the Royal medal was forwarded to Tesla in America, by diplomatic dispatch.17
It was during one of the welcoming ceremonies that Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj not only surprised Tesla with his appearance, but Zmaj also read a poem aloud that he dedicated to Tesla, specifically composed for the occasion at hand, to commemorate Tesla’s visit to Belgrade. It was also the first time that Zmaj had consented to read any of his poems publicly.18 Tesla was extremely moved by the gesture, and overwhelmed by its significance, and the attention that the city had shown him.
(Zmaj’s poetic tribute to Tesla follows at the end of the article.)
Tesla concluded his European tour in Germany, before arriving back in New York on August 27.19
Tesla’s admiration for Zmaj’s poetry was augmented further when he became friends shortly afterwards with Robert Underwood Johnson who was the editor of Century Magazine.20 Johnson published some of Tesla’s technical articles, but he also shared Tesla’s appreciation of poetry. The magazine published several of Zmaj’s poems that Tesla translated, including his article about Serbian folk poetry.21 Together, the three men, Johnson, Tesla and Zmaj, collaborated to translate and publish 13 of Zmaj’s poems (see Figure 2) in a book entitled Songs of Liberty and Other Poems.22
Pozdrav Nikoli Tesli, by Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj
Greetings to Nikola Tesla
Translated by Zeljko Sulaver, Lillian Beltaos and Lydia Emanuel
|Was it in my dreams
alternating through my mind
as soon as we’ve heard of your visit
you’ve made us all electrified.
We need no conducting wires!
Electricity runs far and wide
connections are passing through the air
(even Ether afterwards).
Serbdom stands - an ageless tree
like a mother to her sons - its leaves;
most vibrant one did not stay
fluttered off and flew away.
O, virtuous Tesla, you chose a distant nation,
by stronger current you were propelled
to a land more fertile for your imagination,
where your horizons would be swelled.
Tesla, it worked out after all,
your boundless thoughts triumphed in the end,
you conquered distances not so small
returned to be welcomed by your motherland.
|Embrace the land that nurtured thee,
lay your head upon her chest, valued son,
every branch of the proud Serbdom tree
espouses Tesla as its next of kin.
Belgrade is very jubilant today
with its genius, shaking hands
opening a heart that’s filled with joy
to the Serb renowned in many lands.
Though once again you’re on your way
our rendezvous brief, and like no other
and since you could no longer stay
carry our warmth as brother to brother.
Your vision has come to fruition,
enormous and wondrous;
all distances are gone, broken to depletion
forging new links between us.
Our leaflet will realize and feel
its every vein from its own tree.
The electricity will forever enable
(the electricity of our hearts)
our connection with no wire, with no cable.
Ticket for Nikola Tesla’s Ceremonial Dinner, Figure 1
From Istorijski arhiv Beograda on Twitter: "A dinner ticket in honour of arrival of Nikola Tesla, 1892, IAB, Lf PSP." / Twitter
Sources for this Article
1 List of Nikola Tesla Patents, American; http://en. Wikipedia.org/wiki/List
2 Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man out of Time, Simon and Schuster 2011, in List of Nikola Tesla Writings, Poems, in en.m.wikipedia.org
3 Maya S. Todorovic, How Poetry Inspired Tesla to design one of his most important inventions; https://medium.com>how-poetry-
4 The Secret to Mark Twain’s friendship with Nikola Tesla, in High Culture-July 12, 2019, bigthink.com
5 Nikola Tesla on Voltaire, in Nikola Tesla Quotes, goodreads.com
6 Yugoslavia–Tesla and Zmaj:–the Scientist and the Poet; https://aroundtheworldin80currencies.com
7,8,9,10,12,13,16,19 Tesla Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson, 2013 Princeton University Press; pages145, 152,155,158
11 Wizard, The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, Biography of a Genius, Marc J. Seifer, Citadel Press 1998; page 95
17 Nikola Tesla’s Visit to Belgrade, 1892, in the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, Serbia is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nikola Tesla; www.teslasociety.com
18,20,21,22 Tesla Universe, Nikola Tesla Books, Songs of Liberty and Other Poems; https://teslauniverse.com/nikola-tesla/book/songs-liberty
Translation of Zmaj’s Poem, from https://www.istorijskizabavnik.rs/blog/nikola-tesla-i-jovan-jovanovic-zmaj
Figure 1: From https://twitter.com/IA_Beograda/status/1413813940979748865
Figure 2: From Tesla Universe, Nikola Tesla Books, Songs of Liberty and Other Poems; https://teslauniverse.com/nikola-tesla/book/songs-liberty