Although inventor Nikola Tesla seemed to be written out of history for several decades, his unique life and work have become more well known over the last thirty years. His vision for wireless electrical power is often portrayed as having been thwarted by his financial backer, American financier and investment banker John Pierpont Morgan, Sr.. And though this is true in part, author Marc Seifer points out that there’s more to the story.
In his book, “Tesla: Wizard at War: The Genius, the Particle Beam Weapon, and the Pursuit of Power,” Seifer reveals several new insights into the known and potential reasons for Morgan’s defunding of the now famous Tesla tower. These new insights include:
- The documented reason for Morgan’s refusal to continue funding the tower is due to Tesla’s own breach of contract. Tesla had in fact built a tower twice as large as the one Morgan had agreed to fund, which is why Tesla ran out of money before finishing the project. He was in fact asking Morgan to go beyond their original agreement because he had extended the height of the tower without notifying his primary investor.
- Even though attaching a meter to the electrical output would have been difficult if not impossible, there were other ways to monetize Tesla’s tower. Television, for example, was free for decades due to advertising, which made more than enough money to sustain that industry, even though the end user was not directly charged for the service.
- After Morgan refused to give Tesla a second chance, Tesla sought funding elsewhere; and in every case, Morgan intervened and convinced Tesla’s would-be investors not to back him.
- While there is no known documentation or eyewitness testimony explaining why Morgan actively blocked Tesla’s network of wireless electrical transmission towers, it has been speculated that Morgan may have been motivated to shut down what might have been a serious disruption of the copper and rubber markets in which he had a large stake due to his mining and railroad transportation operations. In Morgan’s mind, wireless energy might have represented the potential end, or at least a severe reduction, of the electrical wiring market.
- Although Tesla did have philanthropic intentions in general and hoped that his work would be a blessing to humanity, he very clearly intended that his wireless electrical transmission system would generate great wealth for his investors. This is documented in proposal letters he wrote to potential investors.
- Tesla continued to privately implore Morgan to change his mind about funding his tower for many years afterward and once confessed to Morgan that he spent an entire year crying himself to sleep every night over the matter.
Tesla the Visionary Versus Tesla the Human Being
Let’s be clear: we may never know the complete truth about Tesla and Morgan. There are always multiple sides to any story, and the confirmable stories we have for each party in this case are sorely lacking. As for Morgan, there is no documented case in which his motivations were publicly shared. None of the potential investors he thwarted from backing Tesla have spoken publicly on the matter.
Tesla himself never told any of his potential investors that Morgan shut the project down because Tesla went against his agreement and secretly decided to construct his tower to twice the height as originally agreed. Taking this perspective into consideration, it is not impossible that Morgan’s motivation for convincing his business friends to back away from Tesla’s proposal might have included, among other things, a desire to warn them of the likelihood of a bad investment to the tune of a $100k+ loss, which in today’s money would have been the rough equivalent of $3.5 million.
Imagine, if you will, investing $3.5 million into an eccentric but brilliant inventor’s singular, risky vision, only to have him ask you for another $3.5 million after revealing that he breached your contract and therefore ran out of money when the project was only half finished. Would you trust him to keep his word and reliably finish the project after investing twice the amount of money as originally agreed? And what if you discovered that, after your refusal to continue funding him, he decided to contact your business friends and ask them to finish what you started so that they, not you, would receive the financial rewards after your initial investment of $3.5 million? Would you just stand by and allow him to do this?
Is it possible that Morgan’s motivation had less to do with warning friends and more to do with sabotaging what he saw as a threat to his fortune? Yes, it’s possible. But the available evidence also points a finger at Tesla himself. This observation isn’t intended disrespectfully in any way, as Tesla was an inspiration as well as one of the fathers of modern electricity, having developed the alternating-current power system that powers so many homes and buildings. His creative vision was exceptional and quite literally world-changing in its reach. Yet, he was a human being.
After learning that Morgan discontinued the funding of his tower after a contract breach, why didn’t Tesla alter his approach or simply apologize to Morgan for going against their agreement? Why did he continue the same basic approach of occasionally asking Morgan to fund his vision for years afterward, without variation? As brilliant as Tesla was, he never quite got over the failure of his wireless vision to see the light of day.
That said, these observations have not been intended to slight Nikola Tesla, as he was and is one of the greatest inventors and visionaries of our time. Rather, this is simply an attempt to gain a more complete and human portrait of a solitary, gifted mind. Whereas our tendency is to paint some historical events in a black-and-white manner, a closer glimpse often offers more nuance and room for new interpretations than once assumed.
Seifer, Marc J.. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla Citadel Press; Reprint edition, October 24, 2011.
Seifer, Marc J.. Tesla: Wizard at War: The Genius, the Particle Beam Weapon, and the Pursuit of Power Citadel Press; August 30, 2022.