Eighty years after his mysterious death, Nikola Tesla remains one of the most prominent and widely recognized figures in the history of modern invention. (Not just because his name was co-opted for a popular brand of electric vehicles, either.)
Equal parts inventor and futurist, both an electrical and mechanical engineer, Tesla made remarkable advancements in the design and eventual creation of the modern-day AC (alternating current) electricity supply system. While plenty is known about his life, the same cannot be said about his death. How did Nikola Tesla die, exactly? Here’s what we know.
Nikola Tesla: Biography
|July 10th, 1856
|Country of Origin
|Smiljan, Austrian Empire
(current day Croatia)
|January 7th, 1943 (86 years old)
New York City, New York, U.S.A.
|Cause of Death
|Place of Burial
|Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia
|Engineering (dropped out)
Graz University of Technology
|Area of Work
|Electrical and mechanical engineering
|AC electricity supply system
Experiments in high voltage and high frequency
|AC motor, induction motor, plasma globe/plasma lamp, Tesla coil, wireless power transfer (WPT)
5 Must-Know Facts About Nikola Tesla
- In a remarkable turn of events, Nikola Tesla was actually born during a lightning storm in 1856. The way Tesla told the story, his family was warned that a birth during such a terrible lightning storm could be a bad omen.
- If he hadn’t contracted cholera as a young man, Nikola Tesla would have become a priest instead of an engineer. He came close to death numerous times during his nine-month struggle with the illness, leading his father to promise him he could pursue engineering if he pulled through.
- Thanks to Tesla’s help, Westinghouse was able to power the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair would become the first all-electric event of its size in the history of the world.
- After Tesla lost his job at the Edison Machine Works when he mistook a joke for a serious command, he was left to resort to a ditch-digging gig while he continued to experiment on his own time. Sadly, this would be far from his lowest point.
- In his later years, Tesla claimed to have interpreted signals from outer space. While he thought they came from intelligent life, it turns out they really were coming from space. Alas, it was merely the “sound” of one of Jupiter’s moons passing through the planet’s electromagnetic field.
January 7th, 1943: What We Know About the Day Tesla Died
Just a week into 1943 — with World War II entering its fourth year, the Battle of Stalingrad raging on the Eastern Front, and the Manhattan Project well underway — Nikola Tesla was found dead in the Hotel New Yorker, Room 3327.
A still-iconic Art Deco building in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, Tesla had been living in the hotel for much of his final years. He even delivered annual speeches from the hotel on his birthday each year, July 10th. As it turned out, his July 1942 address to reporters would be his last. He died just shy of six months later.
Tesla’s permanent residence in the hotel was no mystery to staff or guests. In fact, it was said that his presence there attracted a number of interesting characters and international visitors alike.
Fellow electrical engineers and other professional admirers came to visit him often, not to mention fanatics attracted to Tesla’s talk of Unidentified Flying Objects, time travel, anti-gravity airships, telepathic animals, death rays, and beyond. He also drew fellow Serbians to the hotel, as Tesla himself was a Serbian-American.
New Yorker Hotel maid Alice Monaghan was the one to discover Tesla’s body that January day in 1943. She noticed Tesla hadn’t left his room in quite some time, and, ignoring the “DO NOT DISTURB” sign the engineer had placed on his door a couple of days prior, entered into his room.
Just as she feared, Nikola Tesla was dead. But how did Nikola Tesla die? A medical examiner chalked it up to coronary thrombosis (a heart attack, in other words). However, the belongings found in his room — which included a so-called death ray — had others wondering if there was something more going on.
How Did Nikola Tesla Die? The Events Leading Up to His Death
Naturally, Nikola Tesla did not end up in the New Yorker Hotel by accident. Nor was he just staying there temporarily. It was his place of residence at the time of his death, and it had been for a number of years prior.
But what led up to the fateful, mysterious day he died? What led him to take up residence in a hotel, especially after all he had accomplished in his long life on Earth? As it turns out, the series of events that defined the final decade of his life are as head-scratchingly perplexing as the question of how Nikola Tesla died.
It’s pretty public knowledge that Tesla had a hard time trying to fit in here in America. From his infamous hard times at the Edison Machine Works (where Tesla allegedly faced mockery and ridicule from higher-ups, not to mention lack of proper pay) to the failure that was the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company (which left Tesla poor and patent-less), his time in the United States was plagued by enough turmoil and strife to last a lifetime. Unfortunately, going independent didn’t help Tesla’s situation whatsoever.
Trying to traverse the major electric companies at the time helped make Nikola Tesla rich, to be sure. However, it also left him less rich than he could have been if not for the troubles in the stock market in the late 1800s.
Because so many patent deals were done using stock, Tesla’s once-great fortune from licensing inventions to this company or to that one wasn’t always the most lucrative (or the most liquid) way to make money. Things were never easy for Tesla, but they became especially hard as the 20th century inched ever closer. The timeline below provides an overview of the events that followed.
1895: Tesla’s Lab Catches Fire
In the spring of 1895, very early in the morning — Tesla claimed to have slept just two hours every night — Nikola’s New York laboratory erupted into flames. Beginning in the basement and quickly rising up to the fourth floor, Tesla lost practically everything.
From current projects to early notes to vital research material to key models, a vast majority of Tesla’s most important work perished in the blaze. Though Tesla’s life was hardly a cakewalk in the decades before the fire, this could reasonably be considered the beginning of the end for the man.
1896: Experiments with X-Rays
A year after the fire, Nikola Tesla began experimenting with what he referred to as invisible radiant energy. In other words, X-rays. He would point high-energy rays at his own body to capture these early X-ray images, unknowingly exposing himself to harmful radiation in the process.
He spoke often of the damage this “invisible radiant energy” was doing to his skin and body. His most common complaint was of the sharp, stinging pains that permeated throughout his body when working with the X-rays. And yet, he continued to experiment.
1899: High Altitude Signals
Before the turn of the century, Nikola Tesla had shifted his attention to signals in the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains. While trying to experiment with wireless transmission of electric power and signals, he inadvertently picked up on strange transmissions way up there in the mountains.
He claimed these signals were being sent by super-intelligent extraterrestrial beings, perhaps living on Mars or Venus or some other planet yet to be discovered. He contacted a reporter and had his theories published, spawning a number of conspiracy theories that still hold to this day.
1906: Potential Breakdown
After his experimentation in the Rockies, Nikola Tesla moved his wireless experiments back to the East Coast. He hoped to set up shop in a place called the Wardenclyffe Tower, set to be built around 100 miles outside of Long Island.
Tesla secured funding from a number of sources, and Wardenclyffe was eventually built. However, in 1906, the man was shut out of his own project due to claims Tesla was a hoax. His investors dropped out and Tesla was left high and dry. He is reported to have had a potential breakdown as a result, and, around ten years later, Wardenclyffe was subsequently demolished.
1910s, ’20s, and ’30s: Hotel Living
At this point in Nikola Tesla’s life story, the man had resorted to hotel living. He would garner an enormous bill (in the tens of thousands) at one hotel before leaving without paying and entering into a new agreement with another.
From the 1910s up until his final residence at the New Yorker Hotel, Tesla moved from the Waldorf Astoria to the St. Regis Hotel to the Hotel Pennsylvania to the Hotel Governor Clinton to the Hotel Marguery. Former partner Westinghouse, apparently fearing the bad press Tesla was earning due to his exploits, began paying Nikola $125 a month to keep him in good standing.
1937: Back Injury
One night in 1937, at the age of 81, Tesla did what he’d been doing every night for decades: left his room to feed the pigeons. Typically saving his nightly routine for after midnight, Tesla left his room at the Hotel New Yorker and walked to his usual spot near a cathedral and library to feed the birds.
Over the years, Tesla’s behavior with pigeons had become increasingly erratic. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars nursing injured birds back to health, even claiming some would come to visit him and communicate with him telepathically to thank him after recovering.
That night in 1937 — as usual, after midnight — Tesla was struck by a taxi while crossing the street. He was a few blocks away from the hotel, forcing him to return to his room unaided with a severe back injury and several broken ribs.
He never saw a doctor for his injuries, meaning he lived with this serious back injury and damaged ribs for the remainder of his life. (It’s possible the injuries could have been far worse than this — because he never sought medical attention, there’s no way to know for sure.) Less than six years later, he would die in the same hotel he left to feed the pigeons.
Why Isn’t There a Consensus About His Death?
Nikola Tesla was a notoriously private and eccentric person, so it was typical for him to go days without contacting anyone. Even though almost a century has passed since Tesla died, there are still many unknown factors surrounding the day he died and his actual cause of death.
The two biggest causes of missing information are the facts that Nikola Tesla passed away alone and that he was not discovered for many days after dying. If he could have been examined more immediately after death then the medical examiner would’ve been able to more accurately determine if there were other issues besides the official cause of death.
So, How Did Nikola Tesla Really Die?
Looking at the nearly half a century that led up to Nikola Tesla’s lonely and confounding death in 1943, it’s not hard to see how he ended up where he did. What is hard, however, is understanding what led to his ultimate death.
Was it natural causes? Could it have been the death ray he swore countless times was fully functional? Or was it all that radiation finally catching up to him? Maybe the untreated back injury, perhaps? Who can say for certain? For now, all these years later, we can only trust what the medical examiner said at the time. Nikola Tesla died at 86 of coronary thrombosis.
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