Ordinary standards do not apply to Tesla

On January 4th, 1943, Slovenian-American author Louis Adamic wrote the following heartfelt letter to ex-President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. The letter concerned the alarming treatment and general well-being of Adamic’s friend, Nikola Tesla; an immeasurably important inventor whose impact on the modern world is still difficult to appreciate and who, despite his numerous groundbreaking scientific achievements, was at the time of writing severely in debt and in worryingly ill-health.

Hoover immediately forwarded the letter to the IEEE, but to no avail; just three days after it was written, Tesla passed away in the hotel room in which he had lived for the past ten years.

Transcript follows.



January 4, 1943

Dear Mr. Hoover:

Nikola Tesla, as you know, is a Serbian immigrant who came to America from Croatia some 60 years ago and became one of the world’s greatest inventors. He became also an American. In the early 1920s Lenin urged him to move to the Soviet Union, promising him every scientific facility, and personal security for life, but Tesla declined — he was an American and had got used to living in the United States, whose civilization he helped to create.

His contribution to the sum-total of American civilization is almost beyond calculation. Hundreds of billions of dollars of American wealth are ascribable to his inventions. They are at the very center of our current war effort. No man living has added more substantially to the potentialities of human life than Tesla.

Yet today, when he is past 90, he is worse than penniless. He is extremely frail, weighing less than 90 pounds. His health is poor, and he has grown somewhat bitter against the U.S.A. No doubt his current poverty is his own fault. However, I think that ordinary standards do not apply to Tesla. He was always the pure scientist, never interested in money, always impractical about material existence.

But the fact is that now he is up against it. He receives a small “pension” from the Yugoslav government-in-exile. I know that Tesla suffers greatly at having to accept this pension from the government of his native country, to which he had never contributed anything directly. He suffers especially because the money comes to him through the Yugoslav Ambassador in Washington, whom he dislikes personally. Tesla suffers, too, in fact to the point of bitterness, because he feels — with some justice — that everyone in America, including the beneficiaries of fortunes created by his inventions, has forgotten him. No one writes to him; no one comes to see him.

He lives in a meager room in the New Yorker Hotel, in New York. He owes about a year’s rent — the Yugoslav pension is not enough to keep him in scientific apparatus, etc., for he continues to work on his projects.

This letter is not an appeal for your personal financial help. Some way will be found of looking out for him — he will probably not outlive 1943. But he needs someone to take care of him personally without seeming to; someone who could also follow his current notes and experiments and preserve what may be of value in them. Perhaps one of the large electrical corporations which have benefitted so greatly through his inventions would be glad to pension him for the short balance of his life. And I am wondering if you know someone who might be approached.

A pension coming from such a source would relieve Tesla of the necessity of accepting more money from the Yugoslav government. It would do much to remove his bitter feeling of neglect. And it would be fitting, though small, recognition of the debt America owes this man who has done so much for his country.

If you would like more details, I can come to see you in New York at any time.


Louis Adamic