Nobody can dispute the fact that Nikola Tesla was a scientific genius.
Not only did his patents and technological achievements help form the basis for most modern electrical and magnetic applications (including alternating current, an early x-ray machine, the AC motor, and the three-phase rotating magnetic field), he also pioneered in robotics, ballistics, cybernetics, and theoretical physics. Although Guglielmo Marconi was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for his work on radio, several court decisions would determine that Tesla deserved the real credit. Tesla never won the Nobel Prize in his own right (according to one rumour, plans to give a joint award to him and Thomas Edison had been scrapped due to their long feud). Tesla was widely acclaimed for his work in launching the modern technological revolution and the standard unit for the measurement of magnetic flux density was named the tesla in his honour.Although he attempted to launch several companies in his lifetime, most ended in failure and he was often forced to work as a common labourer to support himself while dreaming up his next invention.For all that he was world famous in his old age, Nikola Tesla seemed incapable of managing his money properly and spent his final years in poverty.
Despite his achievements, Nikola Tesla may well be remembered for his reputation as a showman of science and grandiose claims that never panned out. Throughout his lifetime, he pursued seemingly impossible dreams including wireless transmission of power (the phenomenon of transferring energy without wires through the use of electromagnetic induction is still known as the Tesla effect). By the 1930s, when Tesla was in his eighties, he claimed to have developed a "dynamic theory of gravity" although his work was never published. He also scorned Albert Einstein's theory of relativity as being riddled with errors but never really developed a true alternative. Tesla a attempted to interest the United States military in a directed energy weapon that would "put an end to all war".&Naming it the teleforce weapon, he also tried to interest several European countries as well but nobody took him up on his offer. Other plans for ion-propelled aircraft and electromagnetic ships powered from ground-based stations never materialized either.
While he may not have been viewed as a "mad scientist" as such, he was certainly well known for his eccentric behaviour. Although there is some speculation that he may have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, the symptoms that he displayed during his lifetime may match other diagnoses as well. Tesla showed many signs of obsessive-compulsive behaviour including a pathological fear of germs and dirt of all kinds, a strange fixation on the number three (he always insisted on staying in hotel rooms with numbers divisible by three), and experienced episodes of depression throughout his life. During these "nervous breakdowns", he would become hypersensitive to light and noise with strange twitches and shivers that defied medical diagnosis. A lifelong bachelor, Nikola Tesla was ambivalent towards women (despite numerous opportunities) and may well have died a virgin. In his old age, Nikola Tesla's oddities became even more apparent. For the last ten years of his life, he lived in a two-bedroom hotel suite in New York City (room 3327 of course) and often raised pigeons in his suite.; In addition to becoming increasingly sensitive to bright lights and loud noises, he also made claims to have communicated with beings from the planet Venus and being visited by a specific white pigeon each day. Although he had a small circle of devoted friends, Telsa often isolated himself and was verbally abrasive towards anyone who annoyed him.
Nikola Tesla died alone in a hotel room on January 7, 1943. He had been living as recluse for years although his reputation as a brilliant scientist and his grandiose claims had kept him in the public eye. With more than 700 patents to his name, enough people took him seriously for a rather lengthy FBI file to be compiled on Tesla and his claims.; Within hours of Tesla's death, the various papers and files in his suite were confiscated by the Alien Property Custodian (this despite the fact that Tesla was a U.S. citizen) and stored in a warehouse.
The (largely)declassified FBI file makes for fascinating reading. The first part of the file deals with Tesla's attempts to interest the U.S. government in his teleforce weapon as well as various news clippings in which he described his "death ray for planes" as well as outlining his conditions for working for the military (he demanded total autonomy and "no interference from experts"). The main bulk of the file deals with the aftermath of Tesla's death when the representatives of the Alien Property Custodian and the Yugoslavian Consulate entered Tesla's hotel room and removed the contents of his safe. After verifying that all articles removed were placed in a local warehouse (along with more than thirty barrels of material belonging to Telsa that had already been stored there), Tesla's papers became the focus of a major squabble over who would have access. Much of the later controversy over Tesla's papers seems to stem from that legal battle.
There were fears that a distant relative whom Tesla had "intensively disliked" might gain access to the Tesla papers and make them available to "the enemy" (the U.S. had already entered WWII by that time) and members of the Military Intelligence Division expressed "vital interest" as well. The Bureau denied taking any direct action and left disposal of the papers to the Alien Property Custodian. That didn't stop allegations of a conspiracy springing up over the Tesla papers and the presumed scientific advances that would result from them. The rest of Tesla's FBI file consists of various denials that the FBI had anything to do with the Tesla papers and official responses to the polite (and not-so polite) requests for information from concerned sources. John Jacob O'Neill probably didn't help matters when he published the first full-length biography of Tesla in 1944. Titled The Prodigal Genius, the book accused FBI agents of confiscating many of Tesla's papers after his death and likely launched the conspiracy theory. The book was specifically referenced in many of the letters that the FBI received
After a lengthy struggle by Tesla's family and the Yugoslavian government, most of the papers were eventually released and are now part of the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade. Aside from his legitimate scientific achievements, Nikola Tesla has been the focus of numerous pseudoscientific claims regarding death rays, UFOs, and other spectacular applications that were supposedly developed in secret by government agencies after the Tesla papers were taken. The fact that nothing of the sort seems to have materialized in the decades since Tesla's death has done little to lessen the conspiracy theories.
Mad scientists are always popular.