The Tesla Memorial Society
21 Maddaket, Southwyck Village
Scotch Plains, New Jersey 07076
Nikola Tesla: 1856 - 1943

Tesla Energy Science Conference

Tesla Energy Science Conference
Integrity Research Institute
Beltsville, Maryland
November 8th and 9th, 2003

Comments by William H. Terbo, Executive Secretary, Tesla Memorial Society, Inc.
I have been dealing with the personality, accomplishments and ideals of Nikola Tesla for almost my entire life. The form of that attention has changed over the past sixty plus years from the family aspect of a simple and respectful recognition of a man from another age who just happened to be my father's uncle to being closely associated with the popular revival of interest in a giant often regarded as the greatest inventive mind of the modern technological era.

Nikola Tesla has been the subject of every facet of modern media, both directly and in the context of other aspects of history, technology and his impact on today's society. Over the years hundreds of articles have focused on him, dozens of books have recounted his life and accomplishments, a score of documentaries have featured his place in modern history and more than one feature film have been devoted to this remarkable man. Most of these works have sought to capture something of the essence of this dramatic but enigmatic man. But even the most diligently prepared works focus on the American years of invention and conflict with but a cursory sketch of Tesla's early years and but a distant appreciation of the philosophy and sensibilities that drove the man. Often the research done relied on earlier, less reliable, work with the effect of compounding errors of fact and detail.

Today, I would like to provide a little background on current areas of Tesla recognition and some personal thoughts on the private character of Nikola from a family point of view.


Tesla's name is much more familiar to Europeans than to Americans. His name appears (as a brand) on widely distributed household light bulbs and appliances in Eastern and Southern Europe. Many large-scale electrical installations bear his name in Europe and elsewhere. (I understand that the new scientific Particle Accelerator under construction in Germany is to bear Tesla's name.) In Europe, outside of the former Yugoslavia, this significant level of recognition does not regularly extend to busts and plaques.

However, many American locations linked to Tesla are recognized with plaques, street names and so forth. The most impressive is a more that twice life sized statue of Tesla overlooking Niagara Falls, the 1973 Bicentennial gift to the United States from the government of Yugoslavia. Tesla is depicted seated, on a raised pedestal, with a set of plans spread across his lap. This "seat" in his lap provides an inviting photo opportunity for parents of children visiting the Falls. (Such a video clip is a part of the I Love New York tourism campaign).

To date, bronze busts of Tesla (with black granite bases and bronze plaques) have been placed in honored locations in more than ten of America's leading universities, the result of a nonprofit citizen's campaign led by an educator and Tesla Memorial Society Executive Board member, John W. Wagner. (Funding for the busts comes from personal funds, gifts, grants and the sale of thousands of high quality "Tesla" T-shirts. For more information e-mail: John Wagner).


Nikola Tesla was a superstar of a hundred years ago and the popular darling of the print media much in the manner of today's movie stars and sports heroes. (Remember, Engineering was once the stuff of romance.) The stardom thrust on Tesla started with the introduction of his alternating current system in the early 1890's and captured the imagination of the entire world with the harnessing of Niagara Falls in 1896. The connection between efficient and transportable electric energy quickly replacing previous inefficient methods with an accompanying decrease in exhausting manual labor was not lost on the general public. They credited the improvement in productivity and living standards to Tesla. Soon the public clamored to hear the details of each new discovery of this scientific icon.

That fame continued in a somewhat more modest measure through the 1930's while he lived. But after his death in 1943, this recognition quietly faded as the nation and the world concluded the World War and directed its attention to reconstruction and an explosion of new technology. It took another 25 years for people to reflect on just who was responsible for the new standard of ease and comfort enjoyed by modern societies. The name of Nikola Tesla, now almost completely unknown to the new generations, kept appearing when talk turned to the creative source of the technology that brought electric power, radio and a host of other everyday devices to the masses.

My father, Nikola Trbojevich (Nicholas J. Terbo) was the son of Tesla's eldest sister, Angelina. (At my Anglo-American mother's preference, we used the social name of Terbo and I was born with that name - father's professional name of Trbojevich was well established before their marriage in 1923.) Until my father's generation the Tesla and Trbojevic (the Serbian spelling) families were almost exclusively clericals in the Serbian Orthodox religion living nearby in the same Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier province county of Lika (now a part of the Republic of Croatia) directly facing, at that time, the Ottoman Empire's most westward reach in the territory of what is now Bosnia.

Two important elements established a special link between Tesla and father (30 years Tesla's junior): they were the only members of the extended families who were technically educated and the only members who immigrated to America. Father's professional and financial standing was secured by his invention of the Hypoid gear, used on the vast majority of the world's automobiles since 1930. The Hypoid gear introduced advanced mathematics to the art of gear design much as Tesla united electrical theory and electrical engineering. Tesla reveled in referring to father as "my nephew, the mathematician." Their family and intellectual connections made for frequent contact between New York and Detroit by visit, phone, telegram and mail.

My relation to Tesla's fame was quite subdued during the time of my education and early professional life. If it hadn't been for the Tesla Coil, which a few of the most enterprising high school age youngsters chose to build after winding their first electric motor, I don't think Tesla's name would have ever surfaced in that environment. With me, it was which engineering school I would attend - not what career I would pursue. My father's professional success combined with Tesla's reputation created a momentum too hard to resist. In those days I never offered up my relationship to Tesla without some specific reason. In all my courses in Electrical Engineering Tesla's name was introduced but once, and that in connection with the Coil. (However, when I took a course in gear design, my father's specialty, the Professor made me rise and be recognized - such was my father's more current reputation.)

After college I went to Los Angeles and became a part of the missile and space industry. With the exception of a very few scientists and people of Slavic background, particularly Serbs, Tesla's name was completely forgotten there. A woman of German origin I knew in Los Angeles danced with a Yugoslav folk dance club. I suggested that she might want to mention to her friends in the group that she knew one of the closest living relatives of Nikola Tesla. The next day she told me they said "impossible that a close Tesla relative would be in Los Angeles" and they didn't believe me! I had to provide family detail to convince them. It was my first realization of the almost reverential regard Serbs and other Slavs hold for Tesla.

During my Los Angeles years my Secret clearance restricted my international travel particularly to Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia. In 1973 I made a career change to satellite telecommunications and relocated first to Washington, DC and then to the New York City metropolitan area. It was a pivotal time in the renewal of interest in Tesla, both for his scientific accomplishments and for the intriguing texture of his personality. To my amazement, the level of activity concerning Tesla in the East was exceptional and well publicized. In 1975 Nikola Tesla was inducted into the National Inventors Hall Of Fame with Orville and Wilbur Wright, Samuel F. B. Morse and Guglielmo Marconi. The Hall is sponsored and publicized by the United States Department of Commerce. The Bicentennial Year of 1976 brought forth a torrent of honors. By 1975 my relationship to Tesla had been more widely known and I have been pleased to accept the Inventors Hall Of Fame diploma, the 1983 issuance of a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp and many other such honors in the family name.

In 1979 I was able to make my first trip to Yugoslavia. The reception accorded to me was only a small measure of the almost religious esteem in which Tesla is held in the land of his birth. No appointment was withheld, no courtesy was denied. Travel was arranged throughout the entire country including Tesla's and my father's birth county of Lika. I was finally able to visit the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade where the bulk of his estate is preserved. The Museum possesses over 1,200 exhibits and 160,000 pages of documents plus hundreds of other items of memorabilia, including more correspondence with my father than I retain at home.


Let me talk for just a minute about the personality and character of Nikola Tesla. Much has been written about his public persona, usually dealing with the creation and implementation of his inventions and discoveries. Such writing tends to show a man of overwhelming intellect, dedication and perseverance. It creates a picture of a somber and sober person with a single-mindedness that seems to preclude a more human side. Much has also been speculated on the private side of Tesla. This speculation has been much influenced by his fastidious dress, his formal manners and his precise writing style. Aside from the more outrageous speculations, the conclusion drawn that this was an introverted and driven workaholic without a fully developed personal side. However, put in the context of the times, dress, manners and precision in writing were really hallmarks of the decades on either side of the turn of the century. We have very few instances of verifiable anecdotes from his closest friends because such gossip rarely found its way into print. (What a change from today's celebrity bashing.) But, in context or out of context, these characterizations of Tesla's private personality have been perpetuated.

I've thought of this and believe that I may very well have a unique insight into Tesla's private personality through a comparison with my father. The parallels in their lives far exceed the common gene pool formed by their blood relationship. Except for being 30 years apart in age, the list of parallels is truly staggering:

· Both born in the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier Province county of Lika where periodic military incursions by the Ottomans created a special sense of danger and responsibility among the border Serbs. · Both sons of Serbian Orthodox priests and were raised in a very severe and demanding faith. · Both received high level technical educations far from home, necessary in those days as such education was not available in the provinces. Tesla was educated in Graz and Prague, father in Budapest. · Both worked in Budapest for similar lengths of time and immigrated to the United States at 28 years of age. · Both exhibited qualities of dedication, patience, modesty and a philosophical turn of mind and, as inventors, made their most important inventions in their middle thirties. · Both suffered from a certain naivete, particularly in business, and acquired, but let slip from their hands, a considerable fortune, and were ultimately frustrated. · Both were strong and vigorous and died at 86 (Tesla) and 87 (father).

Considering my father's personality and some of the anecdotes father told me about Tesla, I believe that many of the affectations and idiosyncrasies so linked to Tesla (aversion to pearls, fear of germs, reluctance to shake hands, super sensitivity to sound and so forth) were well under control. Some, in his later life when the need to keep the press interested was more important, were consciously exhibited. I think it amused him. His wiping the silverware, measuring the volume of his meals and favoring multiples of three is simply manifestations of mildly compulsive-neurotic tendencies. Better to do something rather than sitting idly waiting for dinner to be served.

(When I met him as a seven, eight or nine year old boy, Tesla, 80 years old, hugged me, kissed me in the Serbian manner and mussed my hair. This is hardly something for a person to do if in fear of germs. Eight-year old boys must be crawling with germs, regardless or how recently washed!)

While both Tesla and father had serious religious upbringing, I believe both were governed by ethics rather than doctrine. I believe both had their feet planted firmly on the ground when philosophizing and the most religion-inspired thought they had was a duty to serve their fellow man. My father often said he would prefer the Nobel Prize to a million dollars. That was long before the Nobel Prize WAS a million dollars. (My mother said she would prefer the million.)

And that brings me to an unexpected point. Father had a good sense of humor and could hardly finish telling a funny story without bursting into roars of laughter. Some of the stories were from childhood in the old country - stories similar to the ones Tesla probably knew and that tickled him. A friendship with Sam Clemens must have a strong element of humor in it. When you next think of Nikola Tesla, that discoverer of great concepts, think of him with a smile on his face and a laugh on his lips.


To bring a focus to the increasing number of Tesla-oriented activities, the Tesla Memorial Society was founded in 1979 and incorporated in 1980 as a non-profit, non-political, all volunteer membership organization operating under Section 501 (c) (3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. The Society Charter is to "honor and perpetuate the memory and ideals" of Nikola Tesla through support of and participation in various cultural activities and as a source for speakers and media contact. The Society is the oldest U.S. based international organization honoring Nikola Tesla in continuous operation. In 1980 I became a part of the Society first as Honorary Chairman, later as Chairman of the Executive Board and more recently as Executive Secretary. One of my principal tasks with the Society is to write and speak about Tesla the man in a correct way that neither deifies him nor holds him to unqualified gossip.
WHT/William H. Terbo    Edited 3 January 2005     © 2003    tmsub

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