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The Tesla Memorial Society
21 Maddaket, Southwyck Village
Scotch Plains, New Jersey 07076
William H. Terbo
Executive Secretary
  Maria Godfors
Nikola Tesla: 1856 - 1943

Nikola Tesla: The European Years

Foreward by William H. Terbo.


Editor’s Note. Nikola Tesla: The European Years by Dan Mrkich (2003) is a well-researched fresh look at a neglected part of Tesla’s life (1856-1884) before he came to America. The author visited all sites where Tesla lived, worked and was educated. Mr. Mrkich belongs with the select few international experts in the life of Nikola Tesla, particularly in the period of his European years. (Marija Sesic, Director, The Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade.)



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.

Many books, articles and films have sought to capture something of the essence of this dramatic but enigmatic man. Even the most diligent works focus on the American years of invention and conflict with but a cursory sketch of Tesla’s early years, often with the compounding of errors of fact and detail. The research done by Dan Mrkich for Nikola Tesla: The European Years traces the many facets of his early life that influenced the development of the later man.

In addition to a dedication to Tesla and his creativity, Mr. Mrkich brings a Western perspective and some specific resources to bear that were not available to other biographers: his place of birth and early education closely paralleled that of Tesla. (Mr. Mrkich graduated from the same High School as Tesla and for a year lived in the same house as did Tesla more than 90 years earlier.) These parallels, combined with language skills and an ability to travel with relative ease and safety to locations still recovering from a particularly vicious form of conflict, enhance his research beyond anything previously published.

One would think that a comprehensive and chronological review of places familiar to Tesla, residences, schools, work locations and family sites, would have been compiled in the past particularly by those Serbs and Slavs who so adored him. It appears that this was never done in an organized way. Most of the information exists, but piecemeal. Not only did Mr. Mrkich collect the existing site information, visit the locations and report on their current state, his research uncovered several new sites, notably in Paris, Strasbourg and Maribor, Slovenia. By building his biography around the times and places familiar to Tesla, the picture and personality of Tesla gather much greater weight.

It would seem reasonable to expect that places where Tesla, a man of such worldwide renown, lived, was educated or worked would have been commemorated by plaques or similar recognition. Tesla’s name is much more familiar to Europeans than to Americans (his name appears on widely distributed household light bulbs and many electrical installations bear his name) but, outside of the former Yugoslavia, this recognition does not regularly extend to plaques. Perhaps the impetus of Mr. Mrkich’s research and personal contact will spur those institutions and governments to belatedly honor a neglected son.

Surprisingly, many American locations linked to Tesla are recognized with plaques, street names and so forth. The most impressive is a twice life size seated Tesla holding plans across his lap located overlooking Niagara Falls, the Bicentennial gift to the United States from the government of Yugoslavia. Busts of Tesla are placed in honored locations in at least a dozen of America’s leading universities, most the result of a citizen’s campaign led by an educator, John W. 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. It takes 4,500 pages to reproduce unduplicated copies of articles about him in newspapers, magazines and technical journals appearing between 1885 and 1920. 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.

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 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 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 was pleased to accept many of these 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 or 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 the county of Lika. I was finally able to visit the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade where there is more memorabilia connected to my father than I retain at home.

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. Because the ethnic and professional connections between Tesla and my father were so striking, I am able to offer a special insight into the personality of Nikola Tesla. 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.

On a personal basis, I am indebted to Dan Mrkich for his absorbing Nikola Tesla: The European Years. The recounting of Tesla’s early years in Europe puts fresh substance to the stories my father told me in my youth. The extraordinary research of this book brings names, places and dates into crisp focus overcoming the hazy recollection of long ago father/son conversations. The parallels of family home, education, career and immigration to America between Tesla and my father have given me an additional dimension of the very tall granduncle I only met as a child.

William H. Terbo July 2003
Executive Secretary
Tesla Memorial Society, Inc.


TMSve (2005)

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