Little known details from the lives of two famous Serbian scientists: Nikola Tesla and Mihailo Pupin


February 20, 2010

Like Mozart and Salieri

For Business Magazine Dr. Velimir Abramovic highlights details of the personalities and relationship of two famous Serbian scientists. Dr. Abramovic has been studying Nikola Tesla’s work for a number of years. He recently published a voluminous book about Tesla, entitled “Everlasting Light”. Although the contribution that these two scientists made to mankind is the most important aspect of the whole story, it might also be interesting to remind the reader of their relationship and imagine what the world would look like today had they cooperated and lived in harmony and understanding…

Their paths crossed only when they met abroad. Mihailo Pupin came to the USA ten years before Tesla. Tesla arrived in America in 1884 and soon became famous, thanks to his breakthrough discovery of alternating current in 1888. His fame spread worldwide instantly, especially after his lectures in London and Paris. Pupin’s rise was much slower. His work as an inventor took a backseat to his career as a professor at Columbia University. His most important invention was a telephone coil that improved the transmission of telephone signals. He invented the coil in 1894. But overall, neither the number nor the importance of his inventions can compare with Tesla’s work.

“Tesla and Pupin met at the Engineers’ Club, which was located on New York’s Fifth Avenue. They would get together there on Sundays. Young Marconi used to go there too, as well as many other young scientists…“ says Abramovic.

Q: Little is known about the Tesla-Pupin relationship. Were they close friends?

”In the beginning they were friends, but one has to bear in mind that it was hard to have Tesla for a friend. Unlike him, Pupin was a sociable man, he spent practically all of his free time and energy acquiring social influence, while Tesla was extremely withdrawn. The difference between Tesla and Pupin was actually very simple: Tesla was a genius and Pupin was a zoon politikon, as defined by Aristotle long ago. That is a very elegant name for someone who cares about social status more than he cares about universal knowledge. Pupin was, in terms of political power, the most influential Serb in the Western world. Both Tesla and Pupin became prominent members of late 19th century New York high society. Tesla attracted more media attention, whereas Pupin attracted more academic and university circles. Tesla was more of a scientist, Pupin possessed greater social skills. Obviously there was a competitive atmosphere between them, we might even talk about their rivalry. Pupin was overshadowed by Tesla, bringing the possibility of envy.

One incident happened between them in front of students in the New York University Club. There was a game that was popular at the time called “thumb wrestling.” They played it and Tesla won, but he also broke Pupin’s thumb. That was a very awkward episode and Pupin could never forgive Tesla, because this happened in front of a large audience. Their relationship became more of a rivalry, going so far that they actually never collaborated. This eventually grew into a total lack of communication that lasted 30 years.

Q: What kind of characters were Tesla and Pupin?

Tesla and Pupin were completely opposite characters. Tesla was always in a state of mental tension, he was always deep in thought. It was difficult to communicate with him, he was never relaxed. His mind was always focused and for other people that usually created tension. He never smoked, he did not drink. He did not talk at all to people he judged would not understand him. He was an ethical perfectionist who despised people who were slaves to material goods, and Pupin was one of them. Tesla was entirely dedicated to science. Pupin had many contacts in high society. He socialized, he attended receptions, he helped people, especially his students, so as a result, even today Pupin is highly respected in the United States, more than Tesla. That is a paradoxical situation – he is more recognized as a scientist than Tesla in America when actually it was Tesla, alongside J.P. Morgan, who established America as a super power.

Q: You mentioned that Pupin helped his students. Did Tesla help students as well?

They both helped, but in different ways. Tesla didn’t have students. He worked alone, with technicians. However, when Tesla came to Serbia in June 1893, he had a proposal for the university authorities. He proposed that he come to Serbia every two years to choose the best students and provide scholarships for their further education in the United States. Although King Aleksandar Obrenovic received Tesla, the head of the university technical school was not in Belgrade during the 35 hours Tesla was in Belgrade, and so the opportunity for Tesla’s proposal was lost. Pupin helped arrange scholarships for students in Vojvodina. He founded and was the first president of the All-Serbian National Council “Sloga” in New York. The Secretary of the Council was Pavle Rankov Radosavljevic, a prominent anthropologist and scholar from Sombor.

Q: When and where did Tesla and Pupin’s main conflict occur?

The fight broke out around Marconi’s interest in radio technology in the USA. Tesla already had 12 registered radio patents, so Marconi was unable to register the radio as his patent. Instead, he made a deal with Lloyd George, who was British Prime Minister at the time, to convince several companies to finance a patent for speakers, and then to transfer that patent to the US as a joint patent for the radio. Then he used his connections to build telegraph stations in Europe and the US, which was a profitable business. Marconi was Tesla’s assistant for some time and everything that he knew about the radio he learned from Tesla. There was a well known court case between Tesla and Marconi. The court engaged Pupin as a witness and he gave testimony in favor of Marconi, according to a secret agreement they made in England. The agreement was about the division of shares, so Pupin had a direct financial interest there, and Tesla knew about that. Pupin stated that Marconi independently patented the radio, and the court case culminated with Pupin seeking a psychiatric examination of Tesla. After that Tesla broke all communication with Pupin until Pupin’s death in 1935, he simply did not talk to him ever again. The main reason for the termination of communication was that Pupin had questioned Tesla’s mental health, which, you have to admit, was indeed a very low blow. Tesla left notes about this conflict with his nephew Sava Kosanovic, his friend Milos Tosic, and others.“

A reminder for the readers: The US Patent Office recognized Marconi’s patent for radio broadcasting. Due to this decision, a long-term court dispute started between Tesla and Marconi. The Supreme Court of America subsequently acknowledged Nikola Tesla’s right to patent the radio in 1943, after Tesla’s death.

In the opinion of our interlocutor, Tesla, like every brilliant man, considered people who did not understand his ideas spontaneously as being of a lower rank. “When Pupin testified against him because of financial interest, I suppose Tesla wrote him off as a man of a lower mental category. In a letter that Tesla sent to Paja Radosavljevic he said: “Did you see that agitated Pupin give the patent to our enemy …”, referring to Marconi. Tesla was very realistic in dealing with people, but he had very high criteria. He looked at people in general, not only at Pupin, with a kind of justifiable scorn. Unlike Tesla, Pupin did not leave any written record or oral testimony about his split with Tesla, or why he sided with Marconi in the Tesla – Marconi court case.

There were a few reconciliation attempts between Tesla and Pupin. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic mediated at one of them in 1915. He wanted to solve two major Serbian problems with one blow: reconcile the two great men and unite the Serbs, persuading Tesla and Pupin to jointly sign the “Vidovdan Constitution” on the unification of the Serbs. Pupin signed, but Tesla refused, saying: “… I know our Serbian people, they have their own views about everything, such an appeal would not be well received and some of our journalists would stab the signatories with the sharpness of their pen. But now that you have come from the homeland, why did you not bring such an appeal to the American Serbs from our two Serbian rulers: King Petar I Karadjordjevic and King Nikola I Petrovic?” Bishop Nikolai commented on the meeting: “He is such a great man, I’m sorry now that I dragged him out of his peace of mind. I should not have come.” On the one hand, we can interpret Tesla’s gesture of refusal as the conceit of a man conscious of his own genius, but on the other hand, he showed he was very politically savvy.

Tesla was often short of money. In 1934, when Radoje Jankovic, Consul of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in New York, told him about Pupin’s offer to provide him with help from some companies, Tesla refused. The reason for not accepting was the fact that he was not on good terms with Pupin. The offer must have sounded strange to him, but it seems that it was sincere.

On his deathbed in 1935, Pupin expressed the desire to say farewell to Tesla through consul Jankovic. The moment of reconciliation was etched in the memory of Milos Tosic, Tesla’s friend, Royal military attaché in New York at the time. Tosic phoned Tesla at the New Yorker Hotel, described Pupin’s difficult situation and told him about Pupin’s desire to see Tesla. Tesla replied: “Oh, it will be very difficult.” He requested time to think it over, and Tosic said that Tesla made his decision the next morning. After a sleepless night, Tesla visited Pupin in the hospital with Tosic the next day: “A few doctors were next to Pupin’s bed in his room when we came in. The meeting was very touching. Tesla went up to the patient, held out his hand and spoke in a gentle voice: “How are you my good old friend?” Pupin could not speak, he only cried. Everyone left the room to leave them alone. On his way out, Tesla gave the doctors a Pythagorean statement, saying that he and Pupin would meet again in the Club of Scientists and talk as before. “They spent about half an hour alone. Tesla never revealed to anyone, ever, the contents of his last conversations with Pupin, which represented their reconciliation after 30 years.”

Forty hours after this meeting, Pupin died. The day after his death, the same issue of the New York Times published Pupin’s obituary and the last research interview with Pupin who criticized the theory of ether by the English scientist Oliver Lodge, Tesla’s great friend, with whom he shared many views.

Pupin was a great businessman

Q: It is well known that Tesla died alone and poor. Was Pupin a better “businessman” than Tesla? How would you describe in a few sentences Tesla’s life and Pupin’s life?

Pupin was everything that Tesla was not. He was part of the true and deep American social power. Back then, Pupin was a millionaire, today he would be a billionaire. Pupin left a great deal of property and enormous sums of money to his daughter. He set up a foundation at Columbia University, because it was important to him to be remembered as a scientist. So everyone in the U.S. knew who Pupin was. Tesla was withdrawn, calm… completely uninterested in material things. This can be illustrated by the fact that during the last years of his life, he sent letters to Milos Tosic asking him to pay his bills. He couldn’t even pay his hotel bills, and then the Royal Government-inExile allocated a pension for Tesla, which covered the hotel costs. Tesla never invested a single dollar, but spent a huge amount of money on science. He lived an ascetic life in Manhattan, a monk in the middle of New York. Pupin was actually Salieri, who was highly educated and very successful in his field, but not brilliant, and was aware of this, and because of that, he suffered. For Pupin the most important thing was the life of this world, and for Tesla it was only the result of the Spirit, the automatism of cosmic forces…Tesla was the Mozart of science.

Author: Marina Bulatovic and Ljuba Djordjevic
Photo by: Magazine Archive and Budislav Bulatovic

Published by: Business Magazine – Belgrade – Serbia

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