Nikola Tesla (1856-1943): electrical genius, brilliant engineer, Mad Scientist, possibly asexual (or just celibate), pigeon-loving weirdo, and exceedingly poor businessman. Born in the village of Smiljan from Serbian parents (Austrian Empire at the time, Croatia today) and immigrant to the United States, Tesla is best known for his eponymous electrical transformer, the Tesla Coil, closely followed by his development of the first feasible alternating current power generator, ultimately built at Niagara Falls. Other patents of his include the equipment for radio, vertical take-off and landing, fluorescent light bulbs and a radio-control mechanism that contained the earliest practical example of a logic gate. He's also credited with a lot of early theoretical work on electromagnetic radiation that was later expanded into radar.
However, a combination of poor business decisions, economic trouble, and pressures from arch-rival Thomas Edison eventually led to the end of his good fortunes, and he acquired obsessive/compulsive tendencies and other eccentricities. He ultimately died alone in a hotel room after failing to sell a giant Death Ray to the US government. It is safe to say that without this man, the 21st century would not exist as we know it. And hardly anyone knows him.
This essay lists 4 reasons for Tesla's lack of public recognition.
Tesla lacked marketing ability and business knowledge. He concentrated on science and ignored the need to build a network of contacts. An unfortunate tendency to make wildly enthusiastic claims about how every new invention would bring about world peace, provide limitless free energy or occasionally both probably didn't help.
Thomas Edison had such ability and knowledge; he also made political connections and promoted his public image.
The corporate leaders of the time were scared of Tesla’s objective to invent free energy and took advantage of his business naiveté.
The United States government covered up his inventions during World War One and World War II since they were scared that the German Empire or the Nazis would develop a superweapon from his designs.
These are the facts. Everything else is very, very much up for grabs. Artificial lightning? Never left home without it! (In fact, one of the highlights of any of his demonstrations was shooting lightning from his fingertips.) Earthquake machine? Probably not. Faked his death and escaped to Soviet Russia? Doubtful. Assisted by a league of assassins as old as time itself? No. Caused The Tunguska Event with the help of Marconi while testing an experimental antigravity teleportation engine? ...You're just messing with us now, right?
Conjecture and conspiracy aside, some of the things that we do know Tesla was either working on or had plans for are quite terrifying. Aside from the above mentioned Artificial Lightning, Earthquake Machine, and the Death Ray (a particle beam weapon, to be precise) he tried to sell to the Government, Tesla had plans (whether or not any were close to functional is up for debate) for Force Shields, Gravity Manipulation, Wall Phasing and Teleportation. You know what they say about 'genius and madness'!
Because of both his behavioral and intellectual eccentricities, Tesla is both the Ur Example of the Real LifeMad Scientist (literally as some of the first depictions of the trope in film came from Thomas Edison's studios) and the fictional person to go to for all technological arcana and fringe science. The tesla, the S.I. unit of magnetic field strength (defined as a field that applies a one-newton force to a one-coulomb charge moving orthogonally at one meter per second), takes its name from him.
For examples relating to his most famous invention, see Shock and Awe.
On a final, completely unrelated note, he was also close friends with Mark Twain. Here's a picture◊ of them goofing around in Tesla's lab.
Atomic Robo, Tesla built the title character. In his earlier days (Volume 3, Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time), he also stopped a Cosmic Horror with Charles Fort and H.P. Lovecraft's father by using a death-ray. It doesn't work out as well as they had planned.
Tesla is a significant character in the DC Comics Elseworld JLA: Age of Wonder, in which he quits Edison Machine Works at the same time as Lex Luthor and Clark Kent. The combination of wacked-out science ability, ruthless business savvy and superpowers changes the world, until Luthor remembers he's a supervillain and asks Tesla to take out those Death Ray plans again.
As part of the Transformers: Hearts of Steel portion of IDW's Infestation 2Cross Through event, which took place in the Industrial Revolution, Nikola Tesla fought Cthulhu-powered Decepticons alongside Optimus Prime. Just go ahead and bask in that sentence for a bit.
Gets put into historical focus and made an inspiring figure to the hero in Jeff Smith's RASL.
In The Witches Of Chiswick, it's revealed that in the ideal timeline, Nikola Tesla was respected and befriended several other scientists - particularly Charles Babbage. Which led to him perfecting his inventions and bringing about the space age (plus broadcasted electricity and androids) in the Victorian era. This is screwed up when time-traveling witches pollute the time line which leads to a dystopic time line. This is patched up and we end with the current timeline we all live in.
His inventions are a center point to the plot of an early Repairman Jack novel.
He's not exactly a character in the novel Crazy For Cornelia, but Cornelia, a big ol' fan of lightning, is an obsessive fan of him.
Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio features the rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison, Tesla being the good guy of course. There's also time travel and an obscure royal family.
Tesla is a character in the Worldweavers books, where he also has elemental powers.
He appears in the Alternate History novel New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear, where he has fled to France from Russia's encroaching imperialism and the French government has hired him to build his broadcast energy system for Paris. His death ray, a concentrated form of his broadcast energy, also makes an appearance but is ineffective, at least against werebeasts.
In Behemoth, the sequel to Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, the Steam / Diesel Punks that make up the Central Powers have 'Tesla Cannons,' which are, predictably, lightning generators. In the third book in the trilogy, Goliath, Tesla becomes a major character. He is a great dealmore unstable than in real life. Which is saying something.
Some researchers have suggested that the character of Nyarlathotep was inspired by Tesla.
Lewis Shiner's short story "The White City" casts Tesla as a hero, or villain, as he perfects his device to banish night and darkness by electrifying the sky into a solid glowing sheet of energy. Permanently.
He was a member of the Ekaterina branch in "The 39 Clues" A online mission revealed that he discover one of the 39 Clues: mercury.
Tesla is an important supporting character in Jacek Dukaj's Ice novel.
Live Action TV
MythBusters tested Tesla's earthquake machine. While there were some surprisingly large vibrations, the idea that it could take out a building without external power was quite busted.
The bridge these guys were using their Tesla inspired device on was relatively modern, meaning that it had been built to withstand mechanical resonance. This theory has already been proven by incidents such as that of the Angers Bridge in 1850 (with the vibration of soldiers marching in step dislodging the bridge) and of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 (with the wind happening to have a frequency that matched the structural frequency of the bridge) This could potentially work, but that would depend on whether or not the building or bridge had been fortified against such frequencies.
Sanctuary recently took Tesla and turned him into a pseudo-vampire with delusions of world domination. He's one of the most popular characters on the show.
Eureka gave someone else credit for Tesla's Death Ray. But hey, at least they named the local school Tesla High School. Which has got to count for something, right?
Canadian period drama Murdoch Mysteries has Tesla show up in the first episode, partly to fight it out with another business over whether Toronto is lit by alternating or direct current and partly so that Murdoch can fanboy him.
Warehouse 13 has a handgun shaped and sized machine made by Tesla that shoots electricity and causes short term memory loss. He and Edison also apparently stopped their war long enough for both of them to create the warehouse's electrical system. The designing of the actual warehouse, however, was done by M.C. Escher, which is enough to give anybody Nightmare Fuel...
An episode of Team Knight Rider revealed that in his childhood, Trek had managed to design a fully functional version of Tesla's earthquake machine, which was being used by a renegade priest to do "God's work" by destroying Las Vegas.
The mid-90s tv series Legend featured a good-natured, brilliant, mad-scientist character named Janos Bartok (played by by the Large Ham John de Lancie AKA Q) who was expressly inspired by Tesla.
In an episode of CriminalMinds the main characters each contribute pictures to a Day of the Dead shrine, in addition to a picture of Maeve, Spencer Reid adds a photograph of Tesla.
Joy Electric, the Christian Electronica band, has a rather odd song dedicated to Tesla (as noted in the page quote).
Jay Electronica, no connection to the above, used a photo of Tesla as the cover to his set of E Ps, "Exhibit A" and "Exhibit C." Seen here◊ and here◊. Electronica also name drops Tesla in a verse of "Exhibit C."
Tesla Girls was a minor hit for the new wave band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark... and its music video was a major source of controversy.
Unitopia has a tribute to Tesla on its album Artificial World, and it's as schizophrenic as any progressive rock epic has ever been. However, it seems fitting given the subject.
They Might Be Giants has a song dedicated to Tesla (titled, appropriately enough, Tesla) on their 2013 album Nanobots.
Tesla is an important figure in the "Ravaged Earth" setting of the Savage Worlds RPG. In that timeline, following the Martian Invasion of 1898, a.k.a. the "Red War", Tesla used scavenged pieces of Martian technology to invent a whole host of new inventions, becoming incredibly rich when he sold them to Edison. In that world's setting of 1936, he is the head of a major scientific research institution.
In an early edition of the GURPS supplement GURPS Alternate Earths, Telsa's one date with the niece of JP Morgan did not go disastrously bad (in real life, he freaked at her pearl earrings... a phobia to round objects). With Morgan's financing and her calming influence, he was able to set the world into a version similar to H. G. Wells' Things To Come.
He's been merged into Genius The Transgression; this time he's a Etherite, putting him as one of the villains. Then again Etherites are often considered to be the least nasty of the villians, more interested in their crazy theories and experiencing the wonders of science than hurting anyone. They just tend to have a mental breakdown when someone disagrees with them, and have easy access to rayguns.
In the EurogameThrough The Ages: A Story Of Civilization, one of the six Modern Era leaders available for your civilization is Tesla (at least, in the more recent editions - the original version of the game had Bill Gates filling the same role).
Dystopia has a gun called the Tesla Rifle. It's primary fire arcs electricity from the gun to the target, and the secondary fire launches a shiny, slow-moving ball that discharges electricity as it flies through the air.
In Arcanum you can lay your hands on Tesla Guns and other Tesla-as-adjective weapons, provided you play a technological character. As it seems, every 'verse has a Tesla to develop electric technologies.
In Assassin's Creed II, it's revealed that Tesla had an ancient artifact, called a "Piece of Eden", apparently loaned by the secretive Templar order, from which he reverse-engineered all of his inventions. He wanted to take it many steps farther and start the Internet decades early while providing the world with free electricity; Thomas Edison, a Templar, notes in a letter that this would be easy. As it would also completely reshape the world away from what the Templars want it to be, they engineer his downfall, only for the Templars' rivals, the Assassin order, to recruit him so he can use science to destroy a Piece of Eden for them. Naturally, the result of that is the The Tunguska Event.
In the Ratchet & Clank series, there are a number of weapons named after Tesla, such as the Tesla Claw, a lightning gun of sorts, and the Tesla Barrier, an upgraded shield that arcs electricity at nearby enemies.
He also pops up in the backstory to Resistance, where he's credited with the invention of VTOL aircraft akin to the modern V-22 Osprey in the early 1930s. (Sort of Truth in Television, if you can call a patent application and an article Popular Mechanics "inventing" something.)
Dark Void features an alternate dimension where the main character, his ex-girlfriend, and Tesla all end up. Tesla ends up outfitting the player with jetpacks to battle the game's villains.
Dungeon Crawl has the nasty mid-game unique Nikola, known for blasting players to smithereens with his chain lightning.
Super Robot Wars gives us the Tesla-Leicht Institute (TLI), a mecha design and development think-tank, as well as the Tesla Drive, a portable anti-gravity device used to make mecha fly (or in the case of the Alt Eisen Riese, allow it to simply stand up under the weight of its own armor and armaments).
One Nancy Drew video game, "The Deadly Device", centers around Tesla's life and works. The Macguffin of the game is his claim to possessing technology that can make free electricity.
In the Chinese webfic Time to Shoot Down the Moon (written by a troper called T*sl*shark), the NATO extends Tesla's research and built "Coil Antennas" in Alaska and on the Moon to serve as a mean of long-range communication and detection, also generators of weaponized plasma lightning. The AI overseeing the Coil Antennas on the Moon is named Nick for some obvious reason, and many of the staff there belong to the Scientist's Vigilante, a secret organization founded by Tesla.
The mad scientist’s time in Colorado Springs plays a vital role in the blog novel Flyover City!
In the superhero podcast novel The Secret World Chronicle (not related to the Funcom game "The Secret World") Nicola Tesla and Andrew Marconi are digitized computer intelligences living in a secret science commune under the Himalayas.
The character Nikolai Technus from Danny Phantom is named after Tesla.
On Clone High, the words "Tesla rules" are perpetually visible on the blackboard in Mr. Sheepman's classroom. Tesla himself never appears.
One episode of Histeria!! talked about Tesla's work and character in surprising detail, even noting his questionable sanity and his rivalry with Thomas Edison. (It's noteworthy that Tesla here is portrayed as Christopher Walken.)
On Family Guy Peter tries to console his sister-in-law and tells her she wasn't the only one to get a bum deal, then they cut away to a turn of the century boardroom:
Man: Mr. Edison, we're going to use your invention to power the world. And Mr. Tesla, we're going to use yours in the background of Frankenstein movies. Thomas Edison: Aw, I wanted that one!
The setting of The Weekenders includes a theme park named Tesla Park, complete with a "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln"-esque animatronic attraction starring its namesake. Bonus points for Tish clarifying that Tesla, not Marconi, was the inventor of radio and citing the Supreme Court ruling that posthumously awarded him the credit he deserved. Now you've learned something, kids!
The Edison/Tesla rivalry comes up as the subject of a science fair project in the Bob's Burgers episode "Topsy". The teacher who's in charge of the fair is a big Edison fan, and the kids decide to reenact the demonstration of the alleged dangers of alternating current in which Edison deliberately electrocuted an elephant.
He's been called the Man That Invented the 20th Century. As his two best known groups of inventions are all the basic technology of AC power and all the basic technology of radio, this is not an exaggeration.