Most people know that Elon Musk’s company is named after the famous and somewhat mysterious scientist, Nikola Tesla, but they don’t know how much Musk and Tesla have in common. Musk did not name the company Tesla; it had already been named before he joined. However, the name turned out to be an apt homage to a man with whom Musk shares several intriguing commonalities.
1. Photographic memory and the ability to perform advanced mathematical functions in their head.
Nikola Tesla’s visual memory was so strong that as a child both he and his family worried that he was suffering from hallucinations. A word could evoke the image of an object in front of him that he had once seen, and he was incapable of distinguishing it from reality. Later, however, he learned to harness that capacity to become like a human CAD/CAM machine, as he describes in his 1919 autobiography:
“I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind… I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it.”
Elon Musk also has an unusually powerful memory. Often said to have a photographic memory, he can rapidly absorb massive amounts of information with near perfect recall (a gift he used to great advantage as a child when he memorized large portions of the encyclopedia). Musk, like Tesla, also has an exceptional ability to visualize and solve complex problems, and he notes that it feels as if his visual processing systems are taken over:
“It seems as though the part of the brain that’s usually reserved for visual processing – the part that is used to process images coming in from my eyes – gets taken over by internal thought processes. . . For images and numbers, I can process their interrelationships and algorithmic relationships. . . Acceleration, momentum, kinetic energy – how those sorts of things will be affected by objects comes through very vividly.”[i]
Kevin Watson, SpaceX engineer notes, “The stuff I have seen him do in his head is crazy. He can get in discussions about flying a satellite and whether we can make the right orbit and deliver Dragon at the same time and solve all these equations in real time.”
2. Driven by a quest for free energy to improve the lot of mankind.
Nikola Tesla spent the better part of his life working on systems that would harness the free energy of the Earth. As noted by Marc Siefer in his 1998 biography of Tesla,
“[Tesla] wanted to devise a mechanical means for doing away with the needless tasks of physical labor so that humans could spend more time in creative endeavors…Tesla realized that machines could liberate the worker.”
Musk’s development of electric vehicles, solar roofing and Powerwall batteries are part of his similar ambition to create sustainable energy production systems for the welfare of humankind:
“When I was in college and thought about what are the things that would most affect humanity, the three areas seemed to me to be the internet, transitioning to a sustainable energy economy, and space exploration. So after doing a few internet companies I basically turned to the other two elements, and decided to focus on the space exploration problem personally and fund some other folks to help solve the sustainable energy problem with Tesla and Solar City.”[ii]
3. Extreme faith in their ability to overcome all obstacles and achieve their objectives (“self efficacy”).
Nikola Tesla’s confidence in his ability to do what others deem impossible was so extreme that people were inclined to describe him as a “dreamer.” Yet Tesla made good on most of his grandiose claims, inventing AC electricity, wireless communication systems, remote control robots, and more. For example, at the age of fourteen, Tesla proclaimed his intention to build a giant wheel under Niagara Falls to harness its energy. His family and teachers paid little heed to this seemingly fantastical idea. Yet by the age of 40, he had not only built the power plant at Niagara, but had also demonstrated the ability to create and transmit power at a scale that had never before been imagined.
Musk’s exceptional self efficacy is equally on display in his intentions to personally resurrect the NASA space program, to create a transportation system that will move people from NYC to Shanghai in about thirty minutes, and in his promise to rebuild the Puerto Rican power grid based on solar energy. It would be unbelievable if he hadn’t already demonstrated his remarkable ability to achieve his outsized goals! As Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS Evening News quipped in 2014, “Only four entities have launched a space capsule into orbit and successfully brought it back: the United States, Russia, China, and Elon Musk.”[iii] Then in March 2017 he showed that he could land and re-use rockets — a feat the space industry had said was impossible. Max Levchin, who co-founded PayPal with Musk says, “He is very much the person who, when someone says it’s impossible, shrugs and says, ‘I think I can do it.”[iv]
4. Intense fascination with Mars.
Most people don’t realize that like Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla had an intense fascination with Mars. Tesla believed that his wireless communications system would enable interplanetary communication, and while working at his laboratory in Colorado Springs at the end of the 1800s, he became convinced that he had convinced he had intercepted a transmission from Mars:
“Others may scoff at this suggestion…[of] communicat[ing] with one of our heavenly neighbors, as Mars…or treat it as a practical joke, but I have been in deep earnest about it ever since I made my first observations in Colorado Springs…The character of the disturbances recorded precluded the possibility of their being of terrestrial origin, and I also eliminated the influence of the sun, moon and Venus. As I then announced, the signals consisted in a regular repetition of numbers, and subsequent study convinced me that they must have emanated from Mars, the planet having just then been close to the Earth.” –Nikola Tesla, 1921
Musk’s preoccupation with Mars is better known. Musk built SpaceX, in fact, with the explicit intention of colonizing Mars, as he articulated in a letter to SpaceX employees in 2013:
“Creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure.”
Learn more about the commonalities between Tesla and Musk, as well as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Dean Kamen in, “Quirky: The remarkable story of the traits, foibles, and genius of breakthrough innovators who changed the world.” Quirky shows how these commonalities helped drive these innovators to do what others deemed impossible, and how we can nurture the breakthrough innovation potential in us all.
[i] Vance, A. 2015 Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a fantastic future. New York: Harper Collins, pg. 32-33.
[ii] Elon Musk, in Chafkin M. 2007. “Entrepreneur of the Year, 2007: Elon Musk.” Inc., December 1st.
[iii] Pelley, S. 2014. Fast cars and rocket ships (interview with Elon Musk). CBS, March 30th
[iv] Chafkin, M. 2007. “Entrepreneur of the Year, 2007: Elon Musk.” Inc., December 1st.