Flash! President Obama gives a shout out to Nikola Tesla

Flash! President Obama gives a shout out to Nikola Tesla

EDIT: the original article (below) wasn’t strong enough in my recognition of the acomplishments of Nikola Tesla.  Some people interpreted it as making light of Tesla’s mainstream accomplishments, especially in improving on Thomas Edison’s delivery of electric power through the use of alternating current.  I have written a more recent article to make that clearer.  My thanks to readers who took the time and made the effort to let me know how they felt, and to defend an immigrant to the US who helped make our modern world possible.

President Obama gave a speech today at American University in Washington, speaking about immigration.  One particular part of it really caught my attention:

“…it is this constant flow of immigrants that helped to make America what it is: the scientific breakthroughs of Albert Einstein; the inventions of Nikola Tesla; the great ventures of Andrew Carnegie’s US Steel and Sergey Brin’s Google Inc.”

I think I might have made a classic double-take…and if I’d been drinking something, it might have been a spit-take. 

Tesla?  The death ray guy?  The scientific darling of the conspiracy set, touted right up there with Einstein and Carnegie (and Google)?

Look, let me say right away, Tesla is absolutely a recognized inventor who contributed in significant ways.  He was also an immigrant…that part fits this speech.

But not only did he have some really out there ideas, how he was treated is not traditionally held up as a sterling example of immigrants to America!

Yes, he was working on a “death ray”, and it might have worked.  He was working on wireless transmission of energy…and that might have worked.  He was a competitor of Edison’s, and lost out in a debate they were having.

But he died poor.  After he died, reportedly the “Alien Property Custodian” (an actual office of the US government at the time) confiscated his papers.  Tesla was a naturalized citizen at the time of his death, and his family argued for the return of the papers (which potentially had a lot of commercial value).

So, Tesla was a brilliant immigrant, yes, but has been co-opted by UFO buffs, appears in science fiction novels, died in bad economic circumstances, and is seen by some as having been abused by the US government after his death.

He just seems like an odd choice to demonstrate how great immigration has been for the USA…although, he might serve as an object lesson to warn potential immigrants, if one chose to believe all the stories.


This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.

6 Responses to “Flash! President Obama gives a shout out to Nikola Tesla”

  1. Uzalud Says:

    Tesla is the perfect choice in citing contributions to the US by immigrants. Have you never heard of Niagra Falls? Have you never wondered about what kind of cities we’d have without Tesla and Alternating Current? Google would not be possible , nor the magnificent machines that built this country…… I won’t go on ; this should give you enough to think about.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Uzalud!

      Tesla made some marvelous contributions, absolutely. You’re familiar with the alleged treatment of his papers after his death by the US Government? That’s what struck me as particularly odd. If President Obama had apologized in a presentation about Tesla, that would have made sense to me. He just struck me as a strange choice for that reason.

      There’s also the issue of how Tesla ended up (in a difficult economic situation). I perhaps wasn’t as clear as I could have been when I said in the post, “Tesla is absolutely a recognized inventor who contributed in significant ways.” The point of my post is that Tesla’s life wasn’t something I would hold up as a success of the US in relationship to an immigrant. It is the magnitude of his contributions that make that even more ironic.

      I’m sure those who are less familiar with Tesla’s story will appreciate you posting additional information. I’d also recommend this site, http://www.teslasociety.com/ , but you may already know that one.

  2. Jacob Says:

    I can’t believe what you talk, bufocalvin. Such ignorance is bliss. Tesla was genius, he invented something that can’t be found in nature – alternating current – usable form of electricity which we use today. Also, after his death it was proven in US court that Tesla was first to invent radio, not Marconi… So – one US immigrant, and immigrant is a person who moved to live in USA, invented electric power and radio, and many other things we could not live without today. Obama is as right as it gets, and your post is malicious and

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jacob!

      I clearly need to explain my post more, and I will. It was not meant to slight Tesla at all, but you are the second person to react as if it did (see earlier comments).

      I appreciate you defending Tesla…as I said it in the article, his contributions were great.

      The point of the article wasn’t that Tesla’s contributions weren’t significant…it was that his treatment by the US was not something I would hold up as an example of great work by the United States.

      I’ll write a new post to make that clearer. Thank you for taking the time to write, and to express yourself.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thank you again for writing, Jacob!

      I’ve now written a new post which I hope clarifies the last one.

      My intent (and I clearly failed in that intent) was to bring attention to how poorly Tesla was treated. I tried to do it with humor, and that didn’t work for you and for some others. That’s especially true if you saw any malice about Tesla in it.
      I assumed that people reading it would already know how crucial he was, and that was a mistake.

      It is absolutely right for the US government to recoginize Tesla…and it would be better for them to apologize for the US government’s past treatment of him. It seemed unfair for Obama to mention him without acknowledging those issues. Otherwise, it seems like the US government treated him well…and that’s not my feeling about it. That was my point…sorry I failed to make that with you.

      I’ve linked to some interesting and informative Tesla sites in the new post: hopefully,that will help people get a better understanding of him.


      I’ve also re-edited the original article. I added something at the top that I hope helps recognize the important contributions Tesla made.

      Thank you again for your passionate comment.

  3. Clarifying the Tesla article « The Measured Circle Says:

    […] a recent article, I wrote about President Obama mentioning Nikola […]

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