Tesla and the pigeons

[This post is aimed at those people who, with the cruellest expression on their face, yell during condominium meetings: “Kill the pigeons! They are rats with wings, they spread diseases”. Sometimes, I wish to ask them: “Should we kill you, too – you, rats with two legs, that spread more diseases than any other species in the whole world?”

It is also aimed at those who accuse Tesla of anti-semitism (but see no harm in mistreating living birds). It is so stupid to attribute to him such prejudices. Though, it is true he said about Saturday:

«Though a day of plebeians – drummers, grocerymen, Jews, and other social trilobites, toe prospect is nevertheless delightful.»

Do people know what a trilobite is? Notice that he mentions, not one, but three tri-lobites, and they are not arbitrary elements. By the way, Tesla loved the number three and its multiples (“If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have a key to the universe”). So, can’t people understand the joke? Oh, keep quiet and think once in a while! Pigeons are so much lovelier, clever and cleaner than some people’s mind. Long live Piazza San Marco!]


«No one knew when the inventor began gathering up the sick and wounded pigeons and carrying them back to his hotel. Usually however; it was a mission that he carried out late in the day. His whole routine was that of a night person. (…)

Tesla passed the Engineers’ Club almost daily, but no longer went inside. The building stood, as it still does, directly across from Bryant Park, the rectangle of sooty grass and listless trees behind the public library where he went each day to feed his pigeons. Many engineers observed the strange tall figure, less magnificently dressed than in his prime yet still erect and proud, as he entered the park to be greeted by swirls of birds. Pigeons even then were considered socially unmeritorious. Their hunger seemed to touch only people who were, like them, in need. Pigeons appealed to quirky lonely, unreliable, usually poor, and eccentric persons. Important engineers did not hang about in city parks feeding dirty birds.

Journalists too had noticed Tesla on his avian missionary work. Going home after midnight a reporter might find him standing in the darkness, lost in thought, with a bird or two taking food from his hands or lips, even though it was well-known that birds were blind at night and preferred to be in their roosts. At such times Tesla was apt to make it clear to the reporters that he did not care to talk with them. Later two of them would find out why.

Another journalist told of meeting him wandering about in Grand Central Station. When asked if he had a train to catch, he replied, “No, this is where I do my thinking.

On the night of the Edison Medal presentation ceremony, a banquet was held in the Engineers’ Club. Afterward the members and guests were to reconvene across the alley in the United Engineering Societies building on 39th Street for speeches. It was a splendid white-tie affair. The guest of honor [Tesla] was impeccable, the radiance of his personality shining forth as forcefully as in his youth. All eyes followed his tall, charismatic presence. Yet somehow between the banquet hall and the nearby auditorium, he vanished. How such a flagpole figure managed to disappear, Behrend could not for the life of him understand. The committee was in a dither, and a search was begun for the guest of honor. Waiters peered into rest rooms. Behrend, thinking Tesla might have become ill, rushed into the street to take a taxi to Tesla’s hotel, the St. Regis. But following an impulse, he found his steps turning instead toward Bryant Park. Making his way through the gathering dusk, Behrend reached the entrance to the park, only to find it blocked by a group of strollers watching something in the shadows. Behrend edged his way in, and there stood Tesla festooned from head to toe in pigeons. They perched upon his head, pecked feed from his hands, and covered his arms, while a living, gurgling carpet of birds swarmed over his black evening pumps. The inventor spotted Behrend and cautiously raised a finger to his lips, disengaging feathered friends in the process. Finally, while Behrend stood anxiously by, Tesla dusted feathers from his finery and consented to be led back into the hall to receive his tribute. (…)

Some years later, Dragislav Petkovic, visiting from Yugoslavia, would walk with the inventor to Bryant Park on his daily mission of mercy and hear a revealing comment. “Mr. Tesla looked up at the [library] windows, which are fenced with the iron bars, that some pigeons did not fall down somewhere and got freezed,” he recalled. “In one comer he spotted one which was halfway frozen. He told me to stay here and watch that the cat does not come to get him, while he look up for others. While I was watching, I tried to reach the pigeon, but could not do it because the bars were so close to one another. When Mr. Tesla returned, he quickly bended and pull him out“. “All things from childhood are still dear to me“, he told Petkovic, as he began to pat the almost frozen pigeon, assuring it that it would recover. “Then,” said Petkovic, “he took the package from my hand and started throwing the food all around in front of the library. When he distributed the food he told me: “These are my sincere friends.” (…)

As for young Swezey, on meeting the inventor for the first time in 1929, he was surprised to discover (as he wrote) “a tall skinny man of upright posture” who might go about for hours in a daze of concentration, but who also had a side intensely human and “almost painfully sensitive with fellow-feeling for everything that lives.” Swezey himself, residing in a bleak apartment in Brooklyn, had few close ties to family or friends. He became both a journalistic champion of the scientist and a devoted admirer. (…) Although Tesla worked hard while others slept, he also knew how to refresh himself with long rambles through the city. Swezey often joined him on these nocturnal excursions. He too was introduced to the pigeons. One evening as they were walking down Broadway, with Tesla discoursing intensely on his system for sending electrical power wirelessly to the ends of the Earth, the inventor suddenly lowered his voice. “However, what I am anxious about at this moment,” he said, “is a little sick bird I left up in my room. It worries me more than all my wireless problems put together”. The pigeon, which he had picked up two days before in front of the library, had a crossed beak which had started a cancerous growth on its tongue so that it could not eat. Tesla had saved it from slow death and said that with patient treatment it would soon become strong and well. But not all of the birds he saved could be fitted into his hotel room, where the servants already complained of dirt. “In a large cage in a bird shop,” wrote Swezey, “are several dozen more pigeons. Some had wing diseases, others broken legs. At least one was cured of gangrene, which the bird specialist pronounced incurable. If a pigeon is afflicted with something that Tesla has not the facilities to treat, it is put under the care of a competent physician.” (…)

Because so many strange interpretations have been made of Tesla’s devotion to pigeons, the following letter from Tesla to Pola Fotic, the young daughter of Konstantin Fotic, Yugoslavian ambassador to the United States, is cited for its simple portrayal of love for the creatures of his childhood. Entitled, “A Story of Youth Told by Age,” he describes the winter isolation of the house where he was born, and of his special friend, “the magnificent Macak, the finest of all cats in the world. It was in connection with Macak that his first intimation of electricity came to him one snowy evening when he was three years of age. “People walking in the snow left a luminous trail behind them,” he wrote, “and a snowball thrown against an obstacle gave a flare of light like a loaf of sugar hit with a knife..” Even at that early age his vision was hyperreceptive to light. Footprints in the snow were not in muted shades of blue, purple, or black as they might seem to others. “I felt impelled to stroke Macak’s back. What I saw was a miracle which made me speechless… Macak’s back was a sheet of light, and my hand produced a shower of crackling sparks loud enough to be heard all over the place.” His father told him this was caused by electricity His mother said to stop playing with the cat lest he start a fire. But the child was thinking abstractly. “Is nature a gigantic cat? If so who strokes its back? It can only be God, I concluded.” Later, as darkness filled the room, Macak shook his paws as though he were walking on wet ground, and the boy distinctly saw the furry body surrounded by a halo like the aura of saints. Day after day he asked himself what electricity could be, and found no answer. (…) “I liked to feed our pigeons, chickens, and other fowl, take one or the other under my arm and hug and pet it”. (…)

Now, in New York, as he withdrew more and more from a frenzied age and from people with whom he felt little harmony, his fondness for pigeons took on a strange intensity. He became alarmingly ill in his office on 40th Street one day in 1921 and, as usual, refused to see a doctor. When it became apparent that he might be unable to return to his apartment at the St Regis Hotel, he whispered to his secretary to telephone the hotel, speak with the housekeeper on the fourteenth floor, and tell her to feed the pigeon in his room — ”the white pigeon with touches of gray in her wings.” He insisted that the secretary repeat this urgent message after him. The housekeeper was to continue feeding the pigeon each day
until further notice. She would find plenty of feed in the room. Whenever in the past the inventor had been unable to visit Bryant Park with the feed, he had hired a Western Union messenger to take care of the errand for him. The white pigeon, it was apparent, was special to him. From his attitude, his secretaries thought he might be delirious. He recovered, and the matter was forgotten — until another day, when he telephoned his secretary to say the pigeon was very ill and that he could not leave the hotel. Miss Skerritt recalled that he spent several days at home. When the pigeon had recovered, he resumed his usual routine of working, walking, thinking, and feeding the birds.

About a year later, however, he arrived at his office looking shaken and distraught. In his arm he carried a tiny bundle. He summoned Julius Czito, who lived in the suburbs, and asked if he would bury the dead pigeon on his property where the grave could be properly cared for. But scarcely had the machinist returned home on this curious mission than he received a phone call from Tesla, who had changed his mind. “Bring her back, please,” he said, “I have made other arrangements.” How he finally disposed of her, his staff never knew.

Three years later Tesla was completely broke and his bill at the St Regis Hotel had gone unpaid for a long time. One afternoon a deputy sheriff arrived at his office and began seizing his furnishings to satisfy a judgment against them. Tesla managed to persuade the officer to grant him an extension. When he had gone, there remained the matter of his secretaries, who had received no salaries in more than two weeks. All that was left in his Mother Hubbard’s cupboard of a safe was the gold Edison Medal, which he now removed. It was worth about one hundred dollars, he said to the embarrassed young women. He would have it cut in two and give half to each. Dorothy Skerritt and Muriel Arbus declined in one voice. They offered instead to share with him the small sums of money in their own purses. When Tesla was able to pay them a few weeks later, he placed an additional two weeks salary in each envelope. Yet on the day when he had offered to divide up the Edison Medal, there had in fact been a little money in the office – $5 in petty cash. But this he claimed at once for his pigeons, saying he was out of bird seed. He had asked one of his secretaries to go out and buy a fresh supply.

With the help of Czito, to whom he also owed a substantial amount of money, he then moved all his office belongings into a new office building. The next blow fell shortly afterward when he was asked to vacate the St Regis Hotel, in part because of his pigeon friends. At one point Tesla had put some of the birds into a hamper and sent them home with patient George Scherff, thinking that a spell in Connecticut might do them good. But alas, so fond were they of their old friend and of their risky old haunts that they were back on his window ledge in time for dinner. Sadly he packed up his possessions of decades and moved to the Hotel Pennsylvania. The pigeons followed. After another few years, he and they would be forced to move on to the Hotel Governor Clinton. Nikola and his birds were to spend the final decade of his life in the Hotel New Yorker.

The strange tale of the white pigeon was told by the inventor to O’Neill and William L. Laurence, science writer for the New York Times, one day while the three sat in the Hotel New Yorker lobby. John O’Neill, a member of a psychic society, saw mystic symbolism in Tesla’s white pigeon. He and other psychics who have written about the inventor preferred to speak of the pigeon as a dove. Although pigeons are technically rock doves, only the most meticulous birdwatchers ever call them that and Tesla never called his pigeon anything but a pigeon. But what he told the two journalists in the hotel lobby says his early
biographer, was the dove love-story of his life. “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years,” he said. “Thousands of them, for who can tell —. But there was one pigeon, a beautiful bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I would know that pigeon anywhere. No matter where I was that pigeon would find me; when I wanted her I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. She understood me and I understood her. I loved that pigeon. Yes, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. When she was ill I knew, and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life. Then one night as I was lying in my bed in the dark, solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. I knew she wanted me; she wanted to tell me something important so I got up and went to her. As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes— powerful beams of light”. Tesla paused and then, as if in response to an unasked question from the science writers, continued. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory. When that pigeon died [in 1922], something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life’s work was finished. Yes, I have fed pigeons for years; I continue to feed them, thousands of them, for after all, who can tell —”. The writers left him in silence and walked several blocks along Seventh Avenue without speaking.»

– Margaret Cheney, “Tesla: Man out of time” (2001).

«… when he lived at the Hotel New Yorker, he had the hotel chef prepare a special mix of seed for his pigeons, which he hoped to sell commercially. Naturally, this prompted speculation about his mental well-being. His aversion to germs also heightened in this period, and he began to wash his hands compulsively and would eat only boiled foods.»


Tesla's pigeon feed menu.


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