The secret to Mark Twain's friendship with Nikola Tesla

Twain and Tesla had similar passions and an amusing friendship.

The secret to Mark Twain's friendship with Nikola Tesla
  • Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Nikola Tesla shared a friendship starting in 1890s.
  • Tesla read a lot of early Twain when recovering from a serious illness.
  • The two shared an interest in electricity.


Having famous friends can be both a blessing and a burden in our oversaturated media age. But about a hundred years ago, it could be quite fun to hang out with brilliant minds and discuss earth-shattering ideas. And no friendship is perhaps any more curious than the one between the legendary American writer Mark Twain and one of the most iconoclastic minds ever - Nikola Tesla.

By many accounts, Mark Twain was fascinated by technology and electricity, in particular. Visiting New York in the 1890s, he became friends with Nikola Tesla, who had an interest in Mark Twain, having read some of his early works when he was recovering from a life-threatening illness in the 1870s. That's before he emigrated to the United States. The books were instrumental in Tesla's recovery, according to the scientist himself, who said the stories by Twain were "so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state."

In Tesla's Lab. 1894. Mark Twain holds Tesla's vacuum lamp, powered by a loop of wire that gets electromagnetic energy from a Tesla coil. Tesla's face is in the background.

Tesla got to explain this to Twain 25 years later, when they met, bringing the writer to tears.

While the life-saving power of Twain's words and their imaginations may have been the secret sauce behind the friendship, another factor that drew them together was simply money. Twain, or Samuel Clemens as was his real name, invested in new tech, including an electrical motor in the 1880s. This fact made Tesla's name known to Twain, who'd been hearing about the motor Tesla invented for Westinghouse. As historian Juliana Adelman wrote for Irish Times, Tesla actually advised Twain against investing into a motor created by James W. Paige – an advice the famous writer didn't heed, losing a large sum of money on Paige's mechanical typesetter.

In the end, Twain did think Tesla's motor design was superior and was a frequent visitor in the inventor's lab, even taking part in experiments. A number of photographs are testament to these fascinating interactions.

In Tesla's lab. 1894. Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943, blurred at centre) is in the midst of an electrical experiment with writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain (1835 – 1910, left) and actor Joseph Jefferson (1829 – 1905).

Photo: Kostich/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

One well-known story about Clemens is that Tesla cured the writer's constipation. The author of "Tom Sawyer" took part in an experiment where he spent a considerable amount of time on an electromechanical oscillator, which generated high-frequency alternating current and featured a vibrating plate. It was also known as the "earthquake" machine for its shaking and noise.

Tesla believed it could be medically helpful to Twain, who was known to have digestive problems. Vibrations could help with constipation is how some accounts describe Tesla's reasoning. The writer apparently did enjoy the machine for a few minutes until it started to behave like a laxative, sending him off to the restroom.

The friendship between the two titans also included Twain's invitations for Tesla to join the Players Club in 1888 and to attend the wedding of Twain's daughter.

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

Who is the highest selling artist from your state?

What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?

Eminem may be 'from' Detroit, but he was born in Missouri
Culture & Religion

This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.

Keep reading Show less

MIT breakthrough in deep learning could help reduce errors

Researchers make the case for "deep evidential regression."

Credit: sdeocoret / Adobe Stock
Technology & Innovation
  • MIT researchers claim that deep learning neural networks need better uncertainty analysis to reduce errors.
  • "Deep evidential regression" reduces uncertainty after only one pass on a network, greatly reducing time and memory.
  • This could help mitigate problems in medical diagnoses, autonomous driving, and much more.
Keep reading Show less

Skyborne whales: The rise (and fall) of the airship

Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?

R. Humphrey/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

Large airships were too sensitive to wind gusts and too sluggish to win against aeroplanes. But today, they have a chance to make a spectacular return.

Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Vegans are more likely to suffer broken bones, study finds

Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast