Matthew Inman wants to build a museum dedicated to inventor Nikola Tesla, the "greatest geek who ever lived.” Inman is the creator of Web comic The Oatmeal. Based in Seattle, he also devised the online dating website Mingle in 66.5 hours.
Jacob Aron: What did Tesla do to deserve a museum?
Matthew Inman: Overall, his most practical achievement would be the polyphase electrical system. It brought alternating current to the world, and allowed us to have electricity in our homes. Beyond that, all kinds of stuff ranging from wireless communication to neon lighting.
He actually built an earthquake machine in his laboratory in New York City, and when he turned it on, they had to smash it with a sledgehammer to keep it from taking the whole block down. Not a useful invention, but kind of cool.
JA: How did you get involved in the campaign to buy Tesla's lab at Wardenclyffe, N.Y., which might be demolished?
MA: People were tweeting at me saying, "have you seen this Save the Wardenclyffe project?" When I learned they had a matching grant from New York State for $850,000, I realized the amount of money they needed wasn't completely out of reach. Coincidently, I was threatened with a lawsuit back in July over something rather silly, and rather than paying the lawyer who threatened me, I raised money for charity using [crowdfunding platform] Indiegogo. I figured, I made a comic about Tesla, I've got a huge following of Tesla fans on my Twitter, and I've also had this successful fundraiser, so let's see if we can raise the money.
JA: You've already hit your target. Did you expect this level of success?
MA: I figured we could give it a shot, and if it fails, at least we tried. I didn't expect to hit the goal in six days. That was pretty awesome. Sitting on the Indiegogo page, you get addicted. Every time you hit refresh there is another 10 grand. You watch what you make in a year go by in about 20 minutes.
JA: You have had supporters from around the world, including Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. How is he helping?
MA: He pledged money and gave verbal support, saying the land needed to be saved, so that was really cool. He said Tesla is a hero of his.
JA: What would you like to see in the museum?
MA: I would love some big frightening display of coils, because Tesla was quite a showman and when he gave public displays he would have these huge arcs of electricity between the coils that, even though they were safe according to him, made people really uncomfortable. I would love to mimic that feeling in the museum.
JA: What would Tesla make of all this support if he were alive today?
MA: He'd probably be happy. At the beginning of his career he was very naive about money. He wasn't interested in making any; he was more interested in discovering things. He just figured if he could change the world then money would follow, but in the latter half of his career he became very focused on money because his work was very expensive. Nobody was supporting him because he wasn't producing light bulbs or toaster ovens, he was producing things like sonar, which wasn't really useful at the time. I think Tesla would be very pleased seeing the Internet give him huge piles of money just to show how awesome he is.
JA: But actually, he died penniless and alone?
MA: Yes, he's kind of an odd guy. He remained celibate even though he was a pretty good-looking dude—well-dressed, but he basically stayed alone his whole life.
After Thomas Edison screwed him out of a lot of money, he had an arrangement with [electric company] Westinghouse where they would pay him a royalty. But when they were in financial trouble, Tesla tore up the contract and said "you know what, I like you guys, you can just forget that royalty thing." He could have been one of the richest men in the world if he hadn't been such a nice guy.