Nikola Tesla's Cat and Other Feline Fascinations

black cat
A black cat, like this one, inspired Tesla's fascination with electricity. Oliver Moggridge/EyeEm/Getty Images

Nikola Tesla was famous for inventing many things. But the role his cat played in his most famous contribution to science — creating the alternating-current (AC) electric system, still the main electrical system in the world today — is not well known. Here's how it happened:

A black cat named Macak was Tesla's favorite childhood companion. Decades later, in a 1939 letter to a 12-year-old, Tesla recalled how this cat shocked him into a lifelong fascination with electricity. Part-Time Genius co-host Will Pearson read some of the letter on an episode about cats. "In the dusk of the evening as I stroked Macak's back, I saw a miracle which made me speechless with amazement. 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 house ... My mother seemed charmed — 'Stop playing with the cat,' she said. 'He might start a fire.' But I was thinking abstractly. Is Nature a gigantic cat? If so, who strokes its back?... I cannot exaggerate the effect of this marvelous night on my childish imagination. Day after day I have asked myself, what is electricity?"


Eighty years later, Tesla noted, that question was still preoccupying him. Here are four more surprising -- and entertaining -- cat facts, revealed by Pearson, co-host Mango Hattikudur and guest, writer Gabe Luzier:

  1. Simon, a stray feline found in Hong Kong in 1948, is the only cat to have been awarded Britain's prestigious Dickin Medal. The medal, equivalent to that country's Victoria Cross and America's Medal of Honor, is the highest military honor an animal can receive. Simon received the Dickin Medal as a crew member of the HMS Amethyst, where he protected the ship's food stores from rat infestations during a 101-day siege of the ship. He was also instrumental in boosting morale among the stranded seamen. Simon was injured during his time on board ship, yet never wavered in his duties. Sadly, he died three weeks after the ship returned to Britain. He was buried with full military honors, and received the Dickin Medal posthumously, in 1949.
  2. In 1879, the good city fathers in Liège, Belgium, tried a bold experiment: training 37 cats to deliver the mail to rural villages. Letters and other messages were tied around the cats' necks, but they never quite got the hang of their mission. Or maybe they simply didn't like being told made to do something against their will.
  3. Residents of Iceland are enthralled with the reality show "Keeping up with Kattarshians." The show, produced in partnership with the Icelandic Cat Protection Society, debuted in 2017 and features rescue cats living large in the posh Meow Manor. After one season, animal adoption is enjoying increased visibility in the country, with all four original kitties now living in permanent homes.
  4. 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British prime minister, has an official mouser: Larry. While other cats have resided here over the decades, Larry is the first one to carry the title "Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office." Although brought to Downing Street by former prime minister David Cameron, Larry stays with the residence, now occupied by Theresa May.

To learn more little-known moments in cat history, listen to 9 Cat Facts in Honor of National Cat Herder's Day!