Karlovac – Where Nikola Became Tesla

Piše: Marin Bakić

“The years I spent in Karlovac were, in a way, perhaps the unhappiest of my life. My parents lived a hundred kilometers away, in Gospić, where I was born. I …

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“The years I spent in Karlovac were, in a way, perhaps the unhappiest of my life. My parents lived a hundred kilometers away, in Gospić, where I was born. I lived at my father’s sister’s house in Karlovac, and she was, to put it nicely, cautious towards me. I was ill most of the time, nearly dying of cholera three times. Therefore, she was somewhat right, but essentially not – I was 14, and I was hungry. She fed me as one feeds a canary. But in those years, the desire to devote myself to electrical energy developed in me.” Young flutists from various European countries who attended the 8th Croatia Flute Academy gathered around these words on Tuesday in Karlovac.

Their guide around Karlovac was the famous inventor, born on the stormy night of July 10th, 1856 in Smiljan. He used the opportunity to tell them not only about the history of the city where he lived for three years, but also about his life.

“I had an F in math at the end of the semester because I did all the calculations in my head. It took some time for my teachers to realize that I did not need to write out the mathematical operations on paper and that I was not cheating on exams by copying results from others,” he told them.

Of course, it was an act – Boris Šušnjar, a Karlovac tour guide, transformed himself into Tesla. He informed the sightseers that they were in the year 1910, some forty years after he had left Lika to attend the school in Rakovac – today a Karlovac neighborhood, then a place next to the Karlovac Fortress and belonging to the Croatian Military Frontier. This school, then called the Higher Real School, is the Karlovac Gymnasium today.

A hit with tourists

“I weave the story of Karlovac together with the story of Tesla, who went to school here for three years. However, since I’m 50, I can’t tell the tourists that I’m Tesla and in first year of high school, despite the fact that we look alike. During the tour, I tell a hypothetical story in which I’m Tesla, I’ve returned to Karlovac and I’m describing how much the city has changed since I was a student here. In those 40 years, Karlovac truly transformed. When Tesla lived here, the moats were deep, marshy and full of mosquitos. In the meantime, the entrances to the city were filled in, the theater was built and so on,” Šušnjar says.

The tourists he led are thrilled.

“I didn’t know he lived in Karlovac. We learned some very interesting facts about his life and the city itself. I have no objections to how our common luminary was interpreted,” says Tijana Krulj, a flutist from Novi Sad currently being educated in Trieste.

“I didn’t know Tesla lived here. It’s very interesting. We heard about his life story and the places where he experienced life,” her colleague from France, flutist Efrem Workman, agrees.

“I’m from Karlovac, and I’ve been a guide for almost 20 years. I always mention Tesla in my stories, regardless of which topic I’m talking about. I work a lot outside Croatia, and costume guiding is common abroad. Three years ago, I had the idea to dress up as Tesla, but we guides never have enough time for a quality preparation of a program. The pandemic crisis gave me the opportunity. I used the time when there were no tours for a quality preparation. I also invested in the costume,” says Šušnjar, for whom this was the first tour where he guided tourists in English in a Tesla costume.

During the tour, which we followed, a mother with a small child walked past us. “Say ‘Hi, Tesla,’” she said to the child, and it did so. “I’m glad I heard that. Among other things, it means that the costume is successful,” Šušnjar says.

Petar Ćurić

“For eight years, we’ve been coming here in July in collaboration with the City of Karlovac, City Theatre ‘Zorin dom’ and, since last year, the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy of Music of the University of Zagreb. This is the first time we’ve had a tour that talks about Tesla’s life. I’m delighted with Mr. Šušnjar, and it’s a shame we didn’t have this in previous years. I knew there was a connection between Tesla and Karlovac, but I didn’t know the details although I’m Croatian. Imagine how little foreigners know about it. I like Karlovac more and more – it’s green, there is less commotion, crowds and stress and it’s close to Zagreb. For us, this is ideal – much better than any place in Zagreb,” Petar Ćurić, the founder and director of the Croatia Flute Academy, points out.

Turning Tesla into a brand

For decades, many Karlovac citizens were dissatisfied with the treatment of the fact that one of the greatest inventors in the history of humanity lived, attended school and obtained his last formal education in Karlovac. It was often claimed that it was because he was a Serb, despite the fact that a plaque in honor of Tesla was installed on the Gymnasium’s building during the socialist regime by – Matica hrvatska. Now, however, there is less and less dissatisfaction. Tesla’s name is used more often and for various purposes, and so an encounter with Tesla – presumably Šušnjar in his costume – is announced for July 13th in the freshwater aquarium.

Karlovac, foto: Jovica Drobnjak

“Karlovac has realized that Tesla is a brand – primarily a tourist brand – but one which can be the basis for development in the right direction. What is now happening in Karlovac regarding Tesla is very good. Karlovac is on the right path in this sense,” says Mirko Butković, a retired university professor of engineering and the president of the Nikola Tesla Association in Karlovac. Among other activities, the association organized the symposium “The schooling and education of Nikola Tesla” on June 4th, 2018 in the Ivan Goran Kovačić City Library in Karlovac in cooperation with the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the City of Karlovac. The following year, the association published the proceedings of the symposium. This year, it organized the painting of a large mural of young Tesla in Rakovac, near the place where the house in which he lived stood. The mural is the work of artist Leonard Lesić.

“When it comes to Tesla, things are finally happening in Karlovac. I hope Tesla will be a Karlovac brand. Anyone can use Tesla, but Karlovac has justification for it. He explicitly stated that his teachers in Karlovac got him interested in technics,” Šušnjar says.

Jedinica iz matematike

After completing three grades in the Lower Real School in Gospić, Tesla continued his education in 1870 in Karlovac, at the age of 14. He skipped one grade – after fourth, he started sixth grade. As Natalija Jadrić, the history teacher at the Karlovac Gymnasium, explains in the proceedings of the symposium, “the school got a seventh grade by adding a grade between the three lower and three higher grades.” At the end of the first semester in school year 1872/1873, he had an F in math, which the teacher later amended giving him a D, while his final grade in math that year was “commendable”.

“Interesting among the preserved documents is the record no. 10 of the teachers’ meeting held on February 11th, 1873. The record contains the names of commended and reprimanded students of each class. Tesla was commended for history and reprimanded for his bad grade in math. The grade was probably the consequence of a long illness,” Natalija Jadrić adds.

Laboratories formative for the scientist

Tesla’s physics and mathematics teacher in Rakovac, Martin Sekulić, was especially esteemed by him. A corresponding member of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, he established the gymnasium’s physics laboratory and obtained 579 instruments to be used in teaching.

“Today in the Karlovac Gymnasium, we have a collection of teaching aids that contains objects used in classes since the 1870s. These objects are of great historical value due to their originality, representativeness and rarity. This collection became a cultural good of the Republic of Croatia in 2015. It contains teaching aids from the area of electrostatics, electrodynamics, mechanics and acoustics. The objects were made in factories specialized for the production of laboratory instruments in Vienna, Prague, Munich, Milan… The aids were made as pieces of craftsmanship and represent small works of art,” physics teacher at the Karlovac Gymnasium Tanja Mihaljević writes in the proceedings.

“Thanks to the Higher Real Gymnasium, its laboratory and equipment on which Tesla learned physics and his math and physics teacher, who he was delighted with, it was in this gymnasium in Karlovac that Tesla’s scientific and inventor’s genius was born. Without this condition, there would be no Tesla the global phenomenon. This is the starting point for understanding his career,” Danko Plevnik writes in his book The People of Karlovac from 2018.

The gymnasium plans to digitalize these teaching aids as part of the digitalization of its heritage.

“In recent years, many of our activities were inspired by or dedicated to Tesla. We participated in the project ‘Student Nikola Tesla and his teacher Martin Sekulić’ on Teachers’ Day; our teachers Natalija Jadrić and Tanja Mihaljević participated in symposiums dedicated to Tesla; we organized the Science Festival ‘Tesla’s Days’; for several years we have been taking part in the Night of Museums with different activities connected to Tesla; we have presented the collection of teaching aids to the public; and we have commemorated Tesla’s birthday in cooperation with the Karlovac County. The planned establishment of a Nikola Tesla memorial room in a second-floor classroom, from which the Nikola Tesla Entrepreneurship Center can be seen, is currently on hold because this space is used as a temporary staff room by teachers of the Karlovac Medical School. We don’t have the cost statement for the room yet because we are waiting for the normalization of the working and living conditions,” says Suzana Štranjgar, the principal of the Karlovac Gymnasium.

The promotion of innovation

The entrepreneurship center she mentions is being built at the address Rakovac 6, right next to the building of the gymnasium, as part of the project Nikola Tesla Experience Center and on the spot of the building where Ivan Goran Kovačić once lived.

“This center is meant to inspire visitors. The idea was to do something different from a typical museum but also different from an interpretation center. The building is therefore conceived as a multifunctional center – an entrepreneurial complex equipped with the infrastructure suitable for all of today’s flexible business activities in the sector of computer, information, audiovisual, design, art, creative and other industries. Moreover, through its motivational and presentation part and the interpretation of the life and work of our Tesla, it encourages new generations to bravely follow their entrepreneurial ideas and endeavors,” the explanation came from the Karlovac County. They also explained that the structure is now “under a roof” and that the furnishing of the interior is expected next year. 42 million kunas is allotted for drawing up the project documents, the construction work, equipping the building, the construction of the nearby parking lot and the accompanying activities. The project is co-financed by the European Union. Entrepreneurial infrastructure will be built here, and expert and consulting support will be provided to companies and new entrepreneurs working in the STEM field – in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Butković sees an opportunity for development in this.

“One of the reasons for establishing the Nikola Tesla Association in Karlovac is the fact that Tesla was one of the greatest inventors in history and he went to school in Karlovac. We want to promote innovation because it is important for every field in every country that wants to progress. We promote the field of the so-called hard science, the STEM field, so that young people may acquire this knowledge and skills and become experts in this field, something important for the standard and brains of every nation. We want to help change the direction of the development of Croatia because we are living in the fourth industrial revolution,” Butković says.

A foundation for talented youth

Five years ago, the City of Karlovac founded the Nikola Tesla Foundation to support pupils and students studying to become STEM experts and scientists. The City told us that the Foundation financed four students from different colleges with a monthly sum of 1000 kunas in the school year 2018/2019.

“The scholarships totaled 40,000 kunas. The scholarship was not awarded in 2020. During that year, the legal acts of the Foundation were coordinated with the law, a new board of directors was appointed and we are expecting it to adopt the amendments to our statute. The Foundation currently has 60,000 kunas at its disposal and plans to call for applications in the second half of this year,” explains Ana Župančić Žunac, senior expert associate at the Office of the Mayor of Karlovac.

Meanwhile, while we collected data, this number grew thanks to Marin Svetić, who was elected president of the Karlovac City Council in the local election in May. He decided to donate his councilor’s fee to the Foundation.

“I will pay my whole fee to the account of the Tesla Foundation because it takes care of talented pupils and students. I want my example to show that we must help young people when they need it the most so that they stay in Karlovac in the future, be part of its economy and make us all proud. The fee is between 1000 and 1500 kunas. I hope I won’t be the only councilor to do this,” Svetić says, adding that the fact Tesla was educated in Karlovac can never be overvalued, but that the City is trying.

“Although there has been some progress on this issue in the last few years, still it is not enough considering the greatness and importance of Tesla’s work on a global level. Karlovac is unique in the world because Tesla obtained his only formal education here. Anywhere else, this would be enough for the school to bear his name, but not here – and that is one of the things our American clients and partners wonder at the most,” says Boris Benko, graphic artist, designer, entrepreneur and owner of the Infographic Box design studio, who participated in several projects and events connected with Tesla.

An uninformed tourist would most likely not even realize that they are in the city where this world-renowned scientist spent several years of his life, the city which had a formative influence on him and in whose rivers he loved to swim

“I always mention with pride that I graduated from the same high school as Tesla. After the initial pleasant surprise, my foreign partners are left in shock and disbelief. For foreigners, it is simply unbelievable that such a huge potential lies almost unused. An uninformed tourist would most likely not even realize that they are in the city where this world-renowned scientist spent several years of his life, the city which had a formative influence on him and in whose rivers he loved to swim. I believe a specialized route would help with this and add to the tourist offer. Tesla is an important and famous name in the world, so great that it could be used not only for a tourist route, but to turn the entire city into a brand and a destination that would bring in a lot of profit. Maybe, if Karlovac was in the United States,” Benko concludes.

“Many countries where he lived and studied are fighting to own some of his heritage. For too long, Croatia was provincial and distanced in this regard and allowed everyone else to covet Tesla. Anyone can invent their close connections with him, put him on bills or name airports after him as Serbia does, but they cannot erase the historical fact that he was born in Smiljan, which is still in Croatia today, and that in Karlovac Nikola became Tesla. He could have become a card player, as he was in Maribor, or a billiards player, or he could have exterminated rats, as he did so successfully in Karlovac,” Plevnik concludes.


Translation from Croatian: Jelena Šimpraga

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