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It’s an inventor’s surname and an innovative automobile start-up.

Thanks to Samantha for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day: Tesla.

Before you think I’ve gone completely mad, let’s look at the numbers.

133 girls were named Tesla in 2013, plus 13 boys.

The name has been gaining since the mid-1980s, meaning that you’re almost as likely to spot Tesla on a playground as you are to spot a Tesla on the road.

Tesla: Mad Scientist

Nikola Tesla was born to Serbian parents living in the Austrian Empire in 1856.  His mother was something of a genius, with a talent for mechanics and literature.  Nikola inherited her knack for invention.  He attended engineering school on a scholarship, where he was top of his class.

English: nikola tesla colorThings soon turned rocky.  Nikola developed a taste for gambling, lost his scholarship, and ended up traveling – to Prague, to France, and then to New York City as an employee of Thomas Edison.

Edison gave his talented young protege a difficult task. Nikola nailed it, but left over a dispute about pay.

Despite many daring and forward-thinking inventions and experiments, commercial success and academic acclaim eluded Nikola in life.  And yet, as the years have gone by, his legacy has grown.  Tesla is synonymous with “man before his time.”

As for the origin and meaning of the surname, it appears to come from a tool for woodworking, and may have been an occupational name.

Tesla: Hit the Highway

Rumors persist that Nikola adapted a Pierce-Arrow automobile to run on an electric motor back in 1931.  There’s no proof, but Nikola definitely drew up specs for such an innovation as far back as 1882.

Today it is reality – the iPhone of motor cars, led by Silicon Valley notables like PayPal alum Elon Musk. Teslas are luxury cars now, but the company intends future models to be more widely accessible.

Does the car make the name more or less wearable?  Bentley is a luxury automobile, and a boys’ name launched by a reality show.  Mercedes was a traditional choice for girls long before it became synonymous with German engineering.  Plenty of names can be found on the car – or in a carseat.  No to Volkswagon and Subaru, but Tesla sounds like a name.

Tesla: Heavy Metal or Steampunk?

And yet, the name’s use predates the car by decades.

Heavy metal band Tesla recorded their first album in 1986, and scored their biggest hits through the early 1990s – the heyday of hair metal.

This tracks closely with the name’s debut.  Five girls were given the name in 1985.  Between 1990 and 1993, it was more than 100 girls every year.

I suspect it wasn’t about the band.  Instead, Tesla was in the air in the 1980s and early 1990s.  After being forgotten for generations, we were rediscovering his genius.

Dozens of novels have used him as a character, as early as 1901’s To Mars with Tesla.  But he’s especially big in the steampunk genre – a term that is dated to 1985.

Many actors have played the eccentric inventor, including David Bowie in 2006’s Oscar-nominated The Prestige, based on a 1995 novel.

Tesla: 21st Century Name

Tesla’s sound is interesting.  The ‘sl’ sound occurs in many a current favorite: Wesley, Paisley, Presley.  And Tesla isn’t so far from Tessa, or lots of ends-in-la names, from the Bella-Stellas to the Layla-Lilas.

And yet, Tesla does feel distinctive.  An obscure surname boosted by a misunderstood genius and borrowed for all sorts of pop culture purposes.

If the equally steampunk Ada seems too ordinary, the futuristic Tesla could be the name for your child.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I named my daughter Tesla. I fell in love with the name, and eight years later I still love it. I’ve never had someone associate it with the car, but I have heard it associated with both the band and inventor. Which, technically both are correct; the band got their name from the inventor. I named her after the inventor, though I was well aware of the band as well. And her name fits her so well, I can’t think of a name better suited for her personality. She is a Tesla.

  2. But Subaru is a Japanese name! Pronounced more like su-BA-ru, it refers to the pleiades constellation. Not that I don’t agree with you that it’s too “car” for use in America 🙂

  3. Back around 1990, a girl in my high school named her daughter Tesla. Since the baby’s middle name was Cinderella, I feel pretty safe in saying she was named after the Heavy Metal band & not the inventor.

    At the time I thought Tesla was kind of a pretty, but honestly as a someone who was a teenager in that era I’d always wonder if little Tesla’s siblings were named Slayer & Danzig.

  4. I like it. It feels century-spanning… old and new… but not in the way most names do. It hasn’t left fashion and then come back like, say, Gladys. I could see her as a sister to Ender.

    Having said that, Ada does seem more like a sister to an Eleanor than Tesla. (Miriam seems to come to mind, too, but I can’t put my finger on why).

    Nice write-up, Abby.

  5. We’re seriously considering Elon for a boy. I shy away from Tesla, though, because it might yet get that strong car association.

  6. How timely! We just found out we are having a girl and my husband has been pushing for Tesla. I don’t hate it, I just need some convincing. I love vintage, classic names. My top picks are Lydia, Louisa, Willa, Alice. We have an Eleanor already (after Mrs. Roosevelt, an easy name for us to decide on). That’s another reason I’m not totally sold on Tesla; it’s SO different from Eleanor. I’ll be interested in reading other’s comments about this name!