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.
Things 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.