5 Inventors Who Faced a Mental Health Challenge

Berry Mathew

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They’re writers, artists, geniuses, and politicians. They’re celebrities and historical figures. The many people with a mental health challenge who have made significant contributions to the world abound, according to Google listicles. 

Search for “inventors with mental health conditions,” on the other hand, and the listicles become sparse. This list may help rectify that. These five men and women may have had their mental health struggles, but that did not keep them from making inventions that advanced humankind and our understanding of what was possible….

Leonardo da Vinci 

He may be best known around the world as the 16th-century artist behind the enigmatic “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre, but Leonardo da Vinci was also an engineer and prolific inventor. His genius was peripatetic, so much so that researchers 500 years later have concluded from historical accounts that Da Vinci struggled to finish projects and may have suffered from ADHD. Biographers have traced this same pattern back to Da Vinci’s childhood, depicting a boy and then a man who was constantly on the go, flitting from one interest to another, sleeping very little, and working virtually non-stop. (These characteristics often describe ADHD.)

Da Vinci spent hours conceiving innovations that would come to fruition long after his death. He was the brainchild behind numerous inventions, from solar power to an adding machine to the safer double hull on ships. Other inventions included the parachute, flying machine, armored vehicle, and public water system (among still others).

Grace Hopper

At a time—the 1950s—when women were grossly underrepresented in the fields of mathematics, computer science, and naval defense, Grace Hopper was anything but “traditional.” She wasn’t just a mathematician and computer scientist; she was also a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. 

Hopper, who taught math at Harvard College, developed the idea of “automatic programming.” It was an innovative, new way by which to use computers to code. In 1952, Hopper developed the first “compiler,” which turned mathematical coding into an English-based code that was readable. One of the business applications of Hopper’s “FLOW-MATIC,” as it came to be known, was calculating payroll for large companies.

Right around this same time, Hopper was battling depression, alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies. She had been arrested in Philadelphia for drunken and disorderly conduct a few years earlier. Hopper sought treatment for alcoholism and overcame it.

Steve Jobs

The entrepreneur and computer designer who cofounded Apple was behind the invention of the Apple, iMac, and Macintosh computers, as well as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Jobs gained notoriety for being controlling and tyrannical as a boss. He would explode in fits of anger and publicly humiliate employees. Even with his own daughter, he avoided having to pay her and her mother child support, by swearing in a court of law that he was sterile. (Jobs later had a change of heart.) 

These and other behaviors have caused experts to wonder about the state of Job’s mental health and whether he may have had either a mood disorder, particularly cyclothymia or bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (not to be confused with OCD). In his book, America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, author Joshua Kendall observed that Jobs, in addition to frequently blowing his lid, would don white gloves to inspect the cleanliness of his office.

Jobs was also an obsessive perfectionist. He was hyper-focused on creating the perfect Apple product, especially after being ousted from Apple (after co-founding it). Some speculate that Jobs’ depression appears to have been tied to this earth-shattering downturn in his career. It would also propel him to keep striving for perfection in Apple inventions, until he regained leadership at the company he originally co-founded.

Isaac Newton

We know him best as one of the greatest scientists of all time and the inventor of the telescope. As a mathematician and astronomer, Newton discovered the laws of gravity and invented calculus. He even invented a cat door.

What many people don’t know is that Newton may have struggled with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and/or autism spectrum disorder. He reportedly experienced severe mood swings and depression, including delusions and hallucinations. In one episode, Newton supposedly threatened to burn his parents’ house down when they were inside it. He lived a solitary life, finding it hard to connect with other people. He also wrote delusional letters that some medical historians believe to be a sign of schizophrenia. 

Nikola Tesla

Before the car, the real Tesla was an electrical and mechanical engineer and inventor with roughly 300 patents. Many of his inventions involved the production and transmission of electric power. He invented the first alternating current (AC) motor and AC generation and transmission technology. Other inventions by Tesla included the world’s first hydroelectric power plant and improvements on newly invented Xray technology and neon lights.

Some believe Tesla had obsessive-compulsive disorder. They have observed, for example, that Tesla was obsessed with the number three, wouldn’t touch hair, couldn’t stand jewelry and round objects, and insisted on using exactly 18 napkins to polish every dining implement that he used.

Leonardo da Vinci. Grace Hopper. Steve Jobs. Isaac Newton. Nikola Tesla. Whatever their real diagnosis, these five inventors are an inspirational reminder that not even a serious mental health challenge has to define you.