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The Tesla Story, Part 1 – Elon Before Tesla

by Stephen Fogel

The story of Tesla Inc. (originally named Tesla Motor Company) is a typically American story. It is a saga of a lone entrepreneur, believing in ideas and technologies that could change the world for the better. He rode the waves of the computer and internet revolutions, achieving a series of financial successes that enabled him to think bigger and bigger. He took risks, gambled big, and usually won. And now he stands on the threshold of becoming the world’s leading provider of affordable electric vehicles.

This is the story of Elon Musk, who was not an American when he began his journey. But he certainly had the drive and the ability to advance and succeed in the many ventures that led to his electric car company. Let’s take a look into Elon Musk’s past history, pre-Tesla.

His Early Days In South Africa

Elon Reeve Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa on June 28, 1971. His mother was Maye Musk, who was a model and dietician from Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada. His father was Errol Musk, an electromechanical engineer from South Africa. The family grew to include younger brother Kimbal, born in 1972, and younger sister Tosca, born in 1974. Elon’s international bloodlines included a British paternal grandmother and an American maternal grandfather, as well as some Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors.

Elon’s parents divorced in 1980. After that, he lived most of the time with his father in the Pretoria suburbs. Upon getting his first personal computer at age nine, Elon became interested in programming and started to learn it by himself. When he was twelve, he created a “space shooter” computer game. It was coded in BASIC and called Blastar. He sold it to a computer magazine for $500.

Musk had a very difficult childhood. His father was very tough on young Elon and his siblings, berating and lecturing them for hours. Elon was sent to an English-speaking private school, where he was bullied mercilessly for years. His intellectual abilities did not help him among these rough young Afrikaner boys. He was once hospitalized after being thrown down the stairs and beaten unconscious.

Musk had already decided that his destiny lay in the United States, so he hatched a very loose plan. After graduating from high school in June 1988 and about to turn eighteen, Elon obtained Canadian citizenship through his mother, and moved to Canada. This was to be his escape, not only to a brighter future, but also from the oppression he had felt in South Africa. This also got him out of his military service obligation there, eliminating the need for him to have to personally enforce the apartheid laws against the black population in South Africa.

Moving On To College In The Western Hemisphere

Musk planned to live with his mother’s great-uncle in Montreal, but the man had moved to the US by the time he arrived. Elon travelled throughout Canada, working at a series of menial jobs for about a year. He then enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario as an undergraduate in 1989. By this time, Musk’s mother, brother, and sister had all arrived in Canada.

In 1992, after two years of study at Queen’s, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, having received a scholarship. Elon Musk had made it to the United States! Musk received a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Wharton School in 1994. He then stayed an extra year to finish a second Bachelor of Science degree in 1995, this one in Physics. He was now 24, and had already identified the three fields that he would focus his entrepreneurial efforts on:

  • The Internet
  • Space Travel
  • Renewable Energy

Fun fact: while at the U of P, Musk and a fellow student rented a former fraternity house, and made it into their own personal nightclub!

Next Stop California, The Promised Land

Musk’s next stop was supposed to be Stanford University in California, where he would pursue a Ph.D in Applied Physics. After two days, he dropped out to join the internet boom in Silicon Valley, which was going strong in 1995.

Elon and his brother Kimbal launched Zip2, a software company. Their father provided the $28,000 investment to start it. As the internet quickly expanded, newspaper publishers flocked to Zip2 as a way to have city guides built into their online editions. The Musk brothers counted The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune among their customers. A few years later in 1999, the jackpot hit when a division of Compaq Computers bought Zip2 for $307 million in cash, plus $34 million in stock options. Elon received $22 million, which was seven percent of the sale.

He next took $10 million of the Zip2 proceeds and co-founded online banking company X.com, also in 1999. A year later, the dot-com bubble had totally popped, with many internet companies failing. X.com took this opportunity to buy online financial firm Confinity, which just happened to own a money-transfer service by the name of PayPal.

It did not take long for Musk to realize that PayPal was the strongest element of the combined company. X.com was renamed PayPal in 2001 and focused on that service. From a few thousand users, it mushroomed to over a million in just a few months, and processed a quarter of all eBay transactions at that time.

Musk had been CEO, but was ousted over his desire to move the company’s platform from Unix to Microsoft Windows. The company was then sold: eBay bought PayPal in 2002 for the then-spectacular amount of $1.5 billion in stock. Musk had an 11.7 percent stake, and his take was $165 million.

In 2002, Elon Musk became a US citizen.

To Infinity And Beyond

Musk’s initial idea for venturing into space involved launching a miniature greenhouse that would land on Mars. He saw this as a way of stimulating increased public interest in and support for space travel.

After several unsuccessful attempts to acquire refurbished intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Russians, he decided that he could do it better (and at a lower cost) himself.

Musk’s short-term goal is to reduce the cost of human space travel by a factor of ten. His long-term goal is to enable the human race to go forth and explore space, expanding beyond Earth and assuring our survival, should any disasters befall our home planet.

Following his well-established pattern, in 2002 Musk took $100 million from the PayPal payout and established Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. Musk is both Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of the company, located in Hawthorne, California. The company’s focus is on developing and building launch vehicles and spacecraft for commercial use.

Since those early days, many launch failures, and near bankruptcy, SpaceX has succeeded, fulfilling many of Musk’s goals. In 2008, SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket was the first liquid-fueled, privately funded rocket to put a satellite into earth orbit. In 2012, its Dragon spacecraft was the first commercial vehicle to be launched to and berthed at the International Space Station.

In 2016, SpaceX conclusively proved Musk’s concept of reusing rockets to lower the cost of space travel. The company repeatedly landed the first stage of its Falcon rocket on an autonomous ocean-based drone ship, following launches into space.

SpaceX is the world’s largest private producer of rocket engines. Its Merlin 1D engine is the world’s most powerful rocket engine for its weight.

Longer-term SpaceX projects include the colonization of Mars, with a large colony established by 2040. The first manned flight is planned to depart in 2024.

Personal Life

Elon Musk met Justine Wilson during his studies at Queen’s University in Canada. They married in 2000. They lost their first child to sudden infant death syndrome, at the age of ten weeks, in 2002. Elon and Justine went on to have twin sons in 2004, and triplet sons in 2006. In 2008, Musk divorced Justine.

He married Talulah Riley in 2012, divorced her in 2012, and remarried her in 2013.

Prepared To Launch His Next Enterprise – Tesla Motors

Let’s go back to 2003. SpaceX was underway, so Musk could focus some attention on renewable energy and electric cars, the next element of his overall plan. It would take all of the knowledge and experience he had accumulated up to this point to achieve success. Learn what happened next here.

For more info, read our Tesla electric cars reviews and our Blog article on cost and financing a Tesla.