If there's such a thing as a real-life Batman or Iron Man, it could be Elon Musk. And if there's a flesh-and-blood Lex Luthor, well, that might be Musk, too. This uber-intelligent 47-year-old South African isn't just one of the richest people on Earth; he's a forward-thinking futurist made for the millennium [source: Forbes].
Musk has always been a man in a hurry. He taught himself computer programming as a kid and at the age of 17, he moved all the way to Canada for university before heading south to Pennsylvania to get his economics degree. After that he decided to pursue a Ph.D. in applied physics [source: Mkhitaryan].
But grad school wasn't really Musk's thing. So instead, he founded his first tech company, which made him a millionaire by age 28. Then he started another company — and another — amassing millions and then billions of dollars in wealth along the way. Robert Downey Jr. has said he based his "Iron Man" movie character Tony Stark on Musk [source: Hern].
But money arguably isn't Musk's primary motivation. He says he wants to evolve the human race. He envisions a future with high-efficiency mass transportation, electric cars and super-efficient sustainable energy production. He also blasts his engineering concepts right into outer space, and ultimately, perhaps one day even to Mars.
If his rocketing professional life seems otherworldly, Musk's tempestuous personal life makes him seem less than superhuman. His rocky relationships and tragedies are as convoluted and messy. Not to mention his penchant for saying controversial things in person and on Twitter. Make no mistake, this conceiver of Hyperloops and reusable rockets is anything but typical. Here are 10 fascinating facts about this mortal manifestation of Iron Man.
A Boy Raised by Books
Born in South Africa, Musk is the offspring of Maye, a Canadian nutritionist and model, and Errol, a South African engineer. His parents, however, rarely did much parenting, instead leaving basic child-rearing to a housekeeper. The man himself says that books — stacks and stacks of them — were his constant companions as a child [source: Strauss].
After his parents divorced in 1980, his brother and sister chose to remain with his mother, while Musk stayed with his father. Later, he realized that his dad was a "terrible human being," one with a reputation for ruthlessness. Errol Musk had shot three intruders dead in self-defense — and was acquitted of manslaughter. He also fathered a child with his own step-daughter. In spite of his personal shortcomings, Elon's father was also a good engineer, one who passed along many fundamental lessons on electricity, construction and science to his young son [sources: Chung, Crilly].
At the age of 12, Musk programmed his own computer game, called Blastar, which he sold to a computer magazine for a few hundred dollars. That set the tone for much of his future professional life [source: Mack].
Until his teens, the boy's small size and introverted nature made him a target for bullying; once he was beaten so badly he was rendered unconscious. The bullying only stopped when he learned to fight back. It's no wonder, then, that he fled South Africa (in part to dodge mandatory military service in a country split by apartheid) for university in Canada at 17. And that's when he began to blossom in incredible ways [source: Strauss].
College Dropout to Millionaire
Musk earned degrees in economics and physics from the University of Pennsylvania, which he paid for by turning his rented 10 bedroom frat house into a nightclub on weekends. In 1995, he traveled to Stanford University in California to chase a Ph.D. in applied physics, but after just two days, he dropped out of his classes to become an entrepreneur instead.
That same year, he and his brother Kimbal created Global Link Information Network, which provided online city guides to newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. These guides functioned like internet versions of the yellow pages. Although his father claims the money to start this company came from him, Musk says that it actually was from a group of angel investors [source: Strauss].
At first, life was anything but glamorous, as the brothers essentially lived in their office in order to keep their expenses as low as possible. Reminiscing on those days, Musk told USC graduates in a 2014 commencement speech, "We showered at the YMCA and we were so hard-up that we only had one computer. The website was up during the day and I was coding it at night, seven days a week, all the time" [source: Huddleston].
Global Link was later renamed Zip2 and became a big success. In 1999, Compaq Computers saw so much potential that it bought the company for $300 million. Musk's share of the sale came to $20 million, plenty of seed money for his next, bigger idea [source: Hern].
Charter Member of The 'PayPal Mafia'
A millionaire at just 28, Musk used money from the sale of Zip2 to found X.com, one of the world's first online banks, in 1999. The service enabled a variety of financial tools, including payment without a credit card.
Because X.com was perceived by some as an adult-themed website, Musk changed the name of this company to PayPal.com after it merged with rival Confinity. The new company doubled down on offering money transfer services via email and the web, and the business grew [source: Klebnikov].
But during a disagreement over the technical aspects of PayPal (he wanted to move the service to Windows from Linux), Musk was forced out of his position as CEO. He did remain on the board, however, so when eBay bought PayPal in 2002 (over his objections) for a whopping $1.5 billion in stock, he landed a windfall of about $160 million after taxes [sources: Kane, Klebnikov].
Interestingly, many of the people who worked at PayPal in its early days went on to found other giants of the internet economy, including Yelp, LinkedIn, YouTube and Square — so much so, that the group is often referred to as the "PayPal Mafia" [source: Parrish].
Wants to Put a Colony on Mars
With PayPal out of the picture, Musk was free to pursue a (literally) loftier goal: space. And he had the money to do that. Disappointed that NASA had no plans for a manned mission to Mars, he dreamed up a project called Mars Oasis, which would create a greenhouse on the Red Planet. As part of that otherworldly concept, he co-founded SpaceX in 2002, a company meant to make space travel more practical [source: Bierend].
SpaceX was born in part after Musk did the math and realized that space missions would be much more affordable if someone could develop a dependable and reusable rocket system. So, that's exactly what he set out to do. As of 2018, SpaceX has achieved more than 100 launches, thanks in part to its smartly designed Falcon rockets and Crew Dragon capsules, and has transported astronauts to the International Space Station. And it booked its first paying passenger to the moon in September 2018.
Musk intends to establish a self-sustaining colony on Mars one day. He plans to put the first human explorers on Mars by 2024, and NASA is definitely interested. As of 2018, SpaceX has received more than $3 billion in U.S. government awards to build spacecraft, like the aforementioned Falcon rockets [source: Mosher].
Revolutionized the Auto Industry
Musk believes that humans must make the switch from a reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy or else we'll exhaust our energy supplies, and as he puts it, "plunge into the dark ages" [source: Leary]. Like many scientists, he warns about the dangers of rising carbon dioxide levels due to the combustion of fossil fuels and subsequent global warming.
And he put his money where his mouth is. He co-founded Tesla in 2003, largely to guffaws from car executives all over the world, and he is now the company's CEO. Musk's dream was to build affordable cars that were emissions-free.
The Tesla Roadster (2008) was the first electronic vehicle to use lithium-ion battery cells and to have a range greater than 200 miles (320 kilometers) per charge. This spurred big automakers to come out with EVs of their own, like the Chevy Volt. In 2015, Tesla launched the first semiautonomous car, a move many of the big automakers have emulated. Since then, Musk has said that Tesla models will have technology to be fully driverless, possibly by 2019 [source: Hawkins, Alvarez]. Tesla can also automatically update software in its cars without drivers having to make a trip to a dealership, something legacy automakers might find harder to do since they have a franchise system [source: Hawkins].
He delivered on affordability, too. Some models, like the Model 3, now start at around $40,000 [source: Felton]. The company turned its first profitable quarter in 2013, although the next one wouldn't happen until 2016 [source: Urbi].
However, Tesla has also run into problems with meeting production targets and logistical problems with distributing cars as they don't use dealerships. Some people have been waiting two years for a Model 3. Musk's admissions that he was working 120 hours a week to meet production — and taking Ambien to get a little sleep — caused controversy [source: Ohnsman].
Married the Same Woman Twice
Musk met his first wife, Justine, when they were both enrolled at Queen's University in Ontario. As PayPal's success multiplied, they married in 2000. Tragically, their first son, Nevada, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when he was just 10 weeks old.
The two eventually had children with the help of in vitro fertilization, which often produces multiple births. In the Musks' case, it happened not once, but twice — first they had twins in 2004, and then triplets in 2006, all boys.
Justine Musk, who published three novels during this time, wrote that her husband was manipulative and obsessed with his work. In a Marie-Claire article, she wrote, "'I am your wife,' I told him repeatedly, 'not your employee.' 'If you were my employee,' he said just as often, 'I would fire you.'"
Following a messy divorce in 2008, Musk began a relationship with English actress Talulah Riley, and in 2010, the two married. Just two years later, they divorced. In 2013, not only did they reconcile, but they got married once again. Perhaps not surprisingly, they divorced for the second time in 2016 [source: Cain].
Later that year, Musk started another high-profile relationship, this time with actress Amber Heard. That flame died in late 2017; the next year Musk started dating pop star Grimes.
Perhaps it's no real shock that during a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone magazine Musk said, "If I'm not in love, if I'm not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy... I never want to be alone" [source: Strauss].
Only Person to Start Four Billion-dollar Companies
What part of your body would you be willing to lop off just to come up with just a single million-dollar idea? Elon Musk is so business-savvy that he's created or co-founded not one, not two, not three, but four companies that are worth more than $1 billion each: PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity. And notably, he still has all his limbs and fingers.
SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion, and Tesla is worth nearly $60 billion in 2018 [sources: Foust, Martin]. SolarCity was bought by Tesla for $2.6 billion in stock. It was originally started by Musk's cousins and he invested $10 million in it in 2006. SolarCity designs and sells solar panels for residential and commercial purposes. Both Tesla and Solar City share the goal of making sustainable energy more practical and efficient [source: Carr].
Musk knows that charitable causes come with the territory of extreme wealth. He gave $15 million to the Global Learning program, which is meant to help unprivileged children around the world boost basic skills in reading and math [source: Zaidi].
In the wake of the terrible 2017 Hurricane Maria, he sent huge battery systems that can be powered with solar panels to bring electricity back to Puerto Rico. He also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own cash to the cause.
And he's joined the ranks of filthy-rich folks who commit to philanthropy. He signed the Giving Pledge, an idea conjured by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, meant to spur more charitable donations. Signing the Giving Pledge means agreeing to leave at least 50 percent of your wealth to charity either during your lifetime or in your will [source: Zaidi].
He's a Hard Worker — and a Demanding Boss
By 2012, Musk's net worth exceeded $1 billion for the first time. These days, that number is well above $20 billion, and likely to go higher. But Musk doesn't parade around with enormous expensive personal purchases like yachts. Instead, he buries himself at the office, and he expects the same dedication from his employees, a fact that sometimes leads to controversy.
In Ashlee Vance's biography of Elon Musk, he recounts a story about a longtime assistant who asked for a raise. Musk told her to take two weeks off during which time he would do her job and see how critical she really was to the team. When she returned, he told her he didn't need her again. She was offered another position, but left the company instead, no doubt insulted [source: Business Insider].
At Tesla, allegations of unfair low pay for workers, as well as unsafe working conditions, and mandatory overtime, have surfaced in recent years. Musk has refuted these allegations time and again [source: Lumb].
Workers at some Tesla facilities have attempted to unionize. So far, they've repeatedly come up short on signatures necessary to complete the unionization process. In the meantime, Musk's public comments essentially indicate that unions are a backward concept that merely solidify a caste system. He took to Twitter to claim that unions wrecked the "once great U.S auto industry" [source: Coren].
Some Tesla workers supporting unionization have reported intimidation tactics meant to keep them from organizing. And the kerfuffle about mandatory overtime is loud enough that California authorities began investigating the allegations of unsafe conditions in 2018. Only time will tell whether these kinds of business challenges will steer any of Musk's tech ventures into the ditch [source: The Independent].
Here Comes the Hyperloop
In 2013, with his quirky brilliance at top gear, Musk felt bold enough to unveil the plans for his futuristic Hyperloop, a form of transportation dreamed up by the engineering teams at Tesla and SpaceX.
The Hyperloop concept is essentially a train inside a big airtight tube. The so-called vactrain would haul people or cargo along a thin cushion of air thanks in part to electromagnets that suspend "capsules" above rails.
In one initial proposal, Musk said the Hyperloop might be used in heavily populated areas like Southern California, zipping people from San Francisco to Los Angeles at speeds approaching 700 or 800 mph (1,126 or 1,287 kph), drastically reducing travel times and dodging gridlock that plagues the highways. For instance someone could go from San Francisco to LA in 85 minutes instead of the six hours it normally takes by car [source: Bradley].
Because Musk wants the idea to advance as quickly as possible, he provided the Hyperloop's plans as open-source, free to anyone who wants to take the technologies and improve them.
Although some people wonder if this project is really economically feasible, several companies, including Virgin Hyperloop One, have pushed to make the idea a reality. There's already a test facility near Las Vegas, and the organization is dedicated to building the first Hyperloop by 2021 [source: Hawkins].
He's Controversial on Twitter
Just like Donald Trump, Elon Musk is famous — or infamous — for his provocative tweets. When the members of a boys' soccer team in Thailand were trapped in a cave in July 2018, Musk had his engineers work on transforming a liquid transfer tube from a SpaceX rocket into a type of child-sized submarine that could travel through the water in the cave. The Thai government found the vessel impractical, and a British cave diver heavily involved in the rescue effort called Musk's submarine a "PR stunt." Musk responded by tweeting that the diver was "a pedo guy" — in other words, a pedophile. After an uproar, Musk apologized [source: Chu]. Still, the cave diver is suing him for libel [source: BBC].
Then there were the tweets about Tesla's stock. In August 2018, Musk tweeted that he was considering taking the company private at $420 a share and he had the funding secured. Right after that tweet, the Tesla stock price went up 11 percent and then fell 7 percent. Two shareholders filed class action lawsuits in August 2018, saying Musk's tweet was just a ploy to get the stock price to rise and mess with all the short sellers — people who bet the stock price would fall and make money from buying at a lower price. [source: Wattles].
For these reasons, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) also filed suit for securities fraud, alleging that "in truth, Musk knew that the potential transaction was uncertain and subject to numerous contingencies." Musk, Tesla and the SEC came to a settlement without the company admitting or denying wrongdoing. He had to pay a $20 million fine, and Tesla had to pay an additional $20 million fine for not having "disclosure controls and procedures relating to Musk's tweets." This money would be distributed to "harmed investors." Musk also had to step down as chairman for Tesla, though he remains CEO [source: Ohnsman]. The company remains public.
Other targets of Musk's ire have included unions, the press and certain scientists [source: Biba]. When asked about his Twitter attacks, Musk responded to a Bloomberg Businessweek journalist by saying, "If you're on Twitter, you're in the arena. And so essentially if you attack me, it is therefore OK for me to attack back." However, he conceded, "If somebody attacks you on Twitter, should you say nothing? Probably the answer in some cases is yes, I should say nothing. In fact, most of the time I do say nothing. I should probably say nothing more often."
The quantum internet would use the quirky behavior of tiny particles to enable applications not possible with today's internet.
More Great Links
- Bierend, Doug. "SpaceX Was Born Because Elon Musk Wanted to Grow Plants on Mars." Motherboard. July 17, 2014. (June 20, 2018) https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/jp5g8k/spacex-is-because-elon-musk-wanted-to-grow-plants-on-mars
- Bradley, Ryan. "The Unbelievable Reality of the Impossible Hyperloop." MIT Technology Review. May 10, 2016. (June 20, 2018) https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601417/the-unbelievable-reality-of-the-impossible-hyperloop/
- Carr, Austin. "The Real Story Behind Elon Musk's $2.6 Billion Acquisition of SolarCity and What it Means For Tesla's Future–Not to Mention the Planet's." Fast Company. June 7, 2017. (June 20, 2018) https://www.fastcompany.com/40422076/the-real-story-behind-elon-musks-2-6-billion-acquisition-of-solarcity-and-what-it-means-for-teslas-future-not-to-mention-the-planets
- Cain, Aine. "Inside the Turbulent Personal Life of Elon Musk, Who Called His Estranged Father 'a Terrible Human Being' and Who Says He Must be in Love to be Happy." Business Insider. March 26, 2018. (June 20, 2018) http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-relationships-2017-11
- Hahn, Jason. "Inside the Complicated Relationship Between Elon Musk and His Estranged Father, Errol Musk." People.com. March 26, 2018. (June 20, 2018) https://people.com/human-interest/elon-musk-errol-musk-relationship/
- Coren, Michael J. "Unpacking Elon Musk's Daylong Twitter Rant on Unions and U.S. History." Quartz.com. May 22, 2018. (June 20, 2018) https://qz.com/1285403/elon-musks-daylong-twitter-rant-on-unions-and-us-history/
- Felton, Ryan. "The Tesla Model 3 Starts at $35,000 But Only with an Extreme Catch." Jalopnik. July 29, 2017. (June 20, 2018) https://jalopnik.com/surprise-the-tesla-model-3-is-launching-at-44-000-not-1797357913
- Forbes Profile. "Elon Musk." (June 20, 2018) https://www.forbes.com/profile/elon-musk/
- Foust, Jeff. "New Funding Round Values SpaceX at $21.2 Billion." SpaceNews.com. July 28, 2017. (June 20, 2018) http://spacenews.com/new-funding-round-values-spacex-at-21-2-billion/
- Hawkins, Andrew J. "The Hyperloop is Perpetually Just 'Three Years Away.'" The Verge. April 30, 2018. (June 20, 2018) https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/30/17302208/virgin-hyperloop-one-richard-branson-three-years
- Hern, Alex. "Elon Musk: the real-life Iron Man." The Guardian. Feb. 9, 2018. (June 20, 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/09/elon-musk-the-real-life-iron-man
- Huddleston, Tom Jr. "Elon Musk Slept on His Office Couch and 'Showered at the YMCA' While Starting His First Company." CNBC. June 19, 2018. (June 20, 2018) https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/19/how-elon-musk-founded-zip2-with-his-brother-kimbal.html
- Isidore, Chris. "You Probably Made More than Elon Musk Last Year." CNN.com. Feb. 8, 2018. (June 20, 2018) http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/08/news/companies/elon-musk-pay/index.html
- Kane, Margaret. "eBay picks up PayPal for $1.5 billion." CNET. Aug. 18, 2002. (June 20, 2018) http://www.cnet.com/news/ebay-picks-up-paypal-for-1-5-billion/
- Leary, Kyree. "Elon Musk Says We Must Switch to Renewables or Plunge Into 'the Dark Ages.'" Futurism.com. Oct. 30, 2017. (June 20, 2018) http://futurism.com/elon-musk-says-we-must-switch-to-renewables-or-plunge-into-the-dark-ages/
- Lumb, David. "Elon Musk thinks unions are bad for Tesla." Engadget. Feb. 24, 2017. (June 20, 2018) http://www.engadget.com/2017/02/24/elon-musk-thinks-unions-are-bad-for-tesla/
- Mack, Eric. "Play the video game Elon Musk created at age 12." CNET. June 9, 2015. (June 20, 2018)
- Martin, Emmie. "Under Elon Musk's Tesla Pay Proposal, he Could Earn Billions—Here's How Much he Makes There Now." CNBC. Jan. 23, 2018. (June 20, 2018) http://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/23/elon-musks-salary-at-tesla.html
- Mejia, Zameena. "Billionaire Elon Musk Says he was 'Raised by Books' and Credits His Success to These 8." CNBC. Nov. 16, 2017. (June 20, 2018) http://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/16/tesla-ceo-elon-musk-says-he-was-raised-by-books.html
- Mkhitaryan, Armina. "Stop What You're Doing and Learn Coding If You Want a Job In Ten Years' Time." Medium.com. June 28, 2017. (June 20, 2018) https://medium.com/sololearn/stop-what-youre-doing-and-learn-coding-if-you-want-a-job-in-ten-years-time-312cecf7bc5c
- Slezak, Michael and Solon, Olivia. "Elon Musk: SpaceX can Colonise Mars and Build Moon Base." The Guardian. Sep. 29, 2017. (June 20, 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/29/elon-musk-spacex-can-colonise-mars-and-build-base-on-oon
- Stillman, Jessica. "Hurricane Victims in Puerto Rico." Inc.com. Oct. 2, 2017. (June 20, 2018) http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/with-power-down-in-storm-battered-puerto-rico-elon-musk-is-quietly-stepping-in-to-help.html
- Strauss, Neil. "Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow." Rolling Stone. Nov. 15, 2017. (June 20, 2018)
- Urbi, Jaden. "Elon Musk has a Lot Going On, and it May be Coming at the Expense of Tesla." CNBC. April 26, 2018. (June 20, 2018) http://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/26/elon-musks-big-ambitions-may-be-killing-tesla.html
- Weinberger, Matt and Canales, Katie. "The Incredible Story of Elon Musk, from Getting Bullied in School to the Most Interesting Man in Tech." Business Insider. May 3, 2018. (June 20, 2018)
- White, Jeremy B. "Elon Musk Anti-Union Tweet Spurs Labour Law Violation Charge." The Independent. May 24, 2018. (June 20, 2018) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/elon-musk-tesla-twitter-union-uaw-organizing-labor-nlrb-fremont-plant-a8368111.html
- Zaidi, Deena. "Inside Elon Musk's Humanitarian Efforts." Borgen Magazine. March 15, 2018. (June 20, 2018) http://www.borgenmagazine.com/elon-musks-humanitarian-efforts/