Geniuses with Polyphasic Sleep Schedules

A lot of people look at polyphasic sleep, and Uberman as an oddity, and not something that could actually be done. As it turns out, this belief is unfounded, and some of the greatest minds followed polyphasic sleeping schedules. These well known figures throughout history slept polyphasically. They would all leave their mark on the world, their contributions given between short naps.

A significant number of geniuses and inventors adopted odd sleeping schedules very similar to Uberman.

Nikola Tesla

One such inventor was Nikola Tesla, who is responsible for a large amount of the everyday conveniences we use today.

Nikola Tesla polyphasic sleep schedule
Picture:  Unknown, circa 1939

Tesla is getting a lot of recognition for his accomplishments lately, and we owe much of our modern world to him. Tesla is responsible for the development of alternating current (A/C) which runs through most homes today and powers just about everything that isn’t run on a battery.

He even developed a way to transport electricity wirelessly over 25 miles, lighting 200 lamp. Light bulbs were said to glow, even when turned off nearby his lab. How did he find the time to do all this?

Nikola Tesla slept less than 2 hours a day. He did admit to taking naps from time to time. He followed a polyphasic sleep schedule.

Leonardo Da Vinci

leonardo da vinci vitruvian man

Known to sleep about 1.5 to 2 hours per day, da Vinci had an astounding career, leaving his mark on nearly every scientific, engineering, and artistic form there is.  Between painting the Mona Lisa, creating weapons of war, and designing some of the very first flying machines, Leonardo took short naps.  The official “da Vinci” sleep schedule is a 10 minute nap every 2 hours, though some do 20 minute naps every 4 hours like the well known Uberman sleep schedule.

Salvador Dali

Famed painter Saldvador Dali was well known to hold a metal key over a plate while seated in a chair and nod off. Upon falling to sleep, the key would drop, striking the plate.  The resulting noise would re-awaken Dali, inspiring him to paint yet another masterpiece. He felt that sleep was a waste of time, except for the dreaming, which he utilized throughout his career.

Dali was known to call this method “slumber with a key” and described it quite artfully in his book, “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.”

salvador dali 1939

Excerpt:  “In order to make use of the slumber with a key, you must seat yourself in a bony armchair, preferably of a Spanish style, with your head tilted back and resting on the stretched leather back. Your two hands must hang beyond the arms of the chair, to which your own must be soldered in a supineness of complete relaxation. Your wrists must be held out in space and must have been previously lubricated with oil of aspic. This is intended to facilitate the benumbing of your hands at the moment when slumber approaches, inducing the tingling that is produced when one of your members goes to sleep—a tingling which is in reality a counter pitch, the physical ants, antidotes of the psychic ones of your redoubtable impatience to paint.

“In this posture, you must hold a heavy key which you will keep suspended, delicately pressed between the extremities of the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Under the key you will previously have placed a plate upside down on the floor. Having made these preparations, you will have merely to let yourself be progressively invaded by a serene afternoon sleep, like the spiritual drop of anisette of your soul rising in the cube of sugar of your body. The moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the noise of its fall on the upside-down plate will awaken you, and you may be equally sure that this fugitive moment when you had barely lost consciousness and during which you cannot be assured of having really slept, is totally sufficient, inasmuch as not a second more is needed for your whole physical and psychic being to be revivified.”

Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller by Dan Lindsay
Buckminster Fuller by Dan Lindsay

Buckminster Fuller was known for quite a few things, one of which was a new word that he coined, Dymaxion. Dymaxion was said to be a combination of the words “Dynamic Maximum Tension.” Fuller would use this to help distinguish his work from other peoples. There was a Dymaxion car, dymaxion house, and Dymaxion award.

Buckminster Fuller slept polyphasically for about two years, per a TIME magazine article published in 1943.

He, however called it “Dymaxion sleep” and differed significantly from Uberman. Dymaxion sleep seperated the day into 4 parts, with 5.5 hours of wakefulness and then a 30 minute nap. He reported that the only reason he stopped sleeping this way was because it conflicted with his associates schedules.

Probably the most recognizable structure inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s work is the EPCOT “ball” at Walt Disney World.  The ball is actually a geodesic dome, which Buckminster Fuller popularized.  The ride inside Disney’s iconic monument is called “Spaceship Earth,” the name also inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.”

Thomas Jefferson

thomas jefferson by rembrandt peale 1805 cropped
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson regularly woke with the sun, but also stayed up late, frequently working late into the night, leading to an average much shorter than the 7-9 hours recommended by doctors. Depending on how late he was working, he probably averaged 4 to 6 hours per day.

Besides being one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was apointed to the 5 man committee to write the Declaration of Independence, and wrote the first drafts.  He helped solidify America’s resolution to seperate from Great Britain and form the United States of America.

Showing remarkable foresight, Thomas Jefferson had a paragraph in the Declaration of Independence blaming slavery on Great Britain, particularly King George III, and naming it an “abominable crime.”  The paragraph was subsequently removed by his constituents. Despite Jefferson’s abolishionist feelings, he did own slaves, though there is evidence that he had a romantic relationship with, and fathered 6 children with Sally Hemmings, a slave at Monticello.

Napoleon Bonaparte

napoleon in his study
Napoleon Bonaparte Portrait by Jacques-Louis David

Known for frequent nap taking, Napoleon supposedly slept in 2 hour chunks at night, with a 30 minute nap in the afternoon, even during battle.

Napoleon would have a 10 year reign as Emperor of France before becoming dethroned and sent to Elba, an island off the coast.  While housed there, he would sleep late into the day, even remaining in bed after being awoken.

He would subsequently escape Elba and regain control of France for a short period of time.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Known to sleep very little, or even not at all when inspiration struck, Thomas Edison worked tirelessly for days, only to crash afterwards and sleep for long stretches, sometimes longer than a day.  Thomas Edison is one of the most prolific inventors in history, with over 1,000 United States patents to his name.  The “Wizard of Menlo Park” would help to revolutionize the world.  Edison and Tesla, two great minds, would come into conflict during the “War of the Currents,” with Edison backing direct current and Tesla supporting alternating current.  You can still see DC in use today with batteries of all kinds, while your home and all appliances that are “plugged in” are powered by alternating current.

Photo by: Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke

Winston Churchill

Probably one of the more documented polyphasic sleeper, Winston Churchill was a fairly standard biphasic sleeper. He would sleep at night, about 5 hours, then again between lunch and dinner, for an additional 1-3 hours. He was known for very long nights.

winston churchill
Winston Churchill Picture by J.Russel and Sons, Library of Congress

Winston Churchill would end the “appeasement” policy of Neville Chamberlain and pit Great Britain against the axis powers during World War II.  He was elected as prime minister twice, from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955.

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