What You Need to Know to Understand Elon Musk
Elon Musk seems like the billionaire straight from central casting of the latest superhero blockbuster. After making his first fortune in online publishing, he moved on to build several increasingly ambitious — and lucrative — companies.
Musk is dead serious when he says things like he wants to die on Mars, "just not on impact" and outlandish enough to claim that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's understanding of artificial intelligence is "limited." Even the name Elon seems like the name of a character whose true intentions won't be revealed until the third act.
These days, there's little downtime between Musk headlines. But beyond the quick-hit headlines, Musk sees a bigger picture. He has said the goals of his companies are to change the world and humanity, and he wants to reduce the risk of human extinction by establishing a colony on Mars. But first, he has to transform Twitter.
Musk is more than just controversial. He's one of the leading visionaries of our time. This guide offers a quick study to understand the man who once declared, "Vacation will kill you," with little hint of irony.
Welcome to the Big, Big, Big Show
In 2017, his electric car company Tesla released a new model and, within a week, Musk revealed on Twitter that he may be bipolar. All this came amidst his criticism of Zuckerberg.
"The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress," Musk tweeted. "Don’t think people want to hear about the last two."
Five years later, he bought Twitter and has plans to monetize tweets. Funny how life works.
Musk is the oldest of the three children of Maye Haldeman Musk, a model and dietician from Canada and Errol Musk, a South African electromechanical engineer.
Elon Musk was born in South Africa on June 28, 1971, where he grew up, before moving to Canada and obtaining citizenship through his mother in 1989.
He gained U.S. citizenship in 2002.
Growing up, Musk was an avid reader, and by the age of 12, he had taught himself computer programing well enough to sell a video game he wrote to the computing magazine PC and Office Technology for about $500. A version of the game is still available online.
But Musk was also the target of bullies. According to "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future," a 2015 biography by Ashlee Vance, he was hospitalized as a teen after a group of boys threw him down a flight of stairs and beat him until he was unconscious.
The Fifth-Year Senior
After moving to Canada, Musk was accepted by Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. After two years. he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he extended his studies into a fifth year to complete a double major in physics and economics.
While at Penn, Musk was housemates with Adeo Ressi, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor. Musk and Ressi ran an unofficial nightclub out of the ten-room fraternity house they rented, according to Vance's biography of Musk.
Musk's formal education ended in 1995, when he dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford University after just two days.
Netscape Says No
Musk was never offered an interview when he applied at browser pioneer Netscape in 1995, a time when the company was hiring 50 software engineers a month.
When Musk didn’t hear back, he walked to the company's headquarters. But he was too shy to approach anyone and ended up hanging out in the lobby for a while before giving up.
Turning $28,000 Into $22 Million
Musk's first big success came in 1999, when he and his brother sold Zip2, the company they cofounded, to Compaq for $341 million in cash and stock. With a 7 percent stake, Musk earned $22 million from the deal on a company the brothers had started in 1995 with a $28,000 loan from their father.
Zip2 was a software company that built the platform for newspapers to develop online city guides and had contracts with The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, among others.
But Musk's time at his first company was marked with controversy when the board declined his request to be named CEO.
X.com to Confinity to PayPal
Musk used $10 million from his Zip2 stake to found X.com, an early online and email payment processing company. X.com merged with Confinity in 2000, and one year later, the merged company would be renamed PayPal.
PayPal was, however, a long way from being the financial services powerhouse it is today. In 1999, its first product was named one of the 10 worst business ideas of the year.
Musk again clashed with company leadership and was ousted as CEO in 2000. His termination came when he was on his honeymoon with his first wife, Canadian author Justine Wilson.
He did, however, remain on the board and held the largest stake in PayPal when it was acquired by eBay in 2002. With ownership of 11.7 percent of PayPal's shares, Musk's cut of the $1.5 billion purchase price was $165 million.
Two Wives, Four Divorce Filings
Musk and Wilson met while students at Queen's University in Ontario. The couple's first son died of sudden infant death syndrome at 10 weeks. They went on to have five more sons via in vitro fertilization – twins in 2004 and triplets in 2008 – before divorcing in 2008. They share custody of their children.
Musk married English actress Talulah Riley in 2010 after the couple dated for two years. In 2012, the couple divorced, with Musk tweeting to Riley, "It was an amazing four years. I will love you forever. You will make someone very happy one day."
They remarried in 2013. Musk filed for a second divorce to Riley in late 2014, but those proceedings were withdrawn. In March 2016, Riley filed for a divorce from Musk, which was finalized later in the year.
Brushes with Death
Musk owned and crashed a McLaren F1 supercar in 1999. The car, which has sold for as much as $14 million in auctions, was uninsured at the time of the crash.
Musk is also an aircraft enthusiast. He owned a Czech-made jet trainer aircraft, and his 1994 model Dassault Falcon 900 aircraft was used in the 2005 film "Thank You For Smoking," in which Musk had a cameo as the pilot.
The year following the McLaren crash, Musk contracted cerebral malaria while vacationing in Brazil and his native South Africa. The disease nearly killed Musk, prompting him to declare, "Vacation will kill you."
Musk founded SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies, in May 2002 with $100 million of his own money and the goal of building a "true spacefaring civilization."
The company is based on Musk's belief his company could build cheaper rockets for space travel by applying vertical integration and the modular approach from software engineering.
The company has already hit several key milestones, including a contract from NASA to develop its Falcon line of rockets for transporting cargo to the International Space Station and, in 2015, the first successful launch and landing of an orbital rocket on its launch pad, which is seen as a crucial step in developing reusable rockets that will lower the cost of space travel. SpaceX is also one of two private companies working to develop crew transport to ISS.
Musk has said he wants his company to be able to send humans to the surface of Mars within 20 years. While SpaceX is already the world's biggest private producer of rocket engines, Musk sees the company as more than a business.
"An asteroid or a supervolcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us," he told Esquire magazine in 2008. "Humankind evolved over millions of years, but in the last 60 years, atomic weaponry created the potential to extinguish ourselves. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball — or go extinct."
From Crashing Cars to Building Them
Out of all of Musk's current projects, Tesla Inc. is arguably the most well-known. Musk was named chairman of the electric carmaker after leading Series A financing in 2004 and has been its CEO and chief product architect since 2008.
Tesla launched Roadster, the world's first plug-in electric sports car in 2008, and its Model S luxury sedan is the second bestselling plug-in car of all time after the Nissan Leaf. The Model X, a crossover SUV, was released in 2015. In July, Tesla started production of the Model 3, which has a base of $35,000 before government incentives. The wait time for Model 3 delivery is between 12 and 18 months.
In addition to building the cars, Tesla has developed a network of charging stations for the vehicles throughout North America, Europe and Asia. The company came close to bankruptcy in 2008 and suffered another setback in 2015 with several reports of spontaneous battery combustion in the Model S.
Like SpaceX, Musk sees Tesla as being more than just a company. To accelerate the development of vehicles that do not rely on fossil fuels, the company is aggressively expanding its rollout of charging stations and offers its patents to anyone in good faith in hopes of enticing traditional automobile manufacturers to speed up development.
Musk gave the initial concept and financing for his solar panel system to his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive, who co-founded the company in 2006. Within 10 years, SolarCity would grow to be the largest maker of solar power systems in the U.S.
SolarCity merged with Tesla in 2016. Since 2012, the companies started collaborating to develop batteries that store energy generated by solar panels rather than feeding them directly into the power grid.
Transportation Beyond Cars and Rockets
Musk has proposed building hyperloop, a futuristic train, between Los Angeles and San Francisco at an estimated cost of $6 billion, which many observers say could be a lowball figure.
The concept behind Hyperloop is a sealed tube, allowing pods carrying passengers or freight free of air resistance. Under Musk's vision, trains in the system would have average speeds of 600 miles per hour, cutting travel time between the two cities to about 35 minutes.
While Musk has assigned SpaceX engineers to work on the concept, he has also released it as open-source allowing anyone to propose plans and designs. The Hyperloop Pod Competition, which started in 2015 and ended in 2017, invited teams to design and even build pods to be used in the system.
He Built a Hyperloop Vehicle Tunnel in Las Vegas
In 2021, Musk opened a hyperloop tunnel in Las Vegas. It began transporting passengers along a nearly two-mile stretch of underground road with three passenger stops.
The tunnel is only open to Teslas and turns a 45-minute walk into a two-minute drive. It can hold a maximum of 62 cars with up to five passengers each, which equates to about 4,400 people per hour.
Nevada’s Clark County Commission has since approved the creation of a 29-mile tunnel system from Musk's Boring Company.
Musk on Artificial Intelligence
While Musk maintains mostly libertarian political views, there is one area he believes should be subject to government regulation: artificial intelligence, which he has called "humanity's biggest existential threat."
"I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish," Musk said in 2014 at the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium.
Musk has invested in some AI startups and in 2015 formed OpenAI, a nonprofit artificial intelligence research firm. The firm's mission is to "counteract large corporations who may gain too much power by owning super-intelligence systems devoted to profits, as well as governments which may use AI to gain power and even oppress their citizenry."
He Co-Founded Neuralink in 2016
Musk co-founded Neuralink in 2016. The company aims to integrate the human brain with artificial intelligence by developing devices that can be implanted in the human brain. Musk believes such devices will improve memory and help humans keep up with AI advances.
Musk has said he believes humans are living in a computer simulation.
"The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That's where we were," he told "The Independent" in 2016. "Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year.
"And soon, we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable."
He's Embroiled in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard Saga
In 2016, Musk dated actress Amber Heard for about a year before reuniting in 2018. It's been alleged that he's the father of Heard's child, who was born via surrogate in July 2021.
Heard's former husband Johnny Deep, who is suing Heard for defamation over a 2018 article she wrote regarding domestic violence, has alleged that she and Musk began an affair about a month after she and Depp married in 2015.
Musk was set appear in court as a potential witness in the trial, but he's no longer on the list to testify.
He Sent a Car Into Space
In 2018, Musk launched his beloved cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space with a mannequin dubbed "Starman" behind the wheel.
The car was successfully launched into space by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. It has since been floating on an elliptical orbit, which it completes every 557 days.
He and Grimes Were a Couple
In 2018, Musk began dating electronic musician Grimes. The duo welcomed a son in May 2020 and named him X Æ A-Xii Musk.
The couple broke up in September 2021, but had another child in December of that year. Grimes has described the relationship as "very fluid" and added, "There’s no real word for it. I would probably refer to him as my boyfriend, but we’re very fluid.
"We live in separate houses. We’re best friends. We see each other all the time. … We just have our own thing going on, and I don’t expect other people to understand it."
She's since been dating government whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
He Sold All His Properties and Is Sleeping on Friend's Couches
Despite being a billionaire many times over, Musk no longer owns any homes and is said to be sleeping on friends' couches. He said, "If I travel to the Bay Area, which is where most of Tesla’s engineering is, I basically rotate through friends’ spare rooms."
Pointing Satellites at Ukraine
When war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, and Ukraine lost its internet services, it turned to Musk for help. He happily obliged when Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked him to send terminals.
He announced that Starlink satellites were activated and sent several of the terminals to the war-torn country.
He's the Richest Man in the World
As of April 2022, Musk is worth a whopping $246 billion.
To give you an idea of just how rich he is, Amazon creator Jeff Bezos is worth $150 billion. He is the second-richest person in the U.S. and the third-richest man in the world.
The Owner of Twitter
Musk bought the social media site Twitter for $44 billion. He says that he is a champion of free speech and called the site "the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated."
He has changes in mind for the site, including an edit button and blue checks for people who can prove they're real and not bots.
The deal was completed in October 2022, and under Musk, the company will go private.
He Mused About Taking Over Coca-Cola
Since he made the Twitter purchase announcement, Musk has said (jokingly?) that he would like to buy Coca-Cola and put cocaine back in the formula. The company is valued at little more than Elon Musk's net worth, at $285 billion, so he may have a bit of trouble buying it.
The soft drink's original formula did have an extraction of coca leaf (the raw form of cocaine) when it debuted in 1885. At that time, the drug was legal and a common medicine ingredient.
Just a few years later in 1891, the company began removing the ingredient until it was removed completely by 1929.
Half Democrat, Half Republican
Despite criticizing Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle, Musk agreed to serve on two presidential advisory committees – the Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Jobs Initiative – when Trump took office.
Musk resigned from those posts after facing pressure for supporting the Trump administration after it announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
At different times, Musk has described himself as "half Democrat, half Republican" and as "nauseatingly pro-American." He says he is socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and has made personal political contributions totaling more than $725,000 to both Democratic and Republican candidates for office since 2002. "In order to have your voice be heard in Washington, you have to make some little contribution," he said in 2013.
In 2022, he said in a tweet, "The far left hates everyone, themselves included!" But before anyone got too excited, he put out a second tweet saying, "But I’m no fan of the far right either. Let’s have less hate and more love."