Elon Musk has become a household name synonymous with tech innovation. He seems to singlehandedly revolutionize any sector that he gets his hands on. Forbes listed him on its “America’s 20 Most Powerful CEOs 40 and Under” in 2011, and in 2010 Time Magazine listed him among the 100 people most likely to have an impact on the world. He’s been a controversial person at times, too.
But who is Elon Musk, really? What’s his story? Where did he go to school? When did he get started in tech? How did he become involved in so many different things? Why does he do the things he does? Here is a biography of the genius entrepreneur and billionaire businessman that shows, deep down, he’s a nerd just like us.
Early Years and Education
Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa, to a South African father and a Canadian mother. His mother is Maye Musk (née Haldeman), a fashion model and dietitian who was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and raised in South Africa. His father is Errol Musk, a wealthy South African engineer, pilot, sailor, and property developer. Musk grew up with his younger brother Kimbal and sister Tosca. In 1979, Errol and Maye Musk divorced. In 1981, Elon moved to live with his father.
In grade school, Elon was not only the youngest and shortest kid in his class, but he was nerdier than the other students and an avid reader. Throughout his childhood, books played a crucial role in fueling Elon’s ambitions and entertaining him. Musk said “I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents.” He reportedly read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at age nine and would pore over science fiction novels, comics, and nonfiction books for up to ten hours a day.
Some of the most influential books he read included The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. From Asimov he learned that “you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.” Thus, Musk grew up thinking that he should use his intelligence to benefit humanity and make the world a better place.
Musk can speak both English and Afrikaans. But he was so introverted and quiet as a child that he was tested to see if he was deaf. His mother later learned that he was busy daydreaming about inventions and visualizing projects that he hoped to tackle. “He goes into his brain and then you just see he is in another world. He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something,” recalled Maye Musk in Ashlee Vance’s 2015 book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, (also available in a Young Reader’s Edition).
While his parents were away, “I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets and doing things that could have gotten me killed,” said Musk. “I’m shocked that I have all my fingers.” Elon also had an entrepreneurial streak from an early age. Elon, his brother Kimbal, and their cousins would travel around the wealthier parts of the city selling homemade chocolate Easter eggs door-to-door. The adventurous young capitalists sold the eggs for 20 times the cost of making them.
At the time of his parents’ divorce, when he went to live with his father at age 10, Elon developed an interest in computers. He learned computer programming on the Commodore VIC-20 using a manual and, at 12 years old, sold the code of a BASIC-based video game he created called “Blastar” to PC and Office Technology magazine for $500. According to Esquire, by 16 he was trying to open his own arcade business around the corner from his high school, though this effort was blocked by the town.
Elon attended Waterkloof House Preparatory School and Bryanston High School before graduating from Pretoria Boys High School. He was severely bullied throughout school, and in Vance’s book Musk said that he was once hospitalized after a gang of boys threw him down a flight of stairs. Then he had a growth spurt at age 15, and by age 16 he had learned karate, judo, and wrestling so he could better defend himself.
Although Musk’s father insisted that Elon go to college in Pretoria, Musk became determined to move to the United States, saying “I remember thinking and seeing that America is where great things are possible, more than any other country in the world.” Besides seeking the greater economic opportunities available in the United States, he was unwilling to support apartheid through compulsory military service.
Musk knew it would be easier to get to the United States from Canada. He moved there against his father’s wishes in June 1989, just before his 18th birthday, after obtaining a Canadian passport through his Canadian-born mother. Musk attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and in 1992 he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where he graduated in 1995 with two bachelor’s degrees: BS in Economics, Wharton School of Business; and BS in Physics, Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences.
After leaving Penn, Musk headed to California where he held two internships in Silicon Valley during the summer: at an energy storage start-up called Pinnacle Research Institute, which researched electrolytic ultracapacitors for energy storage; and at the Palo Alto-based start-up Rocket Science Games.
Bruce Leak, the former lead engineer behind Apple’s QuickTime, noted when he hired Musk: “He had boundless energy. Kids these days have no idea about hardware or how stuff works, but he had a PC hacker background and was not afraid to just go figure things out.”
Musk was accepted to Stanford University’s PhD program in energy physics/materials science. However, eager to pursue opportunities in the Internet boom, he dropped out of Stanford after just two days. He felt that the Internet had much more potential to change society than physics research.
Zip2 / PayPal – Elon and Kimbal Musk founded the Zip2 web software company in Palo Alto, California in 1995. Zip2 provided a searchable business directory, which was kind of like an Internet version of the yellow pages telephone directory with maps included. Elon made his first fortune at age 28 when Zip2 was bought by Compaq computers for $307 million in 1999. Musk then founded an online financial services company, X.com, which later became PayPal, an electronic payment firm that specialized in transferring money online. The online auction site eBay purchased PayPal in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
SpaceX – In 2002, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies, aka SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California. SpaceX designs and produces launch vehicles and reusable spacecraft, revolutionizing the aerospace industry and making affordable spaceflight a reality. It was the first private company to launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit (2008), the first private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (2013), and the first private company to dock a crewed spacecraft with the International Space Station (2020). In 2018, SpaceX launched a special payload of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space, with a mannequin named Starman in the driver’s seat, and equipped with cameras to “provide some epic views” for the vehicle’s planned orbit around the sun. (Where is Starman? Live Tracker.)
Tesla – Musk had long been interested in the possibilities of electric cars, and he became one of the first significant investors in Tesla Motors (later renamed Tesla), an electric car manufacturing company. He contributed more than $30 million to the new venture and served as CEO beginning in 2004. In 2006 Tesla introduced its first car, the Roadster, which could travel 245 miles on a single charge. Unlike most previous electric vehicles, it was a sports car that could go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds. In 2006, he helped create SolarCity, a solar energy services company (now a subsidiary of Tesla).
Hyperloop – Stuck in traffic and dissatisfied with the projected cost ($68 billion) of a high-speed rail system in California, Musk in 2013 proposed an alternate faster system, the Hyperloop, a pneumatic tube in which a pod carrying 28 passengers would travel the 350 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes at a top speed of 760 miles per hour, nearly the speed of sound. However, he stated that between running SpaceX and Tesla, he could not devote time to the Hyperloop’s development and suggested that others pursue the technology. Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop company is working to make it a reality.
Boring Company – In addition to his primary business pursuits, Musk formed The Boring Company in December 2016 as a subsidiary of SpaceX, becoming a separate and fully independent company in 2018. The Boring Company (also known as TBC) is an infrastructure and tunnel construction services company; its mission is to create underground tunnels for electric vehicles to help alleviate traffic. In an interview during a TED conference in April 2017, Musk estimated that The Boring Company project had taken only 2-3% of his time, making it more of a personal hobby.
Neuralink – His latest venture, Neuralink Corporation, is a neurotechnology company founded by Musk and others to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to both monitor and stimulate brain activity. Neuralink was created to help people who are suffering from various health problems related to restricted motor skills, such as those with spinal cord injuries or paralysis. In addition, Musk says that Neuralink will allow humans to compete with artificial intelligence technology (he said that current trends suggest AI could overtake humans by 2025), as well as help cure brain diseases, control mood and even let people “listen to music directly from our chips.”
With his eccentric “mad scientist” personality, Musk was a major inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Iron Man 2 (2010), Musk meets Tony Stark in a restaurant and has a brief line regarding his idea for an electric jet. In real life, Musk has spoken on several occasions about his ambitions for an electric jet. Then again, he admits “I have lots of ideas, more ideas than I can act upon… I tend to bite off more than I can chew.” Musk insists that he is still an engineer at heart, not a businessman or investor.
Musk has been known to make bold tweets, only to later reveal they are actual plans. The Boring Company, one of Musk’s smaller ventures, started as a joke on Twitter. So when he comes up with an idea, you should probably take him seriously. And with Musk’s mad energy and tendency to dream big, who knows what he’ll come up with next. He may not have the time, but he’ll certainly have the money to do it!