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Nikola Tesla

On the 150th anniversary of the birth of brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla, Mark Pilkington explores the enigma of the man who lit up the world.

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The Bird Man of Bryant Park

18 May 1917. As he had almost every day and night for the past several years, a middle-aged man strode into Bryant Park, a small green square behind New York City’s magnificent public library. Immaculately turned out as was his custom, his 6ft 2in [1.88m] frame, strikingly gaunt but always noble, was draped in a black tailcoat and trousers, topped by a black bowler hat. Beneath the coat, he sported a waistcoat, a crisp white shirt and a white bow tie. A brand new pair of grey suede gloves enclosed his unusually large hands and prominent thumbs, which clasped a cane and a brown paper bag full of breadcrumbs.

Within moments of his arrival, the pigeons were upon him, like iron filings surrounding a magnet. Smiling and murmuring to the cooing birds, the man stretched out his arms and disappeared under a flurry of grey and white wings. His avian reverie was short-lived, disturbed by the appearance of another man, also dressed in tails, who urgently bade him away.

Reluctantly, the bird man of Bryant Park shook himself free and dusted himself down. It was, after all, an important night for Nikola Tesla; he was to be awarded the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers’ (AIEE) Edison Medal, by the man who had come to find him, his old friend Dr Bernard A Behrend.

"Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night," declared Behrend in the presentation speech, borrowing from Alexander Pope’s epitaph to Newton. "God said, Let Tesla Be, and all was light." He went on: "Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle… His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science."

While it’s still possible to find modern histories of electricity that make no mention of Tesla, during his lifetime he was, alongside Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, the most celebrated inventor of the age. His polyphase system of Alternating Current (AC) remains the basis for transmitting electricity across power lines and drives induction motors – another Tesla design – in everything from CD players to submarines. Tesla is often credited with starting the "Second Industrial Revolution", but his genius touched on much more than just motors. His writings, patents and inventions included early models for radio, X-ray-emitting tubes, fluorescent lighting, robotics, radar, aircraft, missiles and, heading further out into the unknown, energy weapons, weather control and – his great dream – the wireless transmission of electricity.

Sadly, he would outlive his professional career. By the time of his death on 7 January 1943, he was thousands of dollars in debt and largely overshadowed by tales of his eccentricity, which surrounded him like the pigeons he so dearly loved. Most of these stories were true. Sensitive and mild-mannered, he never married, nor seemed to have intimate relations with women (or, for that matter, men); he never had a home, living his entire adult life in hotels; he insisted on calculating the cubic volume of any food or drink that he consumed; and was bound to perform actions in multiples of three.

After his death, Tesla’s name survived as a unit measuring the intensity of a magnetic field, as a crater on the far side of the Moon, and a small planetary object (2244 Tesla). Meanwhile, his ideas continued to inspire both respectable scientists of the sort you’d happily take back to the academy, and legions of backyard free-energy researchers.

The 21st century has seen a dramatic resurgence of interest in Tesla and his work. 2006, the 150th anniversary of his birth, was declared the Year of Tesla by UNESCO and was marked by celebrations in both his native Croatia and in his family’s homeland, Serbia: Belgrade airport is now officially Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. 2006 also saw the birth of the Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric car designed by Lotus; perhaps less excitingly, though no less significantly, an engine on Silverlink’s North London Line was named the Nikola Tesla in 2001.

This change in Tesla’s posthumous fortunes is perhaps best reflected in the titles of his biographies: the first, published in 1944, was Prodigal Genius; 1981 saw him as a Man Out of Time; by 2001 he was The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century.

Early Years

Nikola Tesla was born at midnight between 9 and 10 July 1856 in the hamlet of Smiljan, then part of the Hapsburg Empire, now in Croatia. He was the fourth of five children born to Duka Mandic and Milutin Tesla, priest of the neighbouring Serbian Orthodox Church. Legend has it that thunder and lightning raged that night.

The Tesla household was a lively one. Duka, although never formally schooled, had a passion for European poetry, which she could recite at length thanks to her prodigious memory – an attribute Nikola inherited. His mother was an endless source of inspiration to Nikola, who attributed all his abilities to her influence. The family traditionally sent its sons into the army or the clergy, but young Nikola was different.

He began inventing at an early age. At five, he built his own waterwheel, whose smooth sides differentiated it from the paddle wheels of the surrounding countryside. Another mill powered by June beetles looked promising until a friend ate Nikola’s entire fuel supply, a sight that caused the young inventor to be violently sick. His attempt to fly off a barn roof using an umbrella as a parachute was less successful, leaving him to be discovered, unconscious, by his mother. As an older child, he imagined himself transported through the air in a vacuum-powered flying machine – he even built a small working prototype vacuum cylinder – and constructing a huge water wheel at the base of the Niagara Falls. This much, at least, would prove a prophetic vision.

Family life was bucolic; the children shared their lives with farm animals, including a number of pigeons, but tragedy struck when Nikola was five. His 12-year-old brother Daniel, a hero to Nikola, died in an accident. Accounts differ – he may have been killed by a favourite horse, or he may have fallen down some stairs. Nikola may even have been blamed for the fall. Whatever the case, Daniel’s loss deeply affected Nikola, who soon began to show signs of the hypersensitivity that would mark him out as an eccentric for the rest of his life. In middle age he wrote:

"I contracted many strange likes, dislikes and habits, some of which I can trace to external impressions while others are unaccountable. I had a violent aversion against earrings of women… I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house, it caused me the keenest discomfort." ("My Inventions", Electrical Experimenter, Feb–Oct 1919.) It seems likely that his phobias prevented Tesla from ever enjoying intimacy with others.

During a brief spell studying electrical engineering and mathematics at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz, the precocious Tesla developed a passion for Alternating Current and Voltaire. But he never gained his degree, possibly being expelled for dissolute behaviour. In 1882, following two lost years in Prague, Nikola’s family secured him a job at the Paris headquarters of the Edison Telephone Company. Here he did such a good job improving and repairing the engines at the company’s French and German power stations that he was presented with a personal letter of introduction to Thomas Edison himself. It read: "I know two great men and you are one of them: the other is this young man."

And so it was that, with only four cents, some technical diagrams and a book of his own poetry in his pocket, Tesla joined the great tide of immigration sweeping into America.

When Tesla and Edison met in New York City in 1884, the "Wizard of Menlo Park" was a powerful, wealthy man, deeply embroiled in custody battles over patent ownership for both the light bulb and the microphone. He was already distributing power to his neighbours in Manhattan, providing electric light to Roselle, New Jersey, and seeking to replace the gas lighting monopoly with one of his own: Direct Current (DC) electricity.

Tesla impressed Edison, though the differences in their personalities were clearly marked: Tesla was principled, fastidious and dapper, an inspired dreamer; Edison was unscrupulous, personally slovenly and workmanlike as an inventor. He also provided the idealistic young Tesla with his first taste of the harsh realities of commercial enterprise, something he would never fully grasp.

When Tesla offered to improve the efficiency of the company’s turbines, Edison gave him the go-ahead, promising ,000 when the task was completed. Tesla spent almost a year working day and night like a human dynamo, overhauling and automating Edison’s workshop and patenting a few new devices along the way. The deed done, Tesla approached his boss for the agreed fee, only to be rebuffed with a guffaw: "Tesla, you don’t understand our American humour."

Appalled by what he saw as a breach of honour and ethics, Tesla quit the company. He probably also realised that staying with Edison, with his commitment to DC, was a dead end if he wanted to get his beloved AC system off the ground. Tesla was quickly sweet-talked by investors into setting up his own Tesla Electric Light Company, for which he patented a new arc light but, once again, was the victim of his own success, being forced out of the company after a year and paid off with near worthless stock bonds.

From the spring of 1886, Tesla found himself one of the thousands laid low by that year’s economic depression, digging ditches in New York until providence smiled the following year. The head of his labour crew, also working far below his capabilities, introduced him to AK Brown, manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Brown was impressed with Tesla’s AC theories and provided him with a company, The Tesla Electric Company, and a laboratory at 33 South Fifth St.

And so, after a tumultuous start, began Nikola Tesla’s life as a legend.

The Wizard of the West

With a flurry of patents, in 1888 Tesla made the motor of his dreams a reality. His refined polyphase system utilised rotating magnetic fields rather than mechanical parts to drive its motors, removing the friction and vibration that dogged earlier motors and vastly increasing their efficiency. A simple and elegant idea, it was rapturously received by the AIEE, and Tesla swiftly gained the attention of the inventor and businessman George Westinghouse, who had an AC generating plant in Buffalo, New York. Westinghouse bought up the Tesla system and hired him to upgrade his existing power plants.

Word of their partnership soon spread to Edison, whose DC system was proliferating along the East Coast and the Edison PR machine went into overdrive, warning of the dangers of AC – which was actually considerably safer – by publicly electrocuting a vast menagerie of animals, including a circus elephant. The War of the Currents waged for years, reaching a grim climax of sorts in 1890 with the first electrical execution of a human, murderer William Kemmler. It was a slow, gruelling process, at least partly because the prison, in Auburn, New York, used what Edison had argued was the more lethal AC.

The war’s real end came in 1893 when, to the delight of both Tesla and his boss, Westinghouse was awarded a contract to install a hydroelectric plant at the base of the Niagara Falls. Tesla’s childhood vision had come true and, as of June 2006, a statue of him astride one of his motors now commemorates the occasion. The same year, Tesla would take to the stage as an electrical superman at the colossal 1893 Columbian Exhibition, the Chicago World’s Fair, a Depression-defying spectacle powered entirely by Westinghouse AC. Here, Tesla presented himself to the tens of thousands of visitors as the tamer of currents, engulfed by sparks, flames and halos of light.

The "New Wizard of the West" as one journalist dubbed Tesla, was now at the height of his fame. In Paris and London, he met the world’s leading scientists and lectured to enthralled gatherings about the wireless transmission of information and energy. A steady stream of celebrities, scientists and journalists visited the Fifth St laboratory to be dazzled by Tesla’s remotely powered fluorescent tubes, lightning-generating coils, and in Mark Twain’s case, a vibrating platform with unfortunate laxative effects.

Tesla thrived in the public eye, dreaming up and demonstrating new inventions like his "Teleautomatic devices" – remote controlled vehicles and weapons, which he hoped, and failed, to sell to the military. More controversially, in St Louis, Missouri, in 1893 he performed what would later be recognised as the first successful radio transmission. Tesla filed two patents for radio that year, but it would not be until 1943, three months after his death, that the US Supreme Court acknowledged that his patents had partly formed the basis of Guglielmo Marconi’s more famous 1895 experiment. Marconi’s fame and fortune would only increase as Tesla’s own star waned.

The Electric Wizard

For the time being, however, Tesla could do no wrong. In 1899, he convinced hotelier Colonel John Jacob Astor to invest in his vision of a global, wireless communications network that one day would allow us to communicate with the denizens of Mars.

A purpose-built laboratory was constructed on land outside the town of Colorado Springs, Colorado, elevation 6,000ft (1,800m) (and now home to NORAD) where his nearest neighbours were grazing cattle herds and a school for the deaf and blind. With an armoury of huge coils, amplifiers and transformers inside and, outside, a 142ft (43m) tall transmitter mast, the new Prometheus could experiment with truly gargantuan electrical currents, hurling man-made lightning into the dry mountain air to be seen and heard for miles around.

Curiosity-seekers approaching the experimental station were confronted with forbidding warning signs, while Dante’s "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" hung above the lab entrance. Those who did get close enough told of the ground crackling beneath their feet, sparks flying from startled horses’ hooves and hundred-foot (30m) lightning bolts emanating from the external mast. On one occasion, Tesla blew the town’s entire electricity supply, causing a blackout until he repaired the generators himself.

While at Colorado Springs, Tesla realised that the Earth was "a conductor of limitless dimensions". He was convinced that he had sent ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) waves half way around the world, creating a column of energy in the Indian Ocean, which could be tapped for its power using simple equipment like a radio tuner. Outside the station, Tesla was able to power bulbs wirelessly, while inside he noted manifestations of ball lightning and, on one occasion, a dense fog, leading him to believe that he would one day be able to modify the weather and create moisture in arid climates. His most controversial claim, however, and one that probably marked the beginning of the end of his reputation as a serious scientist, was that he had received radio signals from outer space, most likely Mars or Venus. This makes Tesla, unwittingly, the first radio astronomer, though he himself assumed that the signals were directed by another intelligence.

With the Colorado Springs experiments, Tesla’s vision finally outstretched the capacity of the public imagination. Marconi’s 1901 radio transmission across the Atlantic was astounding enough to comprehend, but radios in outer space and wireless energy broadcasts were ideas from another time, or another planet. HG Wells and Jules Verne may have been describing such things in their fiction, but to claim to have mastered them in reality was too much. It’s no wonder some people would later consider Tesla to be not of this Earth. He was still on a roll, however, convincing banker JP Morgan to invest 0,000 in what was to be Tesla’s greatest creation – and also his downfall.

Wardenclyffe

On a 200-acre (80ha) site near Shoreham, on New York’s Long Island, Tesla, with architects Stanford White and WD Crow, attempted to realise his most grandiose dreams. Wardenclyffe was to be one of the world’s first industrial parks, housing 2,000 workers, hundreds of generator and transformer buildings and, its crowning glory, a 187ft (57m) tower with a 120ft (37m) earthing rod underground ("to have a grip on the Earth so the whole of this globe can quiver"), topped by a 55-tonne, 68ft- (21m-) diameter copper dome. This colossal transmission tower was to be twinned with another in England; the pair would transmit radio signals and, eventually, power, across the Atlantic Ocean.

Even as the tower was raised, however, the money began to run out; it became clear that Tesla’s plans were outgrowing even Morgan’s outsized wallet. Tesla, it was apparent, was not a man of the world, and the world just wasn’t ready for Tesla’s vision. Morgan certainly wasn’t, and refused further investment, to which Tesla responded with spectacular electrical tantrums, creating at Wardenclyffe a lightshow the likes of which the world had never seen before, or quite possibly since.

Still living at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Tesla sank further into debt until, by 1905, Wardenclyffe was being hired out to anyone who would take it. In a dismal echo of Tesla’s dazzling World’s Fair performances, the inventor’s dream palace was eventually used to stage vaudeville performances. The tower was finally demolished in 1917, sold for scrap by the site’s owners. It took several dynamite blasts to bring Tesla’s industrial Xanadu crashing to the ground.

Although Tesla would never stop working and would never be forgotten, Wardenclyffe was the last time that his ideas came close to such full, majestic expression. The world was moving into darkness: the Great Depression came a decade after World War I, followed by World War II. Although he continued to present military applications of his ideas to the Army – robots, remote control weapons, electric vehicles, even an early radar concept – at heart Tesla was a man of peace, who saw technology as bringing an end to war.

Meanwhile, his own circumstances grew ever less salubrious. Although he never lost his charm or style, he was forced to sit and watch as others accrued wealth and fame from ideas that he himself had first presented to the world and patented decades earlier. Nobody denied this, except perhaps Marconi, but Tesla was no longer interested in the practicalities of invention; as always, his mind moved on. "Let the future tell the truth," he would say. "The present is theirs. The future, for which I really worked, is mine".

In later life, he became fascinated by cosmology, criticising Einstein’s then-new ideas, while every year on his annual interview day, the press lapped up his increasingly extravagant pronouncements about death-rays and free energy. One of the last patents registered by Tesla, in 1928, was for a vertical take-off and landing aircraft that looks very like a helicopter. His childhood dreams were never far away.

Things certainly weren’t all bad. He still had important friends and supporters and, in 1931, Time magazine featured "Genius" Tesla on its cover, dedicating four pages to celebrating his 75th birthday. He also received letters of thanks and admiration from 70 leading scientists and industrialists, Einstein among them. But as the years wore on, the ever-reclusive Tesla was reduced to a caricature: the mad genius, the Great Inventor (he was even known to sign his name ‘GI’). This process reached its apogee (or possibly its nadir) in 1941, when Max Fleischer pitted Superman against a mad scientist called Tesla in his first animated adventure.

Tesla always recognised the problem. His natural flair, his love of spectacle and the big idea led the world to see him as a romantic visionary, a poet of science rather than a practical inventor. Whether or not they were all workable, his dreams were grander than the world’s capacity to realise them. Our world today is not that far removed from the one envisaged by Tesla almost a century ago, and perhaps, had the course of history been different, we would now be enjoying further fruits of his genius – and we might still. But for now, Nikola Tesla remains a martyr to weird science and, if such a thing were ever to exist, our patron saint of electricity.


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This photograph demonstrates Tesla’s unique flair for publicity. It was made using both timed and double exposures and shows Tesla calmly reading, apparently during a raging indoor lightning storm. First published in Century Illustrated Magazine, June 1900.
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Illustration: Les Edwards
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The 187ft (57m) high tower at Wardenclyffe, seen here under construction, was to be Tesla’s most grandiose project.
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The young Nikola Tesla, aged 29
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Author Biography
Mark Pilkington edits Strange Attractor Journal and is a frequent contributor to FT. He also performs as part of the Tesla-inspired sound/art project ‘Disinformation vs Strange Attractor’, which uses mains electricity, EM fields and antique laboratory equipment in its live shows. Their CD Circuit Blasting is out now on Adaadat Recordings.
ARTICLE SOURCES:
  • Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out Of Time, Dorset Press 1981; Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.
  • John J O’Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, David McKay Co. 1944; Neville Spearman, 1968.
  • TH Metzger, Blood and Volts: Edison, Tesla and the Electric Chair, Autonomedia, 1996.

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