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26 May 2017 17:01 (South Africa)
Life, etc

The return of Nikola Tesla, the man who lit up the planet

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc
rebecca on Nikola Tesla.jpg

Late last week, it was announced that plans are finally properly underway to turn an old Long Island laboratory into a permanent memorial and museum to the late Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. For Tesla’s supporters, it’s the culmination of a 70-year battle – since Tesla’s death – to see the appropriate commemoration of the man largely responsible for our modern electricity system, and a host of other scientific advancements for which he never received sufficient credit. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Nikola Tesla lit up the entire planet but died alone in a New York hotel room with hardly a cent to his name. Today, when we celebrate the pioneers of modern electricity – those men and women who took us literally out of the dark – we speak in glowing terms of the likes of Thomas Edison and Michael Faraday. If your high school science textbook devoted even a fleeting mention to Nikola Tesla, it was quite unusual. Yet it was Tesla whose work stands behind modern motors, light bulbs, radio broadcasts, wireless communications, and a host of other developments we entirely take for granted.

Tesla was well known during his lifetime. Indeed, he was internationally fêted; when he died in 1943, he was given a state funeral. “Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the result 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, and our mills would be idle and dead,” declared B.A. Behrend, Vice President of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, upon presenting Tesla with the prestigious Edison Medal in 1917. To conclude his speech, Behrend paraphrased some lines from the poet Alexander Pope, originally written for Isaac Newton: ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid by night. God said: ‘Let Tesla be, and all was light.’”

Exactly how a genius of Tesla’s stature could lapse into obscurity so soon after his death owes something to a multitude of factors. Some of his work was so innovative that its practical application could not instantly be perceived, in a society hungry for gadgets and gizmos and, increasingly, instant gratification. Unlike contemporary scientists like Edison, Tesla was very poor at selling his work or even patenting it: although he had around 700 patents registered worldwide at the time of his death, it is sometimes estimated that Tesla could have registered at least 1,000 more. Tesla’s work was often misunderstood or sensationalised by the tabloid press, which did his legacy no favours.

And his increasing eccentricity towards the end of his life also served to muddy his reputation somewhat. Always methodical, in later life he tended towards the obsessive-compulsive, dining at the same place every night (before his diet devolved into crackers); walking round a block three times before entering a building; choosing his books with care, because if he read one book by an author, he had to read them all. An oft-recounted tidbit to illustrate Tesla’s late-life quirkiness is the fact that he fell in love with a small white pigeon. “I loved that pigeon as a man loved a woman, and she loved me,” Tesla said matter-of-factly in one of his last interviews.

But, as recently as the last decade, we have seen Tesla’s reputation and achievements dusted off again with new appreciation. When South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Silicon Valley company was seeking a name for its range of electric spots cars, ‘Tesla’ was chosen. The likes of Google’s Larry Page have publicly expressed their admiration for Tesla. He has become something of a geek icon: many who toil in obscurity probably feel a sense of commiseration with the story of the man who increasingly shut out the world to devote himself to work which often went unrecognised.

“Nikola Tesla is elbowing aside his old adversary Thomas Edison in the pantheon of geek gods,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2010. “Many significant Edison inventions – including the phonograph and the motion-picture camera – are becoming historical curios. The European Union has banned old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs, another Edison innovation. The EU is urging consumers to replace them with more-efficient fluorescent lights descended from those Tesla favoured.”

Whenever Tesla is mentioned, Edison is inevitably mentioned, though the reverse does not hold true. Tesla’s initially cooperative and then antagonistic relationship with Edison was to shape a great deal of his working life. It was to work for Edison that Croatian-born Tesla moved to New York from Europe in 1884, aged 28. But a central disagreement between Edison and Tesla soon developed. Although the principles of generating electricity had been worked out, the best way to power homes and factories on a large scale was still in question. Edison favoured – and had invested heavily in – “direct current” (DC), whereas Tesla insisted that the future lay in “alternating current” (AC).

The two are different because direct current only flows in one direction, and requires power plants placed at frequent intervals; whereas alternating current switches direction multiple times a second and can be increased to high voltage, minimising power loss across large distances. Edison launched a dirty-tricks campaign to discredit AC, including electrocuting animals to suggest that it wasn’t safe, but Tesla won what was called the ‘Battle of the Currents’ in 1893, when he lit up the 1893 Chicago World Fair to demonstrate a thus far unprecedented scale of illumination. Today, the whole planet runs off AC power: a development we owe to Tesla rather than Edison.

Tesla was responsible for initial discoveries in the fields of, among others, fluorescent light; laser beams; robotics; X-Rays; and remote control. As early as 1898 he demonstrated a radio-controlled boat. When he tried to sell the idea to the US military before World War I for use as radio-controlled torpedoes, they failed to see the potential. It was also Tesla who made many of the breakthroughs to which we owe modern radio broadcasting. We normally credit the invention of the radio to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, but when Marconi carried out the first radio transmission in 1901, he did so by using no less than 17 of Tesla’s patents.

Tesla was not infallible. He had certain blind spots: he did not believe that atoms could be split, or that electrons existed. He was also a critic of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Some of his ideas were so unlikely that they sparked skepticism. Tesla believed, for instance, that he could use electricity to control the weather. He also claimed to have detected communication signals from Mars. Arguably his wildest idea, however, was his development of a “death ray”.

Nobody is quite clear on how Tesla’s death ray was supposed to work. He conceived it in the hope that it might lead to a lucrative US military contract, at one of the many times in his life where he found himself almost broke. The death ray was apparently some form of “particle accelerator”, which Tesla saw as being used for defence purposes, to knock down incoming attacks. It is said – in a possibly apocryphal story – that Tesla only tested it once, on the evening of June 30, 1908. On that night, Tesla aimed the death ray from the top of his Wardenclyffe laboratory across the Atlantic towards the arctic. Then he switched it on.

At first, Tesla thought that nothing was happening. But then an owl flew into the ray’s beam and allegedly instantly disintegrated: a promising sign. There was, however, no further action. Tesla switched it off. Some time later, though, news filtered through from Siberia: on that same evening, a gigantic explosion had destroyed 500,000 square acres of land in Tunguska, in the Siberian wilderness. The Tunguska event is still considered to be the most powerful explosion in human history. Though its cause has never been settled, scientists tend to believe its source was either a meteorite or a comet. To Tesla, however, it was supposedly quite clear that his death ray had caused the damage. The story goes that he never tried it again.

Anecdotes like this both stoke the Tesla ‘mad-scientist’ mythology and, arguably, detract from his more solid achievements. When Elon Musk’s Tesla car company chose the name of the inventor, they didn’t do so simply to capitalise on Tesla’s geek cachet. They did so because their Tesla Roadster uses an AC motor derived directly from Tesla’s 1882 design. Tesla would have likely been very happy to lend his name to an electric car; he dreamed of ‘green energy’ before it was even a concept, foreseeing the potential of solar energy and building the world’s first hydro-electric plant on Niagara Falls.

One of the most devoted Tesla fans of our time is Matthew Inman, the man behind the wildly popular ‘Oatmeal’ cartoon website, who drew a cartoon called ‘Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived’ which became one of the site’s biggest hits. In August last year, Inman resolved to raise funds to preserve Tesla’s last remaining laboratory as a tribute to the inventor. Inman’s crowd-funding endeavor, titled “Let’s Build A Goddamn Tesla Museum”, aimed to raise $850,000, but eventually brought in $1,370,461.

Last week supporters confirmed that the sale of the Long Island laboratory – the same one from which Tesla allegedly launched his death ray – had been successfully completed. A second campaign has now been launched to raise $10 million to turn the old lab into a Tesla museum and an educational memorial.

“I’ve always thought the dude would be a lot more comfortable in 2012 than in 1912,” wrote a commenter on a CNN forum last year devoted to discussing Tesla.

Another responded: “Without Tesla doing his thing then, 2012 would be a lot more like 1912…” DM

Read more:

  • Plans for a Memorial to Honor Tesla, in the NY Times
  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc

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