Tesla with one of his famous “wireless” lamps. Published on the cover of the Electrical Experimenter in 1919.
NIKOLA TESLA – THE GENIUS WHO LIT THE WORLD
Few inventors contributed more to advances in science and engineering in the early 20th century than Nikola Tesla. As one of the Fathers of Electricity, Tesla did groundbreaking work on alternating current (AC) power system, electromagnetism, hydroelectric power, radio, and radar to name a few. Many of his inventions (Tesla obtained some 300 patents in his lifetime) became the stuff we take for granted today: when we flip a switch to turn on the light, we owe a lot of that electrical magic to Tesla.
As fate would have it, Tesla, one of the world’s greatest inventors, died penniless and in obscurity. Even today, many people mistakenly attribute many of his inventions to others (Edison, for example, is in the name of many power companies in the United States – ironically, they use the AC system devised by Tesla rather than the more inefficient direct current or DC system espoused by Thomas Edison; Tesla also invented the fundamentals of radio transmissions before Gugliegmo Marconi).
Today, there’s quite a bit of resurgence in Tesla’s popularity, which is helped in part by his mystique as a “mad scientist.” Amongst his more outlandish ideas, Tesla worked on death rays to knock out enemy airplanes out of the skies, pocket-sized resonance machine that could topple buildings, ways to send electricity through the upper atmosphere, force-fields to protect cities, and so on.
Tesla Company letterhead. Note the words “World Wireless Telephone Transmitter.”
In their book, Tesla: Master of Lightning, authors Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth tell the story of the enigmatic genius from his birth in a little village in what is Croatia today, to his lonely death in a New York hotel room. The book, years in the making, combines archival documents and hundreds of photographs, compiled from the Tesla Museum in Belgrade (previously inaccessible to Western writers during much of the Cold War era), excerpts from Tesla’s writings, as well as interviews with people who knew the man personally, to paint detailed snapshots of Tesla’s life and to provide clear explanations of his (often very technical) work.
On a personal note, it has taken me far longer than I expected to write this excerpt for Neatorama Spotlight. Margaret and Robert’s book was so fascinating that on many nights, I ended up reading late pass my bedtime. It seems like on every single page there were neat details about Tesla that were just too good not to share! I highly recommend Tesla: Master of Lightning to anyone interested in learning more about the legendary Nikola Tesla.
An Old World Childhood
As a youth, Tesla exhibited a peculiar trait that he considered the basis
of all his invention. He had an abnormal ability, usually involuntary,
to visualize scenes, people, and things so vividly that he was sometimes
unsure of what was real and what imaginary. Strong flashes of light often
accompanied these images. Tormented, he would move his hand in front of
his eyes to determine whether the objects were simply in his mind or outside.
He considered the strange ability an affliction at first, but for an inventor
it could be a gift.
Tesla wrote of these phenomena and of his efforts to find an explanation
for them, since no psychologist or physiologist was ever able to help
him. “The theory I have formulated,” he wrote much later, is
that the images were the result of a reflex action from the brain on the
retina under great excitation. They certainly were not hallucinations,
for in other respects I was normal and composed. To give an idea of my
distress, suppose that I had witnessed a funeral or some such nerve-wracking
spectacle. Then, inevitably, in the stillness of the night, a vivid picture
of the scene would thrust itself before my eyes and persist despite all
my efforts to banish it. Sometimes it would even remain fixed in space
though I pushed my hand through it. (Tesla, My inventions: My early life.
Electrical Experimenter; February 1919)
Tesla in his Houston Street laboratory. Caption for this photo in Electrical
Review, March 29, 1899 reads: “The operator’s body, in this
experiment, is charged to a high potential by means of a coil responsive
to the waves transmitted to it from a distant oscillator.”
On the summer day in 1884 when Tesla, carefully dressed in his bowler
hat, striped trousers, and cut-away coat (the whole of his wardrobe),
dropped in to see the famous Mr. Edison, there had been an emergency at
the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue. Two wires had shorted behind a
metallic-threaded wall hanging and started a fire. Mrs. Vanderbilt herself
had smothered the flames, only to learn that the problem emanated from
a steam engine and boiler in her basement. Now the angry socialite was
demanding that Edison remove the whole apparatus. No sooner had he rushed
back to Pearl Street than the manager of a shipping firm called to remind
him that the SS Oregon had been tied up for days awaiting electrical
repairs and was losing money by the hour. Unfortunately Edison had no
more engineers to assign to the job.
At this juncture he became aware of the tall foreign gentleman hovering
politely in the doorway, bowler hat in gloved hand, a letter in his pocket
from Charles Batchelor, the English engineer who managed the Continental
Edison Company in Europe. Few American colleges then trained electrical
engineers, so prospects were good for the rare immigrant who was qualified.
But Mr. Edison was not in a congenial mood.
Tesla spoke up, knowing the famous man had a had a hearing problem, and
introduced himself. He produced the brief message from Batchelor. Edison
glanced at the few lines and snorted. “I know two great men and you
are one of them,” Batchelor had written. “The other is this
Thomas Edison, rumpled, weary, and deeply skeptical, asked Tesla what
he could do. While the American inventor was only eight years older than
his visitor, and lacked his formal education, he was already world-renowned
for his inventions. Tesla recalled their meeting:
When I saw this wonderful man, who had had no training at all, no advantages,
and who did it all himself, and saw the great results by virtue of his
industry and application – you see, I had studied a dozen languages
… and had spent the best years of my life ruminating through libraries.
I thought to myself what a terrible thing it was to have wasted my life
on those useless things, and if I had only come to America right then
and there and devoted all of my brain power and inventiveness to my
work, what could I not have done? (Tesla, My inventions: My early life.
Electrical Experimenter; February 1919)
In awe of Edison, Tesla proceeded to describe the engineering work he
had done in France and Germany, and spoke of his plans for induction motors
made to run smoothly and powerfully on alternating current. That invention,
he reckoned, was worth many fortunes.
Edison knew little of alternating current, chose to believe it the work
of the devil, and did not care to learn more about it. Did this dandified
“Parisian” realize that was he was suggesting could make a whole
industry obsolete? In the past Edison had waged a propaganda war against
the gas companies on the grounds that the possibility of explosions made
gas too dangerous for human use as a power source. He was therefore experienced
in recognizing and heading off any threat of industrial competition.
Tesla, unprepared for the force of Edison’s passion, thanked him and
turned to leave. As he did so a breathless boy rushed into the plant to
report that a junction box at Pearl and Nassau streets was leaking electricity
and had injured a carter and his horse. Edison bellowed at his foreman.
Then he turned to Tesla and said, “Hold up a minute, Mister. Can
you fix a ship’s lighting plant?”
So began this historic collision of geniuses. Eventually it would spark
the bitter and long-running “War of the Currents,” the taste
of which still lingers today in corporate memories.
Laboratory where TEsla and Westinghouse engineers developed apparatus
for AC systems.
The Executioner’s Current
It is strange but true that the introduction of the electric chair in
America came purely out of a commercial battle over light bulb sales.
Or, more accurately, over what kind of power supply would energize the
nation’s early lighting. Orders to Edison’s lighting companies had fallen
behind those for Westinghouse’s newer AC systems. With progress marching
right past him, Edison and his Wall Street investors opened a delaying
campaign to block AC systems in any way possible, the DC interests took
up the idea that AC would fail if it was perceived as deadly. One shadowy
figure associated with Edison, Harold P. Brown, became a very public advocate
of “humane” death – to be inflicted on animals or humans – by
AC electricity. Brown electrocuted dogs and horses under questionable
experimental conditions. After Edison provided him with research facilities
at his West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, neighbors began to complain
of disappearing household pets.
Brown’s efforts inspired New York State prison officials to try the idea
on a human being. A law was passed in New York (1887) to abandon hanging
in favor of electrocution as of January 1, 1889.
Brown, predictably, had a hand in providing apparatus to the state –
a 2,000-volt Westinghouse alternator purchased secondhand – since Westinghouse
refused to sell when approached. First to die by the newly prescribed
capital punishment was William Kemmler, convicted of killing his wife.
He was executed at the Auburn Prison, August 6, 1890. Several jolts were
delivered, one for seventeen seconds and another for three and a half
minutes. Witnesses reported that the victim’s spinal cord burst into flames.
The method hasn’t worked very predictably, even up to today.
A number of terms were suggested for this new method of execution, including
“thanelectrize,” “electrophon,” “electroctasy,”
“electrotony,” and “fulmenvoltacuss.” And why “electrocute,”
also on the list, should have come to be preferred over the straightforward
“electrocize” is anyone’s guess. The vested interest in DC current,
however, made a point of saying victims of electric shocks had been “Westinghoused.”
Tesla in a thoughtful pose in front of his “web” coil, May 1896.
Lionized and Ionized
(L) Mark Twain and Joseph (“Jo”) Jefferson in Tesla’s South
Fifth Avenue laboratory, 1894, with blurred image of TEsla between.
(R) Mark Twain in Tesla’s laboratory at 35 South Fifth Avenue, early 1895
Perhaps Tesla’s most famous friend was the writer Mark Twain, with whom
the Serb’s literary connections went back to childhood. In his autobiography,
Tesla described how Twain helped him recover from a dangerous illness
when he was brought the early novels from his local public library and
found them “so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless
state.” He attributed the miraculous recovery that followed to the
humorist. Tesla claims that twenty-five years later, when he met Twain
in New York, he told him the touching story “and was amazed to see
that great man of laughter burst into tears” (Tesla, My inventions:
My later endeavors. Electrical Experimenter; 1919)
In Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, the author mentions
reading about the sale to Westinghouse of Tesla’s electrical patents,
“which will revolutionize the whole electric business of the world.”
Twain had made a bad investment – one of many – in the development of
a new DC motor, and was drawn to Tesla for answers. The answer was that
this motor had been rendered obsolete by Tesla’s polyphase AC. Because
this appears to have been the occasion for their first meeting, Twain’s
tears may have had a more pecuniary cause.
On that basis, the two men became lifelong friends and, incidentally,
fellow members of the posh Players Club. Twain later was instrumental
in encouraging Tesla to pursue his futuristic weapons for shifting war’s
destructiveness from men to machines, it then being innocently thought
that wars would cease when weapons became too horrible to contemplate.
Mark Twain was one of the friends most often invited to Tesla’s laboratory
for the improvisational shows of fright and delight. On one particular
evening Twain himself inadvertently furnished the entertainment when he
insisted upon experiencing the gyrations of a platform mounted on an electrical
oscillator. Tesla pretended to dissuade him, which of course made Twain
all the more desirous of prolonging the test. Once on the machine he kept
saying, “More, Tesla, more!” But soon he was crying for help,
since an undesired effect of the oscillations on the human body was to
create a turmoil in the bowels.
When he was next invited to the laboratory, a wiser Twain wrote: “Friday,
Midnight. Dear Mr. Tesla: I am desperately sorry, but a matter of unavoidable
business has intruded itself and bars me from coming down … I am very,
very sorry. Do forgive me.” (Twain n.d.).
This publicity photo taken at Colorado Springs was a double exposure.
Tesla poses with his “magnifying transmitter” capable of producing
millions of volts of electricity. The discharge here is twenty-two feet
In a patent filed the previous year, “System of Transmission of
Electrical Energy” (number 645,576), [Tesla] claimed “it has
become possible to transmit through even moderately rarefied strata of
atmosphere electrical energy to practically any amount and to any distance.”
[…] A friend and patent lawyer, Leonard E. Curtis, on being advised
of Tesla’s scheme, offered to find land and provide power for his research
from the El Paso Power Company of Colorado Springs […]
The laboratory that began to rise from the prairie floor was both wired
and weird, a contraption with a roof that rolled back to prevent it from
catching fire, and a wooden tower that soared up to eighty feet. Above
it was a 142-foot metal mast supporting a large copper ball. Inside the
strange wooden structure, technicians began to assemble an enormous Tesla
coil. The frame on which the heavy primary and 17-turn secondary coils
were wound had a diameter of fifty-one feet. The third coil within it
was eight feet in diameter, with a hundred turns of wire. This enormous
air-core transformer could deliver a current of 1,100 amperes. The mysterious
“extra coil” in the center magnified the electrical effects
through a process called “resonant rise.” The function of this
coil was not understood until the 1970s.
Builders erected a high fence around the site, and signs appeared on
every post – KEEP OUT. GREAT DANGER – in hopes of keeping the curious
at a distance. Fritz Löwenstein could not resist posting at the door
another sign, quoting Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon hope, all
ye who enter here.” […]
Caption in Century Magazine, June 1900, reads: “The photograph
shows three ordinary incandescent lamps lighted to full candle-power by
currents induced in a local loop consisting of a single wire forming a
square of fifty feet each side, which includes the lamps, and which is
at a distance of one hundred feet from the primary circuit energized by
To test his theory, Tesla had to become the first man to make electrical
effects on the scale of lightning. The giant transmitter was arranged
accordingly. On the evening of the experiment, he dressed for the occasion
in a Prince Albert coat, white gloves, and a derby hat. To avoid electrocution,
he took the precaution of wearing shoes with four-inch cork soles. One
of his assistants described him as looking like a “gaunt Mephistopheles.”
Each item of equipment, every wire and connection, had been carefully
checked. Tesla instructed his mechanic, Czito, to open the switch for
only one second. The secondary coil began to sparkle and crack and an
eerie blue corona formed in the air around it. Satisfied with the result,
he ordered Czito to close the switch until told to cease. Huge arcs of
blue electricity snaked up and down the center coil. Exploding discharges
could be heard outside (Cheney, Margaret. 1981. Tesla: Man Out of Time.
New York: Prentice-Hall. Reprint, 1991. New York: Barnes & Noble Books)
Bolts of man-made lightning more than a hundred feet in length shot out
from the mast atop the station. The commotion could be heard in the mining
town of Cripple Creek, fifteen miles away. Tesla thrilled to the sight
of great rods of flame. Then suddenly the lightning stopped. The experimental
station went black. He shouted to Czito to turn the power on again, but
nothing happened. His experiment had burned out the dynamo at the El Paso
Electric Company. Not only Tesla, but the entire city had lost power.
The power station manager was livid and the local population began to
have second thoughts about the famous inventor. But a week after the blackout,
both Tesla and the power station were back in business. However, Tesla
received no more free power.
A Weapon to End War
(L) Postcard illustration of the Hotel New Yorker, New York City. (Collection
of The New-York Historical Society)
(R) Tesla announced his new beam weapon in numerous newspaper interviews
on his seventy-eighth birthday.
This article is from The New York Times, July 11, 1934.
In 1934 Tesla moved to his final residence, room 3327 (still divisible
by three) of the recently completed Hotel New Yorker. There he lived alone
with his ideas and his pigeons for the next decade. He posted a typewritten
note on the door: “Please Do Not Disturb The Occupant Of This Room.”
In Tesla’s mind, it was time to reveal his greatest invention: a perfect
and impossible idea, a weapon to prevent World War II.
On July 11, 1934, the headline on the front page of the New York
Times screamed, “TESLA AT 78 BARES NEW DEATH-BEAM.” The
invention, the article reported,
will send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of
such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy
airplanes at a distance of 250 miles from a defending nation’s border
and will cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks.
When put in operation, Dr. Tesla said, this latest invention of his
would make war impossible. This death-beam, he asserted would surround
each country like an invisible Chinese wall, only a million times more
impenetrable. It would make every nation impregnable against attack
by airplanes or by large invading armies. […]
Joseph Butler, a U.S. Air Force expert on beam weapons, has said of Tesla’s
idea, “Definitely, he had the concept of a charged particle beam
weapon back in the 1930s. The concept was right on the mark … particles
projected out long distances to do damage to some enemy airplanes, in
his particular case.” But Butler added, “I haven’t a clue how
he meant to actually do it” (interview with the authors, 1998).
Tesla’s system of transmission of power to aircraft by radio. Illustrated
by Frank Paul for Radio News, December 1925.
Enigmatic to the End
Tesla’s friend Kenneth Swezey also visited and was equally alarmed by
his condition, particularly when he saw that Tesla was subsisting on warm
milk and Nabisco crackers. He noted that the empty enameled cracker cans
were stacked on shelves and used to hold various things. Word began to
spread that the great inventor was near death.
Late in December of 1942, with the war at its height, two young men identifying
themselves as U.S. government agents suddenly entered Tesla’s life. One
was a member of the OSS (predecessor to the CIA) named Ralph Bergstresser.
The other, Bloyce Fitzgerald, was an expert on ballistics technology working
with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to Bergstresser,
Tesla agreed to share his most sensitive documents with them and allowed
them to carry stacks of material away for microfilming. Based on their
review, the two men were able to arrange a meeting at the White House
on January 8, 1943, with Roosevelt’s science advisor and other high-ranking
officials. Tesla was too ill to attend (interview with the authors, 1993).
Meanwhile a prominent Yugoslav writer, Louis Adamic (The Immigrant’s
Return), wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt on December 29 describing
the inventor’s circumstances:
Today he is … worse than penniless. He is extremely frail, weighing
less than 90 pounds. His health is poor; he has grown somewhat bitter
against his country, the United States … He suffers, too, to the point
of bitterness, because he feels that everyone in America, including
beneficiaries of fortunes created by his inventions, has forgotten him.
… The fact now is that he is up against it … This letter is not
an appeal to help him financially. … This is merely to suggest that
the President write him a letter which will indicate that America has
not forgotten [him]. Perhaps this coming New Year is a good occasion
for such a letter (Adamic 1942).
New Year’s Eve came and went, and there was no letter. Tesla’s loyal
associate, George Scherff, visited him on January 4 to help him prepare
for an experiment. The final project, its nature unknown, was terminated
when Tesla complained of sharp pains in his chest. He refused medical
aid. Scherff left the hotel, bidding him goodbye for the last time.
On the night of January 7, 1943, the eve of the Orthodox Christmas, snow
fell on New York City. In a darkened room on the thirty-third floor of
the Hotel New Yorker, Tesla lay listening to the clamor of traffic below.
His great legacy, the technological world he had helped create, would
continue without him. There would be no more riveting announcements, or
shrieks of “Eureka,” or terrifying bolts of lightning leaping
in his laboratory. The pigeons on the window ledge stirred their feet
and ruffled their feathers. Hard times lay ahead for the pigeons; he had
nothing to leave them.
Nikola Tesla, aged eighty-six, died in his sleep. The coroner’s report
read: “No suspicious circumstances.”
The Cosmic Signature
Nikola Tesla monument installed at Goat Island, Niagara Falls, a gift
to the United States on the occasion of its bicentennial and Tesla’s 120th
anniversary, July 23, 1976. The monument is a second casting of the sculpture
by Fran Krsinic.
The first casting is installed in front of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering
Building, University of Belgrade.
The world would be a very different place without the ideas and inventions
of Nikola Tesla. With the flick of a switch the power of the waterfall
and the coal furnace is transported to our fingertips. Worldwide communication
reach nearly every person on the planet. A remote-controlled device has
explored the surface of Mars. And at this moment, receivers are pointed
at the heavens waiting for a message from afar. One can picture the inventor
nodding, then shrugging, and perhaps wondering what took us so long. In
the end, Tesla was one of our greatest dreamers, and great dreams have
a way of becoming reality. The inventor consoled himself by saying, “The
scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect
that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that
of a planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those
who are to come, and point the way. (Tesla, My inventions: My early life.
Electrical Experimenter; February 1919)
The article above is an excerpt of Tesla: Master of Lightning
by Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth. It is reproduced here with permission.
There are many parts of Tesla’s life that we didn’t talk about – for example,
the details about the War of Currents, his contributions to the Niagara
Falls hydroelectric power station, his mysterious work at the Wardenclyffe
Tower – that are illustrated in great details in the book.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
MARGARET CHENEY is the author
of three previous books, including the classic biography Tesla: Man Out of Time for which she received the first International
Tesla Award. A former Associated Press editor, she is currently a member
of the executive board of the Tesla Memorial Society. She resides in California.
ROBERT UTH is a documentary
film producer and writer. With his wife, Simonida, he has spent years
researching the life of Nikola Tesla. This research is also reflected
in his documentary Tesla: Master of Lightning.