There are two great myths about Nikola Tesla. The first is that his greatest rival was Thomas Edison (a point I’ve addressed elsewhere). But the second is perhaps even more intriguing. Today, a google search of the inventor’s name will pull thousands and thousands of hits, nearly all of them describing his genius, his lost inventions, his ability to predict the future. And yet, for most of modern history, Tesla was not an accepted visionary and genius, but a mere footnote. His biggest contribution to our modern age of power, the practical use of AC electricity, had been subsumed in patent disputes between Westinghouse and General Electric, and Tesla’s name had been scrubbed from history. GE employed Charles Proteus Steinmetz to write a comprehensive textbook, bankrolled and supported by the company, for young engineers: Theory and Calculation of Alternating Current Phenomena. Generations of young people working with Tesla’s invention would never even learned his name. [i] It should have crippled his reputation. But it didn’t. What we see in Tesla is a man made, unmade, and made again in our present era—it’s a resurrection, and that’s the most interesting story of all.
Roff Smith of the Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly calls it Tesla’s Golden Decade. Beginning in 1893, Tesla becomes the darling of the press, and when his lab burned in a New York fire, the newspapers claimed it was a “misfortune for the whole world.” Tesla had become, even after losing his leash on AC, a scion of electrical science. He announced boldly that:
“Of all the forms of nature’s immeasurable, all-pervading energy, which ever and ever change and move, electricity and magnetism are perhaps the most fascinating.” [iii]
Tesla gave the opening speech for the Niagara Power station in 1893, and standing before the power of a thundering cataract in harness, Tesla commemorated the end of the war of electrical currents, all the devices and maneuvers of his adversaries notwithstanding. And he does sound like a visionary: “Electric energy can be applied to bicycles, carriages, and vehicles of all sorts,” Tesla explains in an interview to Electrical World, “so cheap that any man in ordinary circumstances can own a boat and propel it by these means.” [iv] Today we do apply power to all these things and more, and we have begun to harness wind and solar power. But Tesla’s ideas lacked practical provenance. Investors weren’t in the business of making power for free. The success of his first quantum leap, that of AC power, had in fact been made possible by Edison, because he was a man of business who had laid the wires and made the bulbs and, by extension, created a market. That is, you can’t just know what an invention does; you have to know what it’s for, and for those Niagara investors, it was for making money. For Tesla, that was rather beside the point.
Genius was its own reward, so long as he could continue to the next grand idea. “I had to cut the path myself,” he argued, “and my hands are still sore [. . .] would you mind telling a reason why this advance should not stand worthily beside the discoveries of Copernicus?”[v] He would try, to the day of his death, to bring about his dream of wireless electricity. He also attempted to build death rays, and though unsuccessful, the imagined devastation caused hearts to shudder. The government seized and shut down Tesla’s fifteen-story transmission tower; it posed a security risk, they claimed, as the Second World War thundered into being on land, sea, and air. [i] Tesla died in 1943, without significant success. And again, that should have been the end of his story. To understand how, and why, Telsa has re-emerged as a great name in science, the subject of multiple documentaries and films, comic books, fiction and fantasy, we have to go back to the beginning.
For Tesla, power was life itself; born during the tumult of a violent storm, Tesla was made for electricity. ...Or so he tells us. Because at the moment when Tesla most needed to recapture his reputation (short on cash and ready to begin those ill-fated towers), he writes an autobiography that rivals Frankenstein in its tone and tenor, setting himself up as a misunderstood genius. “I had a complete nervous breakdown and while the malady lasted I observed many phenomena strange and unbelievable,” he writes, along with lists of his manias. He shares his strange powers of eidetic memory, the power to “mold his various creations, and even run and modify them in his mind” before writing up his first blueprint.[iii] Tesla claims out-of-body experiences and strange flashes of light before each major discovery, and though he’s been “almost drowned,” “nearly boiled alive,” “just missed being cremated,” and escaped “mad dogs, hogs, and other wild animals,” he yet escapes miraculously unharmed [vi]. Most importantly though, Tesla tells us he is, without doubt, the world’s greatest genius.
The point of this bizarre manuscript might suggest a slipping sanity. But while Tesla might not have been much of a businessman in terms of money, he was a very accomplished salesman. The AC discovery makes up the better part of Tesla’s autobiography, his heroic epic at climax, life hanging in the balance, heart racing 250 beats per minute: “I could hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between [. . .] A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear.”[vi] In the midst of this, Tesla writes, “the idea [for AC] came like a flash of lightning [. . .] I drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.” It’s hard not to hear Victor Frankenstein’s triumph in Tesla’s words: “A thousand secrets of nature which I might have stumbled upon accidentally I would have given for that one which I had wrested from her against all odds and at the peril of my existence.”[vi] Strange, yes. But the autobiography was tactical. They called him an eccentric genius; what did that matter, so long as it worked to win him fame?
Most scientists, inventors, and engineers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century worked like carnival barkers. After all, science does NOT speak for itself, and success often goes to the best performance. More people have heard of Newton than Leibniz, though both invented calculus at roughly the same time. More people know of Edison than Joseph Swan, though both invented the light bulb. When it comes to invention it pays to be loud. Tesla did not sit back as the current war danced between AC and DC; he was on stage, running electrical current through his own body. He used his fingers to light up light bulbs, bestowing power as if by magic, and onlookers compared him to an archangel. His first biographer went so far as to call him a god.
Imagine for a moment the whirl and dash of white-hot light. Imagine a mere mortal, sparks bounding from his fingertips in a room made darker by his own luminescence—and imagine a voice, soft and precise and accented, speaking from that fire as if from the great beyond: “We are whirling through endless space, with inconceivable speed [. . .] all around us everything is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere is energy.”[i]
It was by these means that he wrested control of the electrical future from his detractors, and while his name might have been erased from technical engineering history by GE, it appeared literally everywhere else.
Tesla’s story begins where many early inventors’ stories end; in nearly every way, he lived perpetually in the future. So brilliant were his plans for use five, ten, twenty years down the line, that the actual work of building and making the technology today seemed a sort of annoyance, an afterthought. In practical terms, that makes him a rather bad inventor. But Tesla sold the world on a reputation that weaves fiction and fact; his autobiography contains stories that trouble our suspension of disbelief, and he offered even wilder tales to those who would write about him. Its little wonder he appears in so much science fiction. Tesla walked into the future ready-made for fiction and the myriad films and novels that would resurrect him for the twenty-first century. Under threat from ignominy, Tesla remakes himself (even the famous image of him seated among flashing bolts of currents is a fiction, a double exposure of film to make it look like he reposes amid Nature’s force). And after a fallow period, Tesla has been remade again, the darling of our own desires for magic, fantastical science, and mysterious genius pulling the strings of this, our chaotic world of dreadful tech.
Troubling the future, indeed.
[i] Schillace, Brandy. Clockwork Futures. Pegasus, 2017
[ii] Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light, New York: Random House. 2003.
[iii] Tesla, Nikola. quoted in Seifer, Marc J. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla Biography of a Genius. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1998.
[iv] Tesla, Nikola. “Nikola Tesla and his Wonderful Discoveries.” Electrical World, April 29, 1893.
[v] Letter by Nikola Tesla, quoted in Seifer, Marc J. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla Biography of a Genius. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1998.
[vi] Tesla, Nikola. My Inventions and Other Writings. Courier Dover Publications. 2016.