Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nikola Tesla on the 70th Anniversary of His Death

This month marks the 70th anniversary of inventor Nikola Tesla’s death on January 7, 1943.  Born in 1856, in modern day Croatia, Nikola Tesla arrived in New York in 1884, and began to work for Thomas Edison.   Their working relationship didn't last for long after a financial dispute, and by 1886, Tesla had resigned and started Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing.

Tesla's contributions to science eventually included improvement and developments to alternating current, fluorescent lighting, radio, x-rays, and the first hydro-electric power plant at Niagara Falls. 

But, Nikola Tesla has never had the same level of fame that his rival Thomas Edison has.  At least, not in America.  There are Edison museums and memorials. His achievements are taught in schools. I even vaguely remember watching Spencer Tracy in Edison, the Man.  (As an aside, Edison, the Man was not the only Edison movie to come out in 1940.)  But for Tesla, there is no permanent museum dedicated to his work in the United States. I certainly never learned about him in school.  I don't intend to add to the endless (and exhausting) Edison vs. Tesla arguments, and on this occasion, I'd rather focus on remembering Tesla as a historical figure.

As overlooked as Tesla has been by history, it seems that over the past several months, there have been announcements about Tesla projects that are in the works.  There were rumors about two big budget movies - a sci-fi movie starring George Clooney, and a film about Tesla and Edison starring Christian Bale (Bale’s attachment turned out to be too good to be true).  There's also a docudrama, a cartoon pilot about a time traveling Nikola Tesla with bonus Josephine Baker in their concept art:



And best of all, there might be a Tesla museum in America after all.  An online fundraiser to buy and renovate Tesla's lab, Wardenclyffe ended up raising about $1.8 million.  Before the fundraiser, there were reports that Wardenclyffe was going to be demolished or transformed into commercial property.

Tesla's plans for a laboratory and a tower, Wardenclyffe on Long Island, New York started in 1898.  Funded in part by J.P. Morgan, the tower was meant to transmit wireless energy, and building started in 1901. Tesla moved his lab to Wardenclyffe in 1902, but the construction went over budget and by 1904 financiers stopped their funding. Wardenclyffe was closed by 1905 and never completed.  The location is probably in disrepair but maybe, thanks to the fundraiser, Tesla’s equipment might be found on the site. 

People are interested in Tesla for different reasons – for his contributions to technology, his role as a turn-of-the-century historical figure, his eccentricities.  Being an admitted fool when it comes the science, it’s the last two that interest me. 

Tesla's personality is part of the reason why a non-geek like me actually wanted to learn about a scientist for once.  He didn't own many of his patents, since his financier, George Westinghouse had purchased them.  He might have earned millions from the royalties, but when Westinghouse was in financial trouble, Tesla agreed to forgo his royalties, instead of letting Westinghouse go bankrupt.  Part of this is why the public never associated Tesla with his innovations since Westinghouse owned the patents.



 He was the quintessential mad genius.  He reportedly spoke 8 languages, and his eccentricities were numerous.  Numerous enough for people to suspect he might have had a mental illness.  He was celibate his whole life, insisting that he would rather focus on his work.  He was closer to pigeons than he was to some humans, and would often leave what was his home for the last decade of his life - the New Yorker Hotel - to go and feed pigeons.  Of one particular injured white pigeon, he professed:
“I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

He avoided going to see doctors. On one occasion in the autumn of 1937, he was hit by a taxi. There were broken ribs, but most of his injuries are a mystery since he never got medical attention.  He stayed in bed until the spring of 1938.

He dined at New York landmarks – Delmonico’s restaurant and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel – naturally from precisely 8pm to 10pm.  One editor described him as “almost the tallest, almost the thinnest and certainly the most serious man who goes to Delmonico’s regularly.”  But, the eccentricities probably don’t paint the entire picture of a man described as also being refined and gentlemanly. 

He was friends with other historical figures including Mark Twain and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Tesla on the July 20th, 1931 cover of Time


When asked about the future, he made all kinds of predictions - some were extremely accurate:

“We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events--the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle--just as though we were present.”

 Most of the attention Tesla gets comes from the science community, but I always gotten the sense that history has under-appreciated him.  Naturally, it's the science geeks who try to remind the world about him, though I think Tesla can be just as fascinating for the history geeks too.

Further reading
Selected Tesla Articles
My Inventions by Nikola Tesla

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