Tesla in the 21st Century: Forgotten Inventor to Hipster Hero

“I love Nikola Tesla! He’s a a true geek hero. I like to imagine that during his feud with Edison, Tesla sighed dramatically and said ‘Edison wouldn’t understand,’ and then went back to work on a Tesla coil.”

Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla.

“I can’t decide if that would have made him the very first hipster,” gushes Tessi, owner of an online store featuring eco-friendly, organic cotton T-shirts. “One of the best parts about wearing this tee is the seeing the difference between people who get the joke and the people who just kind of give you a funny look.”

Don’t despair if you belong to that clueless horde. I grew up in ’70s and ’80s America, when every child knew the name Thomas Edison. School and popular culture taught us Edison was practically synonymous with inventor genius. Science nerds knew about Alexander Graham Bell and a few other greats. Yet, despite Tesla’s important inventions and profound scientific contributions, he was strangely forgotten.

Edison Versus Tesla: War of the Currents

Still, Tesla bested Edison in the so-called War of the Currents. In 1893, alternating current (AC) powered the Chicago

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

World’s Fair using a Tesla-invented induction motor. He had supplanted Edison’s direct current (DC) system, already in use in Manhattan’s financial district and other urban cores around the nation. Edison had brought electricity to city elites. Tesla spread it to the masses in the countryside. His AC power system made transmission of electricity over long distances practical.

Tesla became an overnight sensation, just as famous as Edison when he invented the first practical light bulb over a decade earlier.

Tesla emigrated in 1885 from what is now Croatia, then part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire, to work in Edison’s New York laboratory. Brilliant and full of visionary ideas, Tesla always seemed to sabotage his own success. He had dropped out of his studies at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz and succumbed to gambling. To avoid disgrace, he severed ties with his family. He accomplished little over the next few years. He knew he needed to impress Edison if he ever hoped to gain backing for his inventions.

Tesla's induction motor.

Tesla’s induction motor.

Edison hired the eager young man and promised to pay Tesla the then considerable sum of $50,000 if he could improve the efficiency of Edison’s DC motors. Upon accomplishing the task, Tesla asked for his payment. Tesla quit in disgust after Edison reneged, laughing that Tesla “didn’t understand Americans’ sense of humor.”

Tesla struggled, resorting even to digging ditches for survival. He eventually managed to impress Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse enough for him to buy up the patents for Tesla’s AC induction motor. Tesla now had the financial backing to make his ideas a reality. This was a direct threat to Edison’s heavy investment

Topsy the elephant, dead. Edison used the spectacle to scare the public over AC power.

Topsy the elephant, electrocuted. Edison used the spectacle to scare the public over AC power.

in DC electricity transmission.

Edison understood the limitations of DC power yet, in the rush to build new hydroelectric generators to bring electricity to the cities, he knew he would lose a fortune in patent royalties if Westinghouse’s AC power system prevailed. By 1887, just a year after he bought Tesla’s patents, Westinghouse had already built more than half as many generating systems as Edison.

Taking advantage of a public ignorant and fearful about electricity and the emerging technologies to harness it, Edison fought back. “Just as certain as death,” he predicted, “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.”

Tesla Polyphase Exhibit, 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Tesla Polyphase Exhibit, 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Edison orchestrated publicity stunts to “prove” the greater danger of alternating current. He gathered stray dogs to use in electrical experiments. He invited reporters to witness as he killed a dog with high voltage. He similarly electrocuted a “murdering” elephant. One trainer she killed attempted to feed her a lit cigarette. Edison sent 6,000 volts through her in front of thousands of spectators on Coney Island. An opponent of the death penalty, Edison nevertheless jumped at an opportunity to develop the first electric chair. Using AC current, of course. He coined the term “Westinghoused” for those electrocuted by the invention.

Edison's phonograph.

Edison’s phonograph.

Edison failed to drum up enough popular support to ban AC power through legislation. Yet he would never let Tesla upstage him again. Tesla failed to protect his patents, frittered away his wealth, and pursued seemingly impractical scientific flights of fancy over practical, money-making inventions. He died in poverty. Edison’s business savvy turned him into a multi-millionaire and household name.

Yet, at the onset of the 21st century, Edison’s legacy is fading. His two most famous inventions are now obsolete. The compact disc supplanted his phonograph during the 1980s. Edison’s incandescent light bulb is now banned in the U.S. It was wasteful of both materials and energy, filling up landfills and generating more heat than light.

(A presentation of what arguably are Tesla’s 10 most important inventions.)

Tesla: A Man Ahead of his Time

“Without Tesla‘s vision and brilliance, our car wouldn’t be possible.” So states an archive of the Tesla Motors’ website. Founded in 2003, it’s the first new American car company to turn a profit in decades. It sells electric cars and bypasses the traditional dealership. Millennials love it.

Tesla Model S.

Tesla Model S.

Company co-founder Elon Musk donated a cool million dollars in 2014 to turn the site of Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe laboratory at Shoreham, Long Island into a museum in his honor. In 2013, Serbian President Tomislav Nicolic unveiled a sculpture in honor of the famed inventor at the Wardenclyffe site. Tesla was an ethnic Serb.

A life-size bronze statue of the inventor has stood in Palo Alto, California, high tech and geek cultural capital,

Statue of Nikola Tesla, Niagara Falls State Park. Tesla fulfilled his childhood dream of harnassing the falls' power.

Statue of Nikola Tesla, Niagara Falls State Park. Tesla fulfilled his childhood dream of harnassing the Falls’ power.

since 2013. “This unique project … is also intended to inspire the entrepreneurs who come to the Silicon Valley to think big and selflessly—as Tesla did,” said Dorrian Porter, the entrepreneur behind the project. “The free exchange of information and affordable access to sustainable energy have the potential to solve the critical issues of poverty and education, and inspire peace.”

The statue offers free wifi, a fitting tribute to Tesla – inventor of the wireless, remote-controlled model boat, and a man who envisioned a freely-available source of energy transferred wirelessly across the earth. He died in 1943, 30 years before the first wireless phone call. And he lacked funding to pursue his goal of freely-available energy after a brief, failed attempt at his laboratory at Wardenclyffe.

The Tesla Mystique: Eccentricity and Conspiracy

1921. Albert Einstein and Tesla (center) pose with other scientists.

1921. Albert Einstein and Tesla (both center) pose with other scientists.

Tesla was good friends with Mark Twain, occasionally hobnobbed in high society and hung out with luminaries such as Albert Einstein. Usually asocial, he still delighted audiences with his showmanship. He was cool, then as now. He dreamt big and wasn’t afraid to stun crowds with outrageous claims. As just one example, he said space aliens contacted him while he was working on radio communications in a Colorado lab. Yet such statements caused the scientific establishment to look askance.

Tesla led a troubled personal life in addition to his financial troubles. Mental illness plagued him in his later years. He never took a wife or even indulged in sexual relations despite numerous women finding him attractive. A few even fell in love with him. Tesla said his chastity aided his scientific abilities.

Mark Twain in Tesla's laboratory.

Mark Twain in Tesla’s laboratory.

He instead showered pigeons with care and affection in his senior years. “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. 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.”

There are many mysteries surrounding Tesla. This has led to much speculation of conspiracy. He had many powerful enemies, not the least of whom was industrialist J.P. Morgan. Morgan cut off his funding of Tesla’s project to develop long-distance radio communication after the financier learned Tesla also hoped to transfer electric power wirelessly. Tesla claimed success in lighting bulbs wirelessly up to 26 miles from a generator. Those claims have never been duplicated.

Tesla's Wardenclyffe broadcast tower, Long Island.

Tesla’s Wardenclyffe broadcast tower, Long Island.

Yet what would become of the energy empires of magnates such as oil baron Rockefeller? How could industrialists profit from the distribution of freely available energy? Even if Tesla failed early on, might a genius of his caliber have found different path to success with sufficient patience and funding?

Tesla was ready in early 1895 to transmit the first radio signal from his New York laboratory to West Point, 50 miles away. Then disaster struck. Tesla’s laboratory, filled with expensive equipment and years of work, burned to the ground. He lost much of his research on radio communication. Tesla and his underlings had shut down the lab, so the fire had nothing to do with experimentation gone awry. An official report claimed the fire spread from a nearby guard house.

Guglielmo Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi.

Still, Tesla recouped the best he could, using his genius at visualizing inventions in his mind to reconstruct his work. He submitted patent applications for his radio-related inventions in 1897. The US Patent Office approved them in 1900.

Meanwhile, Guglielmo Marconi, an italian inventor working in Britain, was hard at work on his own radio experiments. He applied for United States patents in 1900. They were rejected on the grounds they infringed upon Tesla’s. Still, Edison and American industrialist Andrew Carnegie invested heavily in Marconi. Then Marconi made the first successful cross-Atlantic radio transmission in 1901, between Newfoundland and England.

Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade, Serbia.

Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade, Serbia.

Otis Pond, an engineer employed by Tesla, said, “Looks as if Marconi got the jump on you.” Tesla famously replied, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.”

Inexplicably, the U.S. patent office reversed its decision in 1904. It awarded the patents to Marconi. Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize. Both Edison and Carnegie amassed even greater fortunes. All at Tesla’s expense.

Then there is the question of Tesla’s “death ray.” He intended it as “a superweapon that would end all war.” He sent a technical paper with detailed diagrams of the weapon to various nations in 1937. It appeared obvious to Tesla the world was heading to war. The USSR showed the most interest. Tesla was sent a check for $25,000 upon the successful completion of the first stage of testing.

The government seized all papers from Tesla’s room at the New Yorker Hotel upon his death in 1943. An official report claims to have found only writings of a “speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character.”

Yet Tesla’s weapon bears striking resemblance to charged particle beam devices developed during the Cold War.

(Tesla: Master of Lightning is a superb, full-length PBS documentary exploring the great inventor’s biography, ideas and the controversy surrounding his life.)

Tesla on Edison. Tesla’s Legacy.

Tesla contributed the only negative opinion of Thomas Edison published by the New York Times after his death in 1931.

He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.

Nikola Tesla, age 23.

Nikola Tesla, age 23.

In light of Tesla’s dealings with Edison, such an unflattering epitaph is understandable. And, no doubt, exaggerated.

History may very well be written by the victors. That would explain why Edison was so loved and Tesla so forgotten in the last century. Yet how could it explain the current Lazarus-like rise of Tesla’s reputation?

It coincided with the rise of the internet. People aren’t so quick to believe all they are told. They are learning to research, and increasingly uncovering history for themselves. By doing so, they strip power away from those who would dare to impose only their version of the facts.

Who knows for certain if the many possible conspiracies surrounding Tesla are true? Yet Tesla’s life exposes just how low aggressive men will stoop in pursuit of greed and self-aggrandizement. Doesn’t that make conspiracy all the more plausible?

Right or wrong, Nikola Tesla has captured the public’s imagination as tragically flawed, yet pure of heart. An underdog. A man focused on his passion for invention, high ideals, and the pure pursuit of science. A man ahead of his time. A man dragged down to serve the base interests of lesser men.

Of course it’s an oversimplification.

The 20th century lauded Edison for his inventions. The 21st century lauds Tesla for his vision.

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  1. Deb Jones

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