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Skeptical Inquirer
1994

'Extraordinary Science' and the Strange Legacy of Nikola Tesla

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Half a century after his death, Tesla, a pioneer of electrical engineering and a world-class eccentric, has developed a cult following. The International Tesla Society’s annual Extraordinary Science Conference — a forum for all misunderstood inventors and a bizarre showcase of untested ideas — is one manifestation.

Each summer the International Tesla Society holds its Extraordinary Science Conference in Colorado Springs. The society honors the memory and work of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), pioneer of electrical technology and world-class eccentric. One purpose of the society — and apparently the conference — is “to provide a forum for voicing new and untested ideas . . . for the education and enlightenment of the scientific community, students and the general public.”1 This was the first year I had attended.

As a forum for untested ideas the conference is a roaring success: It is a magnet and showcase for some of the most delightfully untested — in a few cases untestable — notions currently vying for attention. As an added attraction, this conference included a much larger number of very old ideas — tested and discredited innumerable times and yet still hanging on.

Perhaps this is what is meant by the term extraordinary science. It is certainly distinguished from conventional, nonextraordinary science. In ordinary science, ideas gain stature as unsuccessful attempts to discredit them are made. But this is too tame for the extraordinary scientist, whose ideas retain, or even gain, stature despite successful challenges. In this perverse sense the canons of extraordinary science may be seen as much more stringent than those of ordinary common-or-garden-variety science. I’m perfectly willing to concede this is extraordinary.

Martin Gardner once observed that pseudoscientists tend to fall into two groups: those motivated to defend some religious dogma and those motivated by a belief in their own greatness, unrecognized by the world, which in some cases can grow into paranoia.2 The conference was made up almost entirely of this latter group, which we might call egotistical pseudoscience to distinguish it from religiously motivated pseudosciences like creationism. The conference is a focal point for a subculture of inventors whose genius has yet to result in fame or fortune and whose work is regarded by conventional scientists as trivial, dubious, or just plain loony.

Why Tesla?
It’s easy to see why Tesla should have become the focus of an effusive subculture: He was absolutely convinced of his own genius; he promoted his own personality cult of the “great inventor” sort; he enjoyed financial success in early life, and later in life was able to indulge in a panoply of bizarre and grandiose ideas; and he achieved considerable scientific notoriety, despite a flawed understanding of physics and other sciences.It was Thomas Edison who made inventing a corporate endeavor. Since Edison, successful inventors tend to work in research departments of large companies — technological development today is too expensive and too complex for any single person to understand it all. At least part of Tesla’s reputation stems from the fact that he was the last of the great inventors to work alone. A mediocre artist may acquire an exaggerated reputation by dying just before the onset of a dark age, and something similar seems to have happened to Tesla’s reputation among unsung geniuses today.

 

J.J.

There were two large presentation rooms. Positioned on the stage of one was a large high-voltage generator, obviously intended for use in some display of electrical pyrotechnics. Such exhibitions were a mania with Nikola Tesla, who loved to be photographed at lectures standing on one of his own high-voltage machines — called a Tesla coil — with streamers of electricity shooting from his fingertips. The society named after him puts on similar shows. I suspect this curious form of theater is now considered traditional and obligatory by regular conference attendees; certainly this odd mania for artificial lightning is what the casual visitor is most likely to remember.

Six tables in the hall outside displayed various wares. Some of these displays were by small companies, while others were staffed by individual inventors just itching to talk about their work. This conference had the air of an ordinary industrial fair, albeit a very small one.

One such display was the Quantum Electronics Corporation’s Panda Air Purifier. This, it turns out, is an ozone generator. Ozone is produced when electricity discharges through air, which may be why this company thought the Extraordinary Science Conference would be an appropriate venue for its display. The device may contain a Tesla coil. Testimonials to the unit’s efficacy were distributed.

In another corner a salesman was demonstrating something called the Lakhovsky Multi-Wave Oscillator, also called a “Violet Ray Device.” This is a modern version of a “device for electrical healing,” originally manufactured in the 1920s. It is built into an attaché case, which contains a Tesla coil to produce high-frequency high voltage. This is carried by a heavily insulated wire to a wand with a glass bulb at its tip. The bulb is filled with one or another inert gas that produces an eerie violet glow when the power is turned on. When this wand is touched to human skin, a mild electric tingle is felt. (The voltage produced by small Tesla coils is very high but the current is so slight that there is no danger — so long as everything is working properly.) Massaging an afflicted area of the body with this wand is claimed to have therapeutic effects.

Tesla’s Inventions: A Critique
Tesla fans credit him with a long list of inventions and discoveries. These include radio, a bladeless steam turbine, fluorescent lighting, robotics, diathermy, the laser, vertical takeoff aircraft, pulsars, and much more. Ironically, these people seem least enthusiastic toward the one area in which historians of science and technology give Tesla unqualified credit: AC power technology. He is generally credited with two ubiquitous inventions: the induction motor and “polyphase” power transmission. All Tesla fans love his induction motor, but many fear the current that makes it go. Yet this is really the only area in which Tesla succeeded in developing a concept into a practical reality. (In his honor, the scientific unit of magnetic induction, or magnetic flux density, is named the “tesla.”) In other areas Tesla’s achievements are not so impressive.A good example is radio. In the mid-1890s Tesla developed all the components needed to construct a practical radio system, but then seems to have lost interest — he never took his ideas beyond some very short-range demonstrations. This left the field to Guglielmo Marconi — whom Tesla despised — who would prove the feasibility of long-range wireless communication just a few years later. This leads to a Tesla Paradox: Although he anticipated Marconi and others in many ways, excellent histories of early radio need make only incidental mention of Tesla. (Two books that together make an excellent history of early radio technology are Syntony and Spark and The Continuous Wave, both by Hugh G. J. Aitken.) This paradox recurs throughout Tesla’s life.

 

His bladeless turbine may have been conceptually sound, but difficult and expensive to manufacture, and it may have had technical characteristics that limited its appeal. Tesla fans are inclined to resent this.

Other claims are even more dubious: Tesla fans broaden the definition of invention until it loses all meaning. Tesla found that gas-filled glass tubes glowed in the presence of his high-voltage apparatus, but modern neon and fluorescent lighting don’t work this way and were developed by others. The claim that Tesla is the father of robotics stems from a story of a demonstration he performed in 1898 in which he steered a model boat in a water tank by remote control. He speculated that electricity had curative powers and built Tesla coils for this purpose — therefore it is claimed that he invented diathermy. He rambled about death rays — hence, he “invented” the laser. Little more than a sketch from the 1920s of a very peculiar biplane on casters makes Tesla the “inventor” of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. All this may be remarkably prescient, but by similar reasoning Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter and Hero of Alexandria (first century) invented the steam locomotive.

About 1900 Tesla was playing with a radio receiver when he picked up a series of regular pulses. He instantly concluded he had made contact with Martians — an announcement that got him considerable ridicule. Tesla’s modern admirers, perhaps a bit embarrassed for their hero, are equally sure he had tuned in on a pulsar — 60 years before radio astronomers did. Considering what radio technology was in 1900 this may not be the true explanation.

Tesla’s “death ray” is something of a mystery. Some (not all) admirers insist it was actually built and used to shoot down a plane. Descriptions vary: sometimes it is a particle beam of some sort. My favorite is that it was “a kind of radio-wave-scalar weapon or what might be called an ultra-sound gun” (The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla, by D. H. Childress, 1993).

The most intriguing of Tesla’s inventions are the ones that got away. Visitors to the Tesla Museum in Colorado Springs are told a story reminiscent of UFO conspiracy tales: In a raid on his house immediately after his death, government agents seized all of Tesla’s apparatus — some 85 trunks full — either because timid bureaucrats felt the world wasn’t ready for the wonders of Tesla technology or for more sinister reasons. Exactly what all this top-secret Tesla technology may be isn’t known, but some of it, so goes the story, may make time travel possible.

J.J.

One elderly woman — she may have been a little deaf — was so enthralled by the tingly wand that she kept it pressed to her ear for several minutes. (The salesman finally had to tell her it was best not to overdo.) She then asked if it was good for sore feet. The answer was yes, and before anyone knew what was happening she had kicked off her shoes, pulled up a chair, and was inviting the salesman to apply the glowing gadget to her feet. Chivalrously, he complied. (The glow is incidental: healing effects are “not attributable to the glow.”)

While all this was going on, the salesman told us a bit more about the device. It seems that regulatory agencies like the FDA don’t think much of it and get very upset when claims are made for it. Therefore, the salesman explained — very candidly, I thought — to keep the government happy they have “elected not to make testable claims.” They are not, however, averse to distributing testimonials from chiropractors who use the device. Also, he continued, there seems to be a curious anticorrelation between the seriousness of a medical condition and the unit’s efficacy: It’s not at all helpful for heart attack or trauma from being run over by a car, but for arthritis and rheumatism it “may give what we call positive experimental results.” Someone asked if it was good for your aura. Answer, “Oh, it’s great for your aura!” This contraption is straight out of the era when mail-order catalogs listed “electric belts” for men (for impotence, and almost anything else) and “magnetic corsets” (for “female complaints”).

A banquet room had been pressed into service as a bookstore. Titles spanned the entire range of the egotistical pseudosciences: admiring works on everything from quack medicine to UFO propulsion. One interesting series of books comprised paperback reprints of legitimate science-and-technology “how to” books dating from the 1800s. Considerable space was devoted to books on Tesla and his inventions. Perhaps the largest single section consisted of books on how to build Tesla coils. There were also Tesla T-shirts, coffee cups, and other items for sale. Although usually immune to such kitsch, I couldn’t resist a Tesla beer mug along with my arm-load of books.

The lecture/workshop schedule was dominated by talks on recent attempts at perpetual motion. Conventional (nonextraordinary) scientists hold to a principle called the law of conservation of energy. This law implies that it is impossible to build a machine that continuously produces more energy than it consumes — in nontechnical terms, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Extraordinary scientists never stop looking for this free lunch: A working perpetual-motion machine would make its inventor the richest person in history, although most of these people don’t stress this, preferring to style themselves as benefactors of humanity.

Researchers in this field have come to resent the invidious connotations the term perpetual motion has acquired and are looking for less derogatory phrases to describe their work. Currently, the two most popular candidates are free energy and over-unity. The former seems to refer to machines that extract energy from sources not discernible to conventional physicists, while the latter is applied to machines whose efficiency is greater than one: that is, they produce more useful energy than they consume. Exactly how one could build an “over-unity motor” and not achieve perpetual motion has never been adequately explained.

The scope of the conference, as reflected in its literature,3 was in itself rather extraordinary.

First, there was “The Incredible World of Gaston Naessens.” Naessens claims a number of discoveries. One is “The Somatid, an ultramicroscopic subcellular living and reproducing entity which many scientists believe is the precursor of the DNA [sic] and which may be the building block of all terrestrial life.” He is also the inventor of a new kind of microscope, with “resolution far greater than current state-of-the-art microscopes” — and presumably just the thing for seeing somatids. On a more disturbing note, consider his formula 714-X: “a compound that has restored to perfect health 750 out of 1,000 cancer victims and has equally dramatic results with AIDS patients.” That Naessens has had to face some skepticism in his life is strongly implied by a title the conference bookstore was offering: The Persecution and Trial of Gaston Naessens, by Chris Bird.

AltBrown's Gas was billed — for unclear reasons — as a technological breakthrough.

Next up: Brown’s Gas . . . A Technological Breakthrough,” by Yull Brown, and “Innovations Using Brown’s Gas,” by Gary Hawkins. When conventional scientists run electricity through water, the molecules break down into their constituents: hydrogen and oxygen. When Brown does the same thing in his apparatus, he gets something called Brown’s Gas: “It has been the popular practice of other investigators of the Brown gas-generator to ascribe to the gas properties of molecular hydrogen and oxygen gasses in proportion of 2:1. Although this assumption is very plausible, it is also very incorrect.” Well, that sounds clear enough — until you look at the accompanying figure,4 which seems to imply that that is exactly what Brown’s Gas is. It also suggests that mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen are explosive in any ratio. Conventional chemists will be crushed to learn they don’t understand the behavior of hydrogen/oxygen mixtures. So just what is Brown’s Gas? The conference brochure is a trifle contradictory. It does, however, assure us that it’s going to cause a “21st Century Industrial Revolution.”

Now, on to perpetual motion and “The Energy Conserver Method,” by George Wiseman: “Heat, light and magnetism are side effects of electron flow and do not actually consume electrons.” Wiseman has the strange idea that conventional physicists and engineers think electrons are “consumed” or “thrown away” in electric circuits. He has developed methods of designing electrical devices that do not suffer from the unnecessary limitations introduced by this false worldview: “The Energy Conserver allows electron flow but saves those electrons, without losing voltage, so that the electrons can go through the circuit again and again.” Remarkable. “This is not perpetual motion . . . [but our] circuits could be called over-unity when viewed by conventional dogma.” (Italics in the original.)

Just What Is a Tesla Coil Anyway?
Tesla coils and books about them are ubiquitous at Tesla exhibitions. These coils are specialized electrical transformers and spark gaps in circuits that produce high voltages at high frequencies. Often the coil has a large metal ball on top from which streamers of electricity shoot.

 

Large Tesla coils can produce millions of volts and are used to make spectacular electrical displays — but that’s about all. The Tesla coil has never been much more than a toy: excellent for a wide variety of adolescent mayhem but having no important scientific or industrial applications. This device, which obsessed Tesla for the last half of his life, is now only a curiosity.

Tesla’s admirers try to get around this embarrassing fact by claiming that Tesla coils are to be found in many places today: cars and television sets are favorite examples. Presumably, they are thinking of ignition coils and flyback transformers, neither of which is a Tesla coil. These things are much more sophisticated devices whose only similarity to a Tesla coil is that they all produce high voltages. Some Tesla fans go even further and imply that all transformers are Tesla coils. This is nonsense: Tesla did not invent the transformer.

True Tesla coils are not used in scientific experiments today because they are too quirky: their voltages and frequencies vary from many causes and they require constant adjustment. They are also very “dirty” electrically: They produce intense radio and TV interference. Today’s scientists and engineers have far superior methods of producing high voltages — methods that do not derive from Tesla’s work.

J.J.

“The Magnetic Battery,” by Bert Werjefelt: “Finally . . . an acceptable explanation of apparent violations of the Conservation of Energy Laws emerges!!!” To a nonextraordinary engineer, this “magnetic battery” looks an awful lot like a motor, which turns a generator, which charges a battery, which runs the motor, which turns the generator.”5 Presumably, the battery is there only to get the thing started, but I am plagued with doubts.

“PODMOD . . . The Phoenix Project,” by Richard L. “Scott” McKee: “Claims have been made that this device only needs a modest input from a 12V battery to generate up to 4000 times as much power for output!” Hmmmmmm. . . .

“The Energy Machine,” by Joseph W. Newman, was probably the high point of the conference. Newman is the most famous of the current crop of perpetual motionists — a label he won’t appreciate — having demonstrated his machine to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and in scientific forums. Physicists currently speculating about superstrings may be more interested in his Unified Theory of All Physical Phenomena, which he developed to explain the behavior of his energy machine. Newman is also a “tragic genius” in the classic Tesla mold, having spent 14 years fighting unsuccessfully for patent recognition. He did, at one point, get the National Bureau of Standards to examine his machine, but the test results were disappointing. To add insult to injury the NBS explained this failure in terms of conventional electromagnetic theory (SI, 11:114, Winter 1986-87). Newman is also something of a visionary and philosopher: “Well above and beyond the theory and energy machine, Mr. Newman will continue to promulgate the eternal message of love, truth, and justice for all.”6

In addition to Newman’s Grand Unified Theory, there were several other brands of extraordinary physics in the conference literature: “Zero-Point Energy,” “Absolute Electrostatics,” “Point Energy Creation Physics,” and the “Scalar Magnetic Field.” (This last is the basis for frightening new “death rays” that were secretly developed by the Soviet Union.) I’m not sure I didn’t miss a few others. All are in conflict with conventional physics, but whether they conflict with each other isn’t clear. Extraordinary Scientists seem to get along with each other very well — perhaps because they are too polite to check one another’s arithmetic.

Although not nearly so popular as perpetual motion, references to “reactionless space drives” are also common in conference literature. The same people who seem to regard the law of conservation of energy as a violation of their civil rights are equally incensed at Sir Isaac Newton’s idea that the only way to get pushed is to push on something else. This law is extremely inconvenient in rocketry because in space there isn’t anything to push against. Rockets can get their push only by forcibly expelling materials called propellants. When a rocket’s propellant runs out, so does its ability to change speed and direction — it can only drift. Propellants are also heavy, bulky, and expensive, which places severe restrictions on range and performance. Extraordinary researchers are therefore making extraordinary efforts to find an alternative. Similarly, modern ideas about gravity are treated with the contempt they deserve by those working on anti-gravity machines — yet another eternal quest for the free lunch.

There was much more. As an adjunct to all the Extraordinary Science going on there was also a session on Extraordinary Financing (their term, not mine): “Gold!!! Everything you ever wanted to know. . . .” by William Cody, a “true descendant of ‘Buffalo Bill.’” Perhaps this may give readers without much technical background a better taste for the “anything goes” spirit of the conference than my other examples: for if it strikes you as odd to hear panning for gold being called “finance” — I got the same bemused feeling from hearing these other things being called “science.”

As I looked about at the people attending and exhibiting, everyone seemed happy enough, flitting uncritically from one dubious wonder to the next. But I couldn’t help wondering about their possible futures, if anyone there would wind up emulating Tesla’s tragic later years. In middle age he pursued projects that were dubious at the time and are now regarded as scientific and technological dead ends. Before the turn of the century Tesla had made real achievements, but he spent his last decades destitute and forgotten.

In providing a forum for these people, the conference may serve a valuable function — although not the one its organizers have in mind. The thought that the ideas promoted will set the scientific world on fire we may safely dismiss; but the conference may disperse a little envy. It offers participants 15 minutes of fame in front of a sympathetic audience. For that moment their achievements are real and they are accorded the respect they may feel they deserve. They chat with others who have had to endure obscurity and ridicule and they go away refreshed — perhaps feeling it is really the world’s fault, not theirs, that they aren’t rich and famous.

The influence of ideas promoted at the conference is likely to be self-limiting, just as the unconscious self-satire at which their proponents are so adept may limit their own influence. For anyone interested in the sociology of the pseudosciences the conference is a real education.

AltNikola Tesla: Genius, Visionary, and Eccentric
In the past decade or so, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) has become a name to conjure with — at least within the subculture of that American phenomenon: the Inventor. Few people today recognize his name, although in the history of electrical technology it is as important as Thomas Edison’s. Even Tesla’s admirers don’t seem to know exactly what to make of him. The old saw about there being a thin line between genius and madness is a false dilemma: for some there is no line at all. Tesla was one such rugged individualist with a foot in each camp.Tesla was born of Serbian parents in Croatia and was raised and educated there and in Austria and Hungary. From early childhood he displayed great precociousness in technological subjects: biographers credit him with devising waterwheels at the age of five. As a university student he excelled in electrical technology. About 1882 he conceived the ideas that would form the foundation for his only truly successful inventions: the induction motor and “polyphase” power transmission.In 1884, while working in Paris for the Continental Edison Company, a French affiliate of Thomas Edison, he obtained a letter of introduction to Edison and immigrated to New York. He worked for Edison for about a year before having some kind of falling out. The standard story is that Edison told Tesla it would be worth $50,000 to him if he could improve Edison’s electric generators significantly. Tesla did this and then asked Edison for his money. “Tesla,” Edison replied, “you don’t understand our American humor.”Tesla then caught the attention of George Westinghouse, inventor of the air brake, who was looking to break into electrical technology and thought Tesla’s ideas on electric power distribution had merit. Electricity can be distributed in two general forms: direct current (DC) and alternating current(AC). Edison used DC exclusively and had a near monopoly on important electrical patents at the time. Tesla advocated the use of AC, which could be transmitted much greater distances and, just incidentally, offered a way to do an end-run around Edison’s DC patents.In 1891 Tesla and Westinghouse installed an AC motor and generator in the mining town of Telluride, Colorado, which got him, and the state, credit for the world’s first practical commercial use of AC motors, generators, and transmission lines. The equipment was used to power mining machinery from a water turbine four miles distant. This installation, the Ames Power Station, is still extant and bears a marker honoring Tesla.

 

AltOne of Tesla's patents for transmitting electrical power through the air.

Westinghouse then won the contract to light the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago using Tesla’s “polyphase” AC system — essentially the same method of transmitting electricity we use today. This was the first world’s fair at which electricity was exhibited extensively. In addition to providing all the power and light at the fair, Tesla gave lectures and demonstrated a number of his inventions, most notably a metal egg that he used to show that magnetic fields could be made to rotate. The egg would stand up and spin like a top on its narrow end when placed within the rotating field. This toy illustrated the principle of the induction motor — one of the few of Tesla’s inventions that are ubiquitous today. About this time Tesla was also developing the high-voltage generator later known as the “Tesla coil” and using it to give spectacular electrical shows that, to people in the 1890s, must have been overwhelming.In the next few years Tesla would supervise the installation of his polyphase system at the new Adams Power Station #1 at Niagara Falls. This was the world’s first true commercial electric power station. (Today there is a statue of Tesla on Goat Island, which divides the American and Canadian cataracts.) It also represents the end of Tesla’s truly productive period. He would continue to produce remarkable ideas for decades but would never again be able to finish what he started.Tesla was now obsessed with the idea of transmitting electric power without wires. This is different from radio, the purpose of which is to transmit information — sounds, pictures, etc. — using very little energy. Tesla wanted to pump so much raw electrical energy into the atmosphere (or sometimes the earth, Tesla couldn’t make up his mind) that people all over the world would be able to run appliances without plugging them in, and ships at sea wouldn’t need to carry fuel. He also talked of making the upper atmosphere fluoresce — abolishing the dark of night forever. (One of the most ironic aspects of current Tesla-worship is that many admirers view with alarm the low-level electromagnetic fields produced by small appliances, while all maintain unbounded enthusiasm for his wireless-power ideas, which, if they were practicable, would produce fields millions of times stronger than anything in use today.)

AltOne of Tesla's patents for the electromagnetic induction motor.

To this end he began building larger and larger Tesla coils. In 1899-1900 he operated a laboratory in Colorado Springs that was essentially a house for a huge Tesla coil — 54 feet in diameter. During one experiment, the purpose of which is still not entirely clear, Tesla’s demands on the local electric utility became so great that the town’s main generator was set on fire, blacking out the entire area. Tesla left shortly thereafter. (Residents don’t hold any grudges and seem to regard the inventor that knocked out their power station rather fondly. Today the city is the home of the Nikola Tesla Museum of Science and Technology.)

His next big project, the Wardendyffe Tower, on Long Island, in New York, was the last great enterprise of his life. Built in 1901-1903 it was 172 feet tall and was to have had a hemispherical metal dome when completed. It’s usually described as looking like a giant mushroom or salt shaker. Tesla obtained funds to build it by signing control of his patents over to financier J. P. Morgan, apparently on the understanding the tower would be part of a worldwide radio system. But Tesla was still thinking of wireless power. To electrical engineers the form of Tesla’s tower doesn’t seem to lend itself to being a radio antenna (by this time radio pioneers were using much simpler, cheaper antennas). It is, however, immediately comprehensible as an enormous Tesla coil — far larger than the monster at Colorado Springs. It was never completed and was pulled down in 1917.

AltThe Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island, built 1901-1903, was intended for radio and wireless transmission of power across the Atlantic.

Although a millionaire in the 1890s, Tesla had so indulged his appetite for expensive experiments that from the early 1920s until his death in 1943 he was nearly destitute. By the turn of the century, at the height of his reputation, Tesla had cultivated friendships with such Gilded Age luminaries as architect Stanford White and author Samuel Clemens, who once had his picture taken in one of Tesla’s laboratories — having allowed himself to be suitably electrified. But as the twentieth century wore on, Tesla’s coterie of admirers slowly shrank as his public pronouncements on scientific subjects became more and more bizarre. During World War II he made occasional newspaper copy by talking of building “death rays” and photographing thoughts on film. But by this time he was almost forgotten.Tesla was also a lifelong defender of the physics of Sir Isaac Newton against the innovations of the upstart Albert Einstein.

AltTesla was honored for his invention of the induction motor in this 1983 postage stamp.

Like Howard Hughes, Tesla had a lifelong terror of germs, and this phobia grew steadily worse as he aged. He washed continually — at hotels he would demand the maids stock his room with 18 fresh towels a day. No matter how desperately in need of money, he was always impeccably dressed. He had many morbid fears: he was disturbed by round objects, particularly pearls in women’s jewelry. He preferred to dine alone because he couldn’t bear to eat without first counting the items on his plate, and the habit embarrassed him. (He preferred things to come in multiples of three.) His last years were spent in cheap hotels in which he devoted his time and meager resources to feeding pigeons — his only companions — that came to his windowsill.There are three book-length biographies of Tesla: Prodigal Genius, by John J. O’Neill; Tesla: Man Out of Time, by Margaret Cheney; and Lightning in His Hand, by Inez Hunt and Wanetta W. Draper. These provide some insight but are more properly classified as hagiography. This may not be entirely the fault of the authors: Tesla encouraged his own personality cult, partly from vanity, partly as camouflage. The data needed for a truly satisfactory portrait may simply not exist (or it may be stored in Belgrade). However, although these authors have varying degrees of difficulty in distinguishing science from nonscience, Tesla has yet to find a biographer immune to his crankiness.

Notes

1. Program for the 1993 Extraordinary Science Conference, p. 2, published by the International Tesla Society, P.O. Box 5636, Colorado Springs, CO 80931. The quotation is from a box listing the “Goals and Objectives” of the society.
2. Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Dover, 1957, pp. 11-14.
3. All uncredited quotations are from the conference program, pp. 6-9. (See note 1.)
4. This figure was redrawn by the author from one shown in the conference program.
5. Bert Werjefelt. “The Magnetic Battery,” Extraordinary Science, 5, no. 2. (April/May/June 1993): 23-32. This is the official publication of the International Tesla Society, and this issue is largely devoted to the Extraordinary Science Conference.
6. Conference program, p. 12. (See note 1.)

Jeff Johnson (5441 S. Federal Cr., #C205, Littleton, CO 80123) is an electrical engineer and a member of the board of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics, whose newsletter is publishing a version of these articles.

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