Contemporary with Edison was another inventor, not so well known, but of the two the more spectacular. This was Nikola Tesla whose life and works have been enthrallingly described by John J. O’Neill in his book The Prodigal Genius:
“He was aware as a boy that he was not like other boys in his thoughts, in his amusements and in his hobbies. He could do the things that other lads his age usually do, and many things that they could not do. It was these latter things that interested him most, and he could find no companions who would share his enthusiasms for them. This situation caused him to isolate himself from contemporaries, and made him aware that he was destined for an unusual place if not great accomplishments in life.
” … practically all his life he experienced a peculiar reaction when breathing deeply. When he breathed deeply he was overcome by a feeling of lightness, as if his body had lost all weight; and he should, he concluded, be able to fly through the air merely by his will to do so. He did not learn, in boyhood, that he was unusual in this respect.
“A strange power permitted him to perform unusual feats in mathematics. He possessed it from early boyhood, but had considered it a nuisance and tried to be rid of it because it seemed beyond his control.
Nikola Tesla needed no model to test his inventions; they appeared before his eyes as functioning realities that he could stop and start as though they were really there.
“If he thought of an object it would appear before him exhibiting the appearance of solidity and massiveness. So greatly did these visions possess the attributes of actual objects that it was usually difficult for him to distinguish between vision and reality. This abnormal faculty functioned in a very useful fashion in his school work with mathematics.
“If he was given a problem in arithmetic or algebra, it was immaterial to him whether he went to the blackboard to work it out or whether he remained in his seat. His strange faculty permitted him to see a visioned blackboard on which the problem was written, and there appeared on this blackboard all of the operations and symbols required in working out the solution. Each step appeared much more rapidly than he could work it out by hand on the actual slate. As a result, he could give the solution almost as quickly as the whole problem was stated.
“Tesla’s powers of memorizing were prodigious. A quick reading of a page gave him a permanent record of it; he could always recall before his eyes a photographic record of it to be read, and could study at his convenience. Study, for Tesla, was a far different process than for the average person. He had no need for a reference library; he could consult in his mind any page of any textbook he had read, and formula, equation, or item in a table of logarithms would flash before his eyes. He could recite scores of books, complete from memory. The saving in time which this made possible in research work was tremendous.”
In an interview with M. K. Wisehart, published in the American Magazine of April 1921, and in Mr. O’Neill’s book, Tesla describes his faculty as follows:
“During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied by strong flashes of light. When a word was spoken, the image of the object designated would present itself so vividly to my vision that I could not tell whether what I saw was real or not. . . . Even though I reached out and passed my hand through it, the image would remain fixed in space.
“In trying to free myself from these tormenting appearances, I tried to concentrate my thoughts on some peaceful, quieting scene I had witnessed. This would give me momentary relief; but when I had done it two or three times the remedy would begin to lose its force. Then I began to take mental excursions beyond the small world of my actual knowledge. Day and night, in imagination, I went on journeys — saw new places, cities, countries, and all the time I tried hard to make these imaginary things very sharp and clear in my mind. I imagined myself living in countries I had never seen, and I made imaginary friends, who were very dear to me and really seemed alive.
“This I did constantly until I was seventeen, when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then to my delight, I found I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings, or experiments. I could picture them all in my mind . . .
“By that faculty of visualizing, which I learned in my boyish efforts to rid myself of annoying images, I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, businessman or artist.
“Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.
“Here in brief, is my own method: after experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.
“Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.
“The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.
“The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.”
Tesla’s mightiest invention was his alternating current motor. It is difficult to overestimate its value. It was really the invention of a principle — the principle of the rotating electric field. For, once that principle was conceived, the motor and a multitude of other practical applications of the alternating current practically invented themselves. It was a master invention that created the electrical power era, the foundation of our modern industrial system.
While studying electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute, at Gratz, Austria, Tesla saw for the first time a machine that would operate either as an electrical motor or as a dynamo. As was the case with all motors of the eighteen-seventies it was supplied with current through a commutator-brush system. When operated it sparked heavily at the commutator.
This sparking of course was a defect; it wasted energy; and corroded the contacts. The typical professional attitude toward any idea, machine, or person, which has arrived or been accepted is enthusiasm. “It is inherent in the machine,” said Prof. Poeschl, an instructor in the Institute. The typical inventor’s attitude is critical. The defect in the motor annoyed Tesla. He suggested that the commutator be abolished and, of course, was told that such step was impossible. The rebuff bothered him not at all for he suddenly knew that not only was a motor without a commutator possible but that the solution lay in some application of the alternating current. What application he could not at that time foresee but “he felt an overpowering assurance that he could solve the problem.” Prof. Poeschl devoted an entire lecture to a discussion of reasons why Tesla’s idea was impossible of attainment. Tesla had little more to say in the face of so authoritative opposition. But the idea that had come to him flowed back, shall we say, into his subconscious mind. From time to time he would take it out and mull it over. Then he would forget it.
Several years later Tesla was walking in the city park of Budapest with a friend when in a flash he solved the problem. The following is Mr. O’Neill’s description of the occasion:
“Suddenly the animated figure of Tesla snapped into a rigid pose as if he had fallen into a trance. Szigeti spoke to him but got no answer. Again his words were ignored. The friend was about to seize the towering motionless figure and shake him into consciousness when instead Tesla spoke.
“‘Watch me!’ said Tesla, blurting out the words like a child bubbling over with emotion: ‘Watch me reverse it.’ He was still gazing into the sun as if that incandescent ball had thrown him into a hypnotic trance.
“Szigeti recalled the image from Goethe that Tesla had been reciting: ‘The glow retreats. . . . It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring,’ a poetic description of the setting sun, and then his next words — ‘Watch me! Watch me reverse it.’ Did Tesla mean the sun? Did he mean that he could arrest the motion of the sun about to sink below the horizon, reverse its action and start it rising again toward the zenith?
“‘Let us sit and rest for a while,’ said Szigeti. He turned him toward a bench, but Tesla was not to be moved.
“‘Don’t you see it?’ expostulated the excited Tesla. ‘See how smoothly it is running? Now I throw this switch — and I reverse it. See! It goes just as smoothly in the opposite direction. Watch! I stop it. I start it. There is no sparking. There is nothing on it to spark.’
“‘But I see nothing,’ said Szigeti. ‘The sun is not sparking. Are you ill?’
“‘You do not understand,’ beamed the still excited Tesla, turning as if to bestow a benediction on his companion. ‘It is my alternating-current motor I am talking about. I have solved the problem. Can’t you see it right here in front of me, running almost as silently? It is the rotating magnetic field that does it. See how the magnetic field rotates and drags the armature around with it? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it sublime? Isn’t it simple? I have solved the problem. Now I can die happy. But I must live, I must return to work and build the motor so I can give it to the world. No more will men be slaves to hard tasks. My motor will set them free, it will do the work of the world.’
“Szigeti now understood. Tesla had previously told him about his attempt to solve the problem of an alternating-current motor, and he grasped the full meaning of the scientist’s words. Tesla had never told him, however, about his ability to visualize objects which he conceived in his mind, so it was necessary to explain the vision he saw, and that the solution had come to him suddenly while they were admiring the sunset.”
Undoubtedly Tesla was very unusual. He possessed a special gift that enabled him to accomplish more in the field of mechanical invention than he would have been able to accomplish without it.
Other inventors have had to a greater or lesser degree this power of visualization — to see in the mind’s eye, or on the wall of the bedroom, or upon an imaginary blackboard, a complete diagram or image of a layout or machine. But while this ability may be in some way connected with inventive ability, it is not essential. As a matter of recorded fact, visualization aided Tesla to work out the details, rather than to make the invention. It cannot be said that the power to invent is simply the power to visualize.
The quality that Tesla’s inventiveness shared with that of other inventors was the quality of instantaneousness. While thinking of something else, while walking, dreaming, listening to a lecture or a sermon, suddenly the invention is there. There is no effort.