He Might be Called the Flower of a Mountaineering Clan.
Has Faculty of Rushing Intuition
Achievements with the Neglected Alternating Current — A Man Who Dwells Apart — His Latest Problem Enormous.
Nicola Tesla is peculiarly fortunate to have taken up the cause and exploitation of the alternating current at a time when others cared to have little to do with it, when others scarcely appreciated its value and importance. Now that the rapid march of events in electrical development has brought the art abreast of the times. Tesla finds himself lifted into prominence, not so much because of what he is to-day, but because of the hard and well-nigh unparalleled work that he has done during the last decade.
Tesla is a foreigner, but is not exceptional in that respect. It is curious how many of the great electricians who have made America the foremost country in electrical appliances have been born outside its borders. Bell, Thomson, and Weston were born under the English flag, and Edison himself barely escaped being a Canadian. Sprague, the man who did more, perhaps, than any other to make the electrical railway an actuality, is of straight American blood, but Van Depoele and Daft, colaborers, were both aliens. It is not a matter of surprise, therefore, that Tesla, with so many others, should find a home and welcome and all the facilities for the fruition of his ideas on American soil.
There are many things to differentiate Tesla from his distinguished colleagues, and many which will make him a man apart to the end of the chapter. He is hardly the representative of any European nationality; perhaps he might be better spoken of as a flower of a mountaineering clan. Just as the Highlanders in Scotland have beaten back the tide of invasion, so his people, in the highlands of the Adriatic, have fought, cursed, and slaughtered the Turks ever since the turban invaded Europe.
His people are a rural people, and willing to be peaceful, but ever ready to turn their shepherds’ crooks into spears and their scythes into bloody blades. They have been planted from time immemorial in the Adriatic mountains, but it was, perhaps, a happy chance that took thither in the turbulent First Napoleon days an officer of the victorious French legions, who intermarried and thus gave to the aboriginal stock the blood of which Tesla is the latest and best product.
When Tesla, as a youth, found his tastes and inclinations turning to mechanics and electricity, expatriation became not a choice, but a necessity. Moreover, he had heard in those dim uplands, overshadowed by the Turkish mist of cruelty and oppression, the magic name of Edison, and he felt as though he could not live or die happily until he had found out for himself what the country was like that owned such men, and had there sought for himself an opportunity for his tastes and his genius. When Tesla came to this country he began, as almost every other emigrant does, at the “foot of the ladder.”
He was willing to do so. No task that was given him was too heavy or difficult. But he soon found that it was easier and better to carry out some of his own seething and tumultuous schemes than to try to give shape to those of others, which he understood and solved even before the proposition was stated to him.
A notable faculty of Tesla’s mind is that of rushing intuition. As with Edison, you begin to state a question or proposition to him, and before you have half formulated it he has suggested six ways of dealing with it and ten of getting around it.
Tesla said once to a friend: “If I were to try every crude idea when it first came into my mind I could ‘bust’ two banks every day. That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually ‘feel it work.’ They want to try their first idea right off; and the result is they use up lots of money and lots of good material, only to find eventually that they are working in the wrong direction. We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.”
As soon as Tesla. began practical work he found that everybody in the electrical field of lighting and power was trying to work with the continuous current, which, with its inherent advantages, has a great many drawbacks and complications. He felt that if electricity was to reach out into the fields awaiting it, it must have greater flexibility than could be secured with the continuous current, and he saw in the alternating current a means to a great many ends.
With that idea in his mind as a starting point, his career and his work may be regarded as a striking and sequential evolution. Even as a boy he thought it was necessary to abolish the commutator in electrical dynamos and motors, as that had always been the weakest part of these machines. In all his earlier work this idea haunted him, and, although he went through the usual experience in developing continuous current apparatus for incandescent and arc lighting, he felt that there was another goal to reach.
He startled the electrical public about eight years ago by bringing before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers a class of motors in which there were neither commutators nor brushes, and in which by the use of “phase” currents of shifting polarity, alternating currents are used on terms of the highest economy, flexibility, and range. From that moment may be said to begin the use of polyphase currents in this country and in Europe.
This is the chief line on which electrical work for light and power is advancing to-day. In this direction there have already been evolved what are known as single-phase, two-phase, tri-phase, and mono-cyclic current apparatus; and it will readily be seen that these all can be grouped under the one idea of “polyphase currents,” the nomenclature adopted by Mr. Tesla very early in his work.
It is impossible for the public to understand these things, even if they sit up all night for weeks; but, as illustrative of what is being done, it may be mentioned that the Tesla polyphase system has been adopted for the enormous transmission of power at Niagara Falls.
All the twenty generators of 5,000 horse power each which are now being set up in the power house at Niagara are of the Tesla two-phase type. The radical advantage of this method is that it allows the power to be transmitted a long distance with small loss, and that it permits the employment at the consumption end of the line of devices which insure the best conditions of economy and efficiency.
It has been impossible to use the continuous current over long distances in any bulk, and it may be questioned whether any continuous current power transmission has ever exceeded 100 horse power over ten miles with the faintest success. The Rothschilds tried in France the transmission by high voltage continuous currents of less than 100 horse power between Paris and Creil, a distance of thirty-four miles, and the attempt was an ignominious failure.
But at Niagara has been contemplated the transmission to Buffalo, a distance of over twenty miles, by the Tesla plan, of at least 50,000 horse power when the plant is in full operation.
Expert calculations show that the practical outcome of all this work is that power can be transmitted with economy at least 100 miles in every direction from Niagara Falls, while, if it were found expedient, it could easily be transmitted to New-York and Chicago. About this there is little question.
The condition that has to be met is whether it would not be cheaper to generate power in New-York from coal and in Chicago from natural gas; but this does not in any wise diminish the magnitude and brilliancy of the invention which renders such things feasible. Coal fields can be dug empty and gas fields even piped dry, but Niagara runs on forever.
Granted there are the coal fields in apparently inexhaustible abundance. Mr. Tesla has naturally felt that it would be well, incidentally, to get a little more power out of the coal than has been possible heretofore. To this conception is due his oscillator, in which he has endeavored to combine at one stroke the dynamo and the steam engine.
Even allowing for the natural and invincible optimism of an inventor, it is evident that if one can devise a dynamo reduced to its essential elements, and a steam engine which is governed by the dynamo, and not by its own cumbrous gear, one has an apparatus which sound give in electrical current an output far above that which is now obtained from the dynamo as one unit and from the engine as another unit, each working, practically, on an independent basis, and each with its counteracting conditions that make against economy.
Mr. Tesla’s latest oscillator was consumed in the fire the other day, and the few score who have visited the laboratory had the opportunity to see it in full operation, supplying a large number of incandescent lights, current for arc lights, and the means of conducting a large variety of curious and novel experiments demonstrative of entirely new phenomena.
This machine, which one could apparently pick up and walk away with comfortably under one’s arm, was doing work which, under ordinary conditions, would require a machine that a cart and team of horses could with difficulty haul around town. The current was developed by a machine combining dynamo and steam engine which could stand on an office chair.
Among the experiments shown were those of lighting lamps in free space, the illumination of phosphorescent bulbs, the demonstration of the innocuous effects of currents of high potentiality and high frequency, and the ability of a plain, every-day mortal to take a million volts. All this apparatus was consumed in the fire; but the handful who saw it will never forget it.
They are only longing for a chance to see it again as soon as Tesla, with his indomitable courage and perseverance, has rebuilt it.
The man is an indefatigable, tireless worker. The day after the fire which wiped out his laboratory he worked until 3 in the morning, and at 6 o’clock he was up again an eager to get his men at work on reconstruction. Naturally, he felt his loss; but never was a sudden, staggering blow sustained with greater courage.
It is a curious and typical incident in the disaster that a few nights after, when he dropped, for sheer respite, into an up-town club, he found there a gathering of well-known actors, musicians, and artists. Some of these he knew well, for there is always a bon camaraderie among men of this stamp.
With quick and kind sympathy they immediately organized an impromptu “benefit concert” for his sole gratification, with an aggregation of talent that, had the public only known of it, would have given a substantial endowment for his new laboratory.
He seems to be a man who dwells apart. He has no kith or kin in this country, and only a few friends who share his confidences. Even in moments of closest social intercourse he will become abstracted, and there is never a time when he would not prefer his laboratory to any other spot on earth. One of his few recreations is billiards, another is literature.
He has taken not a little pride in endeavoring to introduce to the American literary public, with the assistance of Robert Underwood Johnson of The Century, the charming work of the national poet, Zmaj Jovan, and it is not unlikely that the readers of this sketch wid have noticed some admirable renderings from the Servian in that magazine as well as the The Outlook, The Independent, and other periodicals.
An evening in Mr. Tesla’s laboratory was something to remember. He rarely invited anybody there, but would sometimes yield to pressure, ad once or twice entertained select and professional bodies with demonstrations that would be of interest and value. In the course of his experiments, Mr. Tesla had collected some very curious apparatus, and other novel pieces had been made to illustrate his lectures in this country and in England and France.
Much of this was glassware, in the shape of lamps and bulbs. Entering a wide, lofty room with these lamps or bulbs held in the hand, one would be surprised to see them light up brilliantly. Curious streams of luminosity would surge and twist in these empty glass tubes, milky white in glowing turbidity.
These tubes were of different lengths and diameters, the larger ones as long as a broomstick and as thick, the smaller ones as thin as wheat straws and as long. Whether held singly or in sheaves, their illumination was equally brilliant and pure.
In some lamps Mr. Tesla had placed substances that phosphoresced, under the stimulation of the currents reaching them across many feet of space, and the light was red or blue or yellow, according to the ingredients. Other lamps or tubes had been twisted into odd and interesting shapes.
One, for instance, was like a veritable handful of lightning, when the steams of luminescent ether rushed through its zigzags. Many were shown for their novelty and beauty, but Mr. Tesla had a great variety of phenomena to explain with their help, and, seeing them, it was impossible not to believe that the era of practical phosphorescent lighting is very close.
Mr. Tesla has lectured once in New-York, once in Philadelphia, once in St. Louis, twice in London, and twice in Paris. He is not a successful elocutionist and is prone to forget himself in the pleasure of demonstrating one novel phenomenon after another, regardless of his audience; but experts have never found his address long enough.
The experience in St. Louis in 1893 was rather disturbing. The National Electric Light Association was meeting in the city, and had induced Mr. Tesla to show it what might be expected among developments in the near future. Somehow it got hinted around the city that the effects would be novel and strange, as well as of technical interest, and the local committee was swamped with applications for tickets.
Finally, the great hall in the Exhibition Building was taken, somewhat reluctantly; but on the night of the lecture the rush was so great that people had to fight for admission, and Tesla, to his dismay, found himself facing a jammed house of probably 5,000 auditors. He had expected a little gathering of expert electricians, and, though he went through the ordeal bravely, no power on earth would induce him to try anything like it again.
After the lecture was over the crowd insisted on meeting at close quarters the man who had dazzled and puzzled them, and thronged to an offhand reception, from which there was no escaping.
It was a funny episode, also, of the World’s Fair, that while Mr. Tesla was attending the Electrical Congress, by special invitation, to explain the principle of his oscillator, a shrewd Westerner, who had seen the exhibit of Tesla’s apparatus in Electricity Building, hunted him up and nearly killed him with ceaseless propositions for a long lecturing tour at rates that would make a modern prima donna die of envy. But Tesla does not lecture for pay.
The way in which Tesla does his work is rather interesting. Unlike most inventors, he has practically no associates, so that he is not subject to such a sharp controversy as arose between Morse and Vail as to the origin of certain features of the telegraph.
He has an intelligent staff of workmen, who carry out his orders implicitly; but beyond that the directing brain power of his laboratory is solely and wholly his own. He begins work early in the day, and will very often work until late into the night, after which he can sometimes be found eating his dinner at Delmonico’s, at the time when people are dropping in from the theatre.
His thoughts are given entirely to his own work; but his growing fame has brought around him a persecuting host of small fry inventors and men with schemes, who want him to work out impossibilities for them and make millions in the feat. His judgment is remarkably quick and sound on all kinds of engineering, with which he has the most intimate acquaintance; but he rarely can be invited out of his way to express his opinion about it. In short, he is intensely absorbed with the problems which he has set himself, and which deal with the fundamental conditions of being upon this little planet.
More than this: It is not generally known that of late Mr. Tesla has carried his ideas and work to a height of audacity which can only be spoken of as unparalleled. It has generally been supposed and assumed that this earth has a natural electrical charge of its own.
Accepting this theory as true, Mr. Tesla argued that it should be within the power of mankind, with suitable apparatus, to disturb and demonstrate that charge. In some of his later inventions he has directed his energies to that enormous problem, which, if successfully solved, would represent in science the material conquest of the world by a Napoleon or a Caesar.
Mr. Tesla now claims that he has succeeded in his object, and has, with his own eyes, seen the electricity of the earth reach out its arms of ethereal and vocal flame to heaven. This seems incredible; but Mr. Tesla is one of the most secretive and cautious of men, and has not yet been known to speak of a thing as a bare possibility until he had already accomplished it in his laboratory.
Of course, this achievement, which is among his latest, has many bearings and aspects. With suitable mechanism, properly adjusted, it will be possible to talk from one part of this earth to another without wires. But this is a detail. If this earth has an electrical charge, and all the other heavenly bodies have, as they undoubtedly have, an electrical charge, we have at once facilities of interplanetary communication, should there be beings who have yearnings across the chasms of space.
GEORGE HELI GUY.