Nikola Tesla Articles
Tesla the Man: Commentary on His Life
When Jeff Kooistra first reviewed Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla for Infinite Energy #12, he said he was “a veteran of several Tesla reviews.” After plodding through no less than three biographies of electricity’s greatest showman, I confess to feeling somewhat battle fatigued.
Unless you are a total Tesla freak, don’t, I repeat, don’t try this at home.
My entree was Prodigal Genius by John J. O’Neill [Reprinted 1968, Spearman, ISBN 6-81610-1]. This was a good choice as starter. I chose it mainly because O’Neill was a close friend of Tesla and claimed to know him better than anyone.
This book is the definitive biography and one from which the other authors clearly lifted much of their material on Tesla’s personal life and eccentricities. It is heavily, and quite unashamedly, biased in favor of reflecting only the positive aspects of Tesla’s character. O’Neill has a tendency to gloss over the inventor’s mistakes and misjudgments, focusing only on his achievements and his incredible insight into technologies, the realization of which still lay far ahead in the future.
I could probably have written the above paragraph based merely on reading the author’s preface. O’Neill writes: “The rising star of Tesla’s genius shot across the electrical heavens like a meteor.”
Such shining phrases, however, are not unusual in books about Tesla. My main course, Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney [1981, Prentice-Hall, ISBN 0-13-906859-7], had a few liberally sprinkled here and there. The man clearly inspires such rhetoric in his admirers and Cheney is a long-standing member of the Tesla Memorial Society.
Her book was more of an in-depth, historical biography, which examined his accomplishments a little more closely and didn’t concentrate so heavily on his personal traits.
As a big fan of desserts, I found Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc J. Seifer [1998, Citadel Press, ISBN 1-8065-1960-6] to be as appetizingly interesting as a mountain of profiteroles [puff pastry filled with whipped cream] drenched in hot chocolate sauce.
Seifer’s book is a factual, academic biography and a very fair account and assessment of Tesla’s life and works. And, like all good desserts, it weighs a lot.
In all three books, the unembroidered story is basically the same.
Nikola Tesla, born in Croatia in 1856, shunned the family tradition of entering the priesthood and longed to become an engineer. Not an easy choice of profession for a sickly, weak young man who suffered heart flutters, twitches, and a profound sensitivity to bright light. For long intervals throughout his life, Tesla was bedridden and frequently believed to be at death’s door.
Tesla’s career as an experimenter began at an early age. As a schoolboy he invented a smooth waterwheel, a design he adapted many years later to produce his bladeless turbine. It is not known whether his propeller, powered by harnessed May bugs, ever found any future application.
Following the death of his much-favored brother, Dane, Tesla felt the need to excel in order to gain his parents’ affections. The frequency with which he was unfavorably compared with his late brother left him with a low self-esteem and lack of confidence which persisted throughout his life.
He used his natural flair for invention to obtain love and admiration, firstly from his parents and later from society as a whole.
He fiercely resisted complying with his parents’ wish that he join the priesthood, telling his father: “It is not humans that I love, but humanity.”
Tesla eventually won the freedom to study engineering in Graz, Austria. His stubborn streak manifested itself early in his academic career when, following a bitter argument with his professor on the supremacy of AC power over the standard DC system of the time, he pledged himself to proving his lecturer - and the rest of the world - wrong.
In 1882, Tesla worked for Continental Edison in Paris; when he emigrated to the U.S. two years later, a good reference from his former boss assured him a job with the parent company, where he undertook to improve Edison’s dynamo design.
Edison, the innovations wizard of the day, astounded Tesla, who believed his achievements were nothing short of miraculous given his rough and ready experimental technique. Tesla worked in a very scientific fashion and regarded Edison as a hit and miss tinkerer. There was a degree of snobbery also, as Edison had not had the benefit of a good education as Tesla did.
Edison promised Tesla $50,000 at the end of the dynamo project, but ultimately reneged on the promise. Tesla was furious and resigned on the spot.
He later worked with several would-be benefactors, improving their systems in the hope that they would, in turn, sponsor his ambitious AC project. Two New Jersey businessmen, Vail and Lane, utilized Tesla’s skills to improve their lighting manufacturing processes, and then refused to sponsor his AC research. He was forced to leave and spent the hardest year of his life working as a laborer, totally bankrupt.
But Tesla crawled back, as he was wont to do. His foreman on the digging site took an interest and introduced him to new potential backers. Tesla impressed them and began work on his AC process, completing several multi-phase systems along with all the back-up machinery and theoretical notes on all. Tesla almost overworked himself to death on these projects. George Westinghouse bought many of the AC patents and supported Tesla’s research.
One highly publicized event almost left AC power research dead in the water. Alternating current was used in a public execution to power the electric chair. The prisoner was not properly prepared and the results were horrendous. Tesla’s detractors used the incident to full effect in denouncing AC as not even death row-friendly.
Tesla retaliated, in typically spectacular fashion, by staging a demo, where tens of thousands of volts were passed through his body, enabling him to illuminate lighting tubes and, as the sparks were still shooting from his fingertips, he enquired, “What killer current?”
Flowery acclaim almost inevitably followed such demonstrations. One observer reported that “exhausted light tubes held in the hands of Mr. Tesla appeared like a luminous sword in the hand of an archangel representing justice.”
Tesla, in time, became a cause celebre amongst New York’s chattering classes. There are many bizarre chapters in all three biographies relating to his association with the socialite Johnsons. Mrs. Johnson, particularly, appeared totally enamored of the Croatian engineer. His natural shyness drew her to him like a magnet and she wrote him long letters in which her obvious attraction to him was veiled in very odd terminology indeed. Clearly she didn’t even break the surface when it came to understanding Tesla the man.
She was undoubtedly charmed by his charismatic public performances - what a dinner party coup it must have been to have the man everyone was talking about as an impressive dinner guest. Tesla was always attentive and polite, but he shunned society as far as he possibly could. Being expected to perform for Mrs. Johnson and her set must have been torture for him.
Tesla was eventually honored in his own country. He returned briefly to attend to his dying mother and was greeted like a megastar. Honors were poured upon him. He eventually, however, took U.S. citizenship.
The great AC versus DC battle continued to rage. The establishment, geared at great expense towards DC, closed ranks against Tesla and his rantings.
George Westinghouse and Edison were locked in a “battle of the currents” and Tesla nobly sacrificed the huge royalties he stood to get from his AC motors in order to help Westinghouse stay afloat financially.
Tesla began work on his most ambitious project ever in 1900 - his Wardenclyffe Tower, built on Long Island. Financier J. Pierpont Morgan initially sponsored this research, believing it to be a huge radio mast. Tesla, however, had other ideas. The tower would be a base station for the transmission of power and information across the world and would, Tesla believed, eventually supply free energy to any point on the globe. When Morgan discovered the real purpose of the tower, he backed out of the deal and left Tesla struggling for almost five years to complete the project. It was never completed and eventually Tesla had to sell the site to repay his debts.
Nikola Tesla died in 1943, penniless and living on credit, at the Waldorf Hotel [sic]. The FBI was quick to confiscate all his papers - rumors abounded, and still do, that Tesla had invented several deadly weapons. The papers were eventually released, many years later, to a relative.
An examination of Tesla’s personality traits warrants an entire book on its own. Sigmund Freud, born in the same year, would have had a field day.
According to J.J. O’Neill’s biography, Tesla “engineered women out of his life.” The bachelor scientist was always immaculately dressed and was, reportedly, totally charming to all the females he encountered.
He was an obsessive workaholic who suffered several nervous collapses due to exhaustion. Even when he wasn’t working, his mind seldom switched off. He had a photographic memory and, more unusually, he had the ability to mentally visualize his designs and inspect them in a kind of holographic 3D. Many of his inventions were never committed to paper throughout their development.
The down side of his mental hyperactivity was violent migraines, disturbed vision, and frequent light flashes. He was obsessive about germs and had many obsessive compulsive routines designed to thwart them. He would use dozens of clean towels when bathing in order to reduce contamination.
The number three was a pet fixation. He would only stay in hotel rooms numbered three or multiples of it. Earrings and pearl jewelry of any kind repulsed him.
Towards the end of his life he acquired a passion for cultivating the friendship of the city pigeons. His hotel room was frequently filled with or surrounded by them.
For all his reported charm, Tesla was basically gauche with few social skills. He would have been much wealthier had it not been for these handicaps. He had dreadful difficulties in selling his ideas to investors, something he badly needed to do, as almost all of his ideas were way in excess of his own resources. Tesla was also fickle in the way he flitted between one project and another, rarely completing most of them.
He claimed to regularly experience out of body episodes, during which he “travelled” widely. Yet, this oddball was clearly a genius whose fundamental researches paved the way for many inventions now taken for granted. His idea for global transmission of information alone was inspirational and way ahead of its time.
It is widely considered that his futuristic postulations led to developments in many fields: satellite technology, microwaves, beam weapons, nuclear fusion, robotics, the internet, geophysics, solar power, oscillation experiments, VTOL craft, radar, and even cryogenics - one of his patents refers to a gaseous cooling agent.
Tesla was not, however, credited with many of his actual achievements, such as fluorescent lighting, bladeless turbines, X-rays, or radio. The eternal experimenter definitely didn’t suffer from the notorious “inventor’s disease.” After the demolition of his beloved Wardenclyffe Tower, Tesla said:
Perhaps it was better that a revolutionary idea or invention be hampered and ill-treated in its adolescence by want of means, self interest, stupidity and ignorance, so that all that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned and suppressed only to emerge all the more powerful, all the more triumphant from the struggle.
Some of Tesla’s notes tantalizingly refer to a new source of free energy. No details are given, other than the process was not nuclear and would require a great deal of steel!
Tesla and Cold Fusion
How, I wonder, would Tesla view cold fusion research. It would definitely give him a strong feeling of deja vu to discover essential progress is still being hampered and thwarted by vested interests and that there is still the desperation to maintain an outdated and inefficient status quo.
The huge financial investment in perpetuating current energy infrastructure and practice is still every bit as obstructive to a cold fusion-powered world as it was to Tesla’s attempts to convert a DC-powered one.