Nikola Tesla, An Alien Intelligence
Invention as Poetry, Electricity as Magic
The following first appeared as the introduction to the 2011 edition of Nikola Tesla’s My Inventions, from Penguin Classics. Nikola Tesla was born on the stroke of midnight, as July 9th became July 10th, to which we say, happy birthday.
When I first encountered My Inventions it was as a free Internet download, an implausible work titled The Strange Life of Nikola Tesla. I dismissed the text as an invention itself, concocted by a flamboyantly imaginative fan of Tesla’s—a fairly common species. Sentences like, “When I drop little squares of paper in a dish filled with liquid, I always sense a peculiar and awful taste in my mouth,” convinced me that The Strange Life of Nikola Tesla was some sort of Internet hoax. The story it told was too weird to be his. An engineering genius would never draft such an unscientific text; one that reads as if it has been written by a carnival barker. “And now I will tell of one of my feats with this antique implement of war which will strain to the utmost the credulity of the reader.” Indeed.
But The Strange Life of Nikola Tesla is not a fabrication. Though that title was added after his death, the text is in fact Tesla’s work, first published serially in 1919 in the Electrical Experimenter magazine. These essays tell the story of Tesla’s early life, the rotary magnetic field, the Tesla coil and transformer. Each installment is a wondrous hybrid: part autobiography, part science, part ars poetica filled with earnest confessions and self-examinations frank as a child’s. Stories of his boyhood cunning in catching rats, dueling with cornstalks or attempting to fly off a barn roof mingle with sentences like, “It is a resonant transformer with a secondary in which the parts, charged to a high potential, are of considerable area and arranged in space along ideal enveloping surfaces of very large radii of curvature, and at proper distances from one another thereby insuring a small electric surface density everywhere so that no leak can occur even if the conductor is bare.” One paragraph alone traipses through clockworks, guns, and Serbian poetry. Tesla was a true liberal artist; his intelligence was unspecialized; his genius general. Voltaire exists alongside voltage. Engineering is poetry as Tesla would broker no separation between art and science.
Because of this his writing can read like a work of science fiction:
I may mention that only recently an odd looking gentleman called on me with the object of enlisting my services in the construction of world transmitters in some distant land. “We have no money,” he said, “but carloads of solid gold and we will give you a liberal amount.” I told him that I wanted to see first what will be done with my inventions in America, and this ended the interview. But I am satisfied that some dark forces are at work.
The story he makes of his life and ideas is so engaging that it is hard not to ask, Is this real? And then, Does it matter? Tesla was, after all, an inventor and we would never deign to question the reality of one of his patents.
When originally published in the pages of the Electrical Experimenter, My Inventions mingled with an astonishing variety of colorful articles: “Soldiers Ills Cured by Electricity,” “Will Man Freeze the Earth to Death?,” “Women Now Trained as Meter Maids,” “Wood Finishing for the Amateur” and “Home Experiments in Radio-Activity.” One Electrical Experimenter editorial states, “Conditions on Mars we know by direct observation as well as deduction are favorable for life, and we may be certain that it exists there.” Advertisements urge the reader to “Humanize Your Talking Machine” or find the cure for all ills with Violet-Rays. There’s an ad for a nose corset alongside one where Lionel Strongfort and his fitness regimen counsel, “Don’t commit a crime against the woman you love.” Curiosity, self-reliance and naiveté were alive and well in 1919. “My Inventions” and the other essays included in this volume, like the back pages of a comic book, are full of the incredulous. Wonder abounds. No cynics allowed.
Tesla’s world is long gone. The distance between then and now creates a gorgeous atmospheric haze. When he presents the past’s notion of the future, it is hard not to mark how near or far off his predictions landed. There is a sense of nostalgia for a time that has not yet materialized and maybe never will: the future as Tesla imagined it, a place where machines save us all, meals are taken as efficient tiny pills, power and energy travel wirelessly around the globe and world peace is a given.
The Electrical Experimenter, a technical science monthly that would later be absorbed into Popular Mechanics, was edited by a man named Hugo Gernsback who felt that any “real electrical experimenter, worthy of the name” would, of course, be devising a plan for the future. And so Tesla was. Always. Since the only limits in his laboratory were financial, he was happy to entertain the possible, even when ridiculed. Can we speak to beings in outer space? Can we photograph thought or build a stationary ring around the equator? Why don’t we try?
When measured against the cynicism of the 21st century and the corporate, governmental or academic controls now placed on science, Tesla’s open mind and laboratory seem like rarities. Consider the number of painters and writers, playwrights and performance artists working on masterpieces today, all of them dealing with mystery and possibility. But where is the young scientist among them who toils in her garage, trying to mix her DNA with that of a great blue heron’s? Somewhere between Tesla and now, invention has lost its illicitness. Somewhere art and science have parted ways, leaving the world to wonder where Tesla’s descendants, the poet-inventors, are hiding.
In his youth Tesla studied with a staggering appetite, memorizing Faust while compulsively observing the physical environment around him. His father, once concerned for his son’s health, forbid him the use of candles so that he’d not be able to read. Tesla made his own candles and kept on reading. He studied himself into a number of illnesses and nervous conditions including an obsession with germs and the number three. In the latter half of the 19th
Having always enjoyed highly keen senses, in 1881 Tesla was deluged. He writes that he, “could hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between me and the time-piece. A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance of a few miles fairly shook my whole body.” These waves of raw sensitivity proved to be the labor pains of our modern electrical system. In the throes of this condition, a solution came to him. He saw his alternating current motor whirling in the air before his eyes and was certain, without even building it, that it would work.
Tesla soon left for the United States with dreams of fabricating his motor. His journey, as he tells it, was a series of unbelievable events. Though he was robbed while traveling to the port, he did not turn back. He arrived on American shores with four centimes in his pocket. Strolling from Castle Clinton, New York’s early immigration center, north to Edison’s laboratory, he encountered a man cursing a broken machine on the street. Tesla swiftly fixed the gadget and the man paid him 20 dollars, an implausible sum for 1884. When Tesla arrived at Edison’s lab, he was immediately hired by the great inventor, that very day, repairing dynamos and increasing efficiency in the leaky lab. Edison promised to pay Tesla 50,000 dollars once the job was done. Tesla toiled for months: arriving at ten in the morning he worked until five the following morning, going without sleep. When he was finished, Tesla went to collect his pay. Edison began to laugh, claiming that Tesla did not understand the American sense of humor. He refused to pay the 50,000 dollars. Tesla’s dream inventions crashed to the already cluttered floor. He resigned and spent the following year digging ditches, the AC motor spinning in his thoughts all the while. It was a time of such darkness that the inventor rarely spoke of it later in life.
Tesla slowly climbed out of the ditch where Edison had left him. He cobbled together space, money, and investors. While he began to see his visions made manifest, his relationship with money would continue to be contentious. Tesla rarely protected his patents. Like some proto-open source advocate, he believed his inventions belonged to the world, not just him. It is rumored that after Marconi sent the first wireless letter S across the ocean, an engineer working for Tesla chided him, saying, “Looks like Marconi got the jump on you.” Tesla’s answer was surprising. “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents.” It was Tesla, not Marconi, who invented radio. Though history books forget it, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a gavel drop no one heard, upheld Tesla’s patent a few months after his death. The well-connected Marconi would go on to win the Nobel Prize for radio. And history gets written in the strangest of ways.
Meanwhile, Edison was trying his best to discredit Tesla’s alternating current. With a campaign of fear, Edison aimed to squash the burgeoning technology because he believed that his light bulbs would not work on it. The War of the Currents roared. Edison electrocuted the animals of Menlo Park and built the first electric chair to be used at Sing-Sing prison in order to demonstrate AC’s dangerous properties. Rather Edison’s machine only demonstrated incompetence. The unfortunate William Kemmler, sentenced to die for murdering Tillie Ziegler, suffered an extended half death until nearly an hour after the process had begun.
The great test of Tesla’s alternating current motor came at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Edison entered a bid to light the fair with DC power. Tesla and George Westinghouse, working together, entered a bid for AC. The fair would be the first time many Americans would experience the delights of electricity firsthand. AC, able to perform far more efficiently at a far cheaper price, won the bid handily so that when President Cleveland touched a golden lever, firing up Tesla’s dynamos, turning on over 200,000 light bulbs in the White City, America took notice of the gangly Serbian. He and Westinghouse were awarded the contract to harness Niagara Falls and, for better or worse, the age of electricity began.
Aleister Crowley, the influential occultist, asks us to, “Please remember that science is majick.” The trouble Tesla would have with Crowley’s statement is, then why call it magic at all? Why not give the wonders of the world their due by labeling them science? Why do we not simply believe that more is possible? With his inventions often arriving in explosive bursts of vision, it is no surprise that Tesla had an interest in the psychical. In his 1900 essay “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” he writes:
We are all one. Metaphysical proofs are, however, not the only one which we are able to bring forth in support of this idea. Science too recognizes this connectedness of separate individuals, though not quite in the same sense as it admits that the suns, planets and moons of a constellation are one body, and there can be no doubt that it will be experimentally confirmed in times to come, when our means and methods for investigating psychical and other states and phenomena shall have been brought to great perfection.
This furthers an idea from his lecture “The Action of the Eye” where he contemplates mind-reading in terms both scientific and poetic. Though he makes some egregious statements about eye luminosity equaling creativity, his question stands: If thought is electrical why can’t we record it and measure it?
From all that seems beautiful and strange in Tesla’s writings, there is a theme that emerges: science vs. the supernatural. Extraordinary things happened to Tesla because he had extraordinary powers of observation. The supernatural is super, yes, but more importantly, it is natural.
Tesla’s open mind sometimes lands him in trouble as his legacy often gets claimed by a lunatic fringe. This does little to aid his assimilation into history books. One biography, queerly printed in Kelly green ink, asserts, “Nikola Tesla was not an Earth man. The space people have stated that a male child was born on board a space ship which was on a flight from Venus to the Earth in July, 1856. The little boy was called Nikola.”
I suppose it is a compliment to believe he is so far above us that he comes from Venus but why not instead demand that such brilliance is human?
* * * *
While Tesla might have been the darling of the Chicago fair, the new century was not kind to him. Westinghouse, facing pressure from J.P. Morgan, had asked Tesla to tear up their contract, the one that gave Tesla a percentage of every horsepower of AC-generated electricity ever sold. Westinghouse claimed that alternating current would not survive the crucible of Morgan’s capitalism with Tesla’s contract in place. So Tesla, in order to see his invention live, tore up the contract.
He spent the last ten years of his life at the Hotel New Yorker. When it opened in 1930 it was the tallest building in New York City, a monument to the ambition and decadence of the jazz age. At 43 stories high, it had its own power generator. The kitchen was an entire acre. There were five restaurants, ten private dining rooms, two ballrooms and an indoor ice skating rink. Conveyor belts whisked dirty dishes through secret passageways down to fully automated dishwashers. Four stories below ground bed sheets and tablecloths were miraculously laundered, dried, ironed and folded without ever touching a human hand. Everything about the hotel was efficient, futuristic. It was perfect for Tesla except that by the time he arrived at the New Yorker in 1933, he was destitute.
I check myself into the Hotel. I request his room, 3327, and am twice surprised. First, little marks the room as his and, second, the chamber is quite modest. I take a bath in what was once his tub, trying to soak up his materiality. Nikola Tesla sat alone in this room for ten years. He opened this door, breathed this air, saw this view. He walked all over the island of Manhattan. The hotel hums with power and yet I don’t find him there. Instead, I find the same question. Why has he been so forgotten?
Perhaps Tesla’s ideas were too terrific, too far before his time. He tinkered with a number of dreamily ingenious schemes, some realized, some still dreams: control objects remotely, light the oceans, photograph thoughts, communicate with life in outer space, harvest free energy from the Earth’s atmosphere, control the weather with electricity, build a ring about the equator that, by remaining stationary while the planet rotates, would make it possible to travel around the entire world in one day. He was an environmentalist in the age of robber barons. “It is our duty to coming generations to leave this store of energy intact for them, or at least not touch it until we have perfected processes for burning coal more efficiently.” Tesla, who died two years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, spoke frequently of his plans to build a death ray that, in presenting the threat of our total annihilation, would guarantee world peace. Innocently he writes, “ Not even the most war-crazed power ever would venture such an immeasurable and unpardonable outrage against mankind, involving as it would the burning of helpless women and children and noncombatants.”
He goes on to write that rather than holding peace through the stasis of fear, his wireless technology would expose our undeniable connections and assure a real peace.
If we were to release the energy of atoms or discover some other way of developing cheap and unlimited power at any point of the globe this accomplishment, instead of being a blessing, might bring disaster to mankind in giving rise to dissension and anarchy which would ultimately result in the enthronement of the hated regime of force. The greatest good will comes from technical improvements tending to unification and harmony, and my wireless transmitter is preeminently such. By its means the human voice and likeness will be reproduced everywhere.
Racism certainly plays a role in Tesla having been forgotten in America. Edison once, unable to locate Smiljan on a map, asked him in all sincerity if he had ever eaten human flesh. It was difficult for a vanilla, American public, reeling from war, to lionize a foreign eccentric, an eternal bachelor whose best friends were the pigeons of Bryant Park. Edison, the master marketer, released, “The Edison Polka,” a tune commissioned to sell his phonographs. He gave the people something to dance to while Tesla, with talk of death rays, lightening bolts and extra-terrestrials, gave a war-wearied nation the creeps.
And so his feeling towards humans are understandably complicated. Though he was happy to house the sickliest of New York’s pigeons, he couldn’t bear the touch of human hair or the sight of a woman wearing pearl earrings. He believed that inventors, to stay true to their calling, should never marry. His life was marked by a series of episodes where trust was betrayed. It is no wonder he retreated to the solitude of his hotel rooms, studying humankind from afar.
He had few friends and was often torn, feeling both wonder and disgust towards other people. In “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” he reduces humans to the phrase, “units of higher value.” Tesla is a paradox. While guilty of writing, “When I am all but used up I simply do as the darkies, who ‘naturally fall asleep while white folks worry,’” he also states: “Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of races, and we are still far from this blissful realization.” For all his love of humanity, it seems Tesla did not much care for humans.
In 1915, a New York Times reporter phoned Tesla to inform him that he and Edison were to share that year’s Nobel Prize. Tesla was concerned about splitting the award with his rival but he so clearly deserved the prize that his initial fears never could have presaged what was to come next. The report was erroneous. The 1915 Nobel Prize in physics went to Sir William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg “for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays.” Tesla was never recognized by the Nobel.
I am unwilling to accord to some smallminded and jealous individuals the satisfaction of having thwarted my efforts. These men are to me nothing more than microbes of a nasty disease. My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.
When he was a boy, Tesla climbed to the top of a barn and, holding onto nothing more than an umbrella, he jumped off. Did he fly? No. But he demonstrated an epic fearlessness in the face of failure. Tesla tried the impossible. Sometimes he failed. Sometimes he didn’t.
I try to write this in the dark, working in rooms without lights or heat, without a computer. Every misstep I make casts me back further in time, closer to Tesla and the world he experienced as a young man. If I sit like this long enough, I’ll start to forget what I now know too well so that next time I’m well-lit and warm, all marvel and magnificence will be restored to the technology I take for granted. I’ll be flush with awe again each time my fingertip brushes a light switch. Perhaps then I’ll be able to conjure a dark New York City, 1884, the day he stepped off the S.S. Saturnia.
My house is filled with tiny lights. At night red, green, and white flashes glow from the modem, the cell phone charger, the wireless baby monitor, the computer, coffee maker, DVD player, even the switch on the surge protector. And there is a general hum, a sound I’ve grown so accustomed to. It is the sound of a house alive and breathing.
Darkness makes me think of Tesla, particularly that specific pain experienced when a black out brings our rolling, connected world to a disconnected halt.
Eventually I have to turn on the light. This simple gesture doesn’t quite bring the flood of renewed disbelief and awe I’d hoped. But it does have me wondering again what electricity is exactly. Not even Tesla could say. “The day when we shall know exactly what ‘electricity’ is will chronicle an event probably greater and more important than any other recorded in the history of human race.”
Outside my window there is a conjunction of power lines. I follow the route of these wires as far as my eye can. I close my eyes and follow it even further, making a road back to him, wirelessly. The road passes through the Hotel New Yorker and the Waldorf. It passes through the Saturnia that took weeks to get to America. Men in suits, men in hats. Soon the road is so long it becomes a black and white road, a road before color. A road without tarmac or cars or power lines that goes all the way back to the tiny village of Smiljian where, somewhere in Croatia, a Serbian boy was born at the stroke of midnight to a minister and his wife. There on the road is a tall and handsome man. Nikola Tesla, inventor. He looks up, surprised, after so many years, to be recognized.