From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

The Electric Wizard

On the 150th anniversary of the birth of brilliant inventor Nikola
Tesla, Mark Pilkington explores the enigma of the man who lit up the

The Bird Man of Bryant Park

18 May 1917. As he had almost every day and night for the past several
years, a middle-aged man strode into Bryant Park, a small green square
behind New York City’s magnificent public library. Immaculately turned
out as was his custom, his 6ft 2in [1.88m] frame, strikingly gaunt but
always noble, was draped in a black tailcoat and trousers, topped by a
black bowler hat. Beneath the coat, he sported a waistcoat, a crisp
white shirt and a white bow tie. A brand new pair of grey suede gloves
enclosed his unusually large hands and prominent thumbs, which clasped
a cane and a brown paper bag full of breadcrumbs.

Within moments of his arrival, the pigeons were upon him, like iron
filings surrounding a magnet. Smiling and murmuring to the cooing
birds, the man stretched out his arms and disappeared under a flurry
of grey and white wings. His avian reverie was short-lived, disturbed
by the appearance of another man, also dressed in tails, who urgently
bade him away.

Reluctantly, the bird man of Bryant Park shook himself free and dusted
himself down. It was, after all, an important night for Nikola Tesla;
he was to be awarded the prestigious American Institute of Electrical
Engineers’ (AIEE) Edison Medal, by the man who had come to find him,
his old friend Dr Bernard A Behrend.

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,” declared Behrend in the
presentation speech, borrowing from Alexander Pope’s epitaph to
Newton. “God said, Let Tesla Be, and all was light.” He went on: “Were
we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr
Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric
cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would
be dead and idle… His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical

While it’s still possible to find modern histories of electricity that
make no mention of Tesla, during his lifetime he was, alongside Thomas
Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, the most celebrated inventor of the age.
His polyphase system of Alternating Current (AC) remains the basis for
transmitting electricity across power lines and drives induction
motors – another Tesla design – in everything from CD players to
submarines. Tesla is often credited with starting the “Second
Industrial Revolution”, but his genius touched on much more than just
motors. His writings, patents and inventions included early models for
radio, X-ray-emitting tubes, fluorescent lighting, robotics, radar,
aircraft, missiles and, heading further out into the unknown, energy
weapons, weather control and – his great dream – the wireless
transmission of electricity.

Sadly, he would outlive his professional career. By the time of his
death on 7 January 1943, he was thousands of dollars in debt and
largely overshadowed by tales of his eccentricity, which surrounded
him like the pigeons he so dearly loved. Most of these stories were
true. Sensitive and mild-mannered, he never married, nor seemed to
have intimate relations with women (or, for that matter, men); he
never had a home, living his entire adult life in hotels; he insisted
on calculating the cubic volume of any food or drink that he consumed;
and was bound to perform actions in multiples of three.

After his death, Tesla’s name survived as a unit measuring the
intensity of a magnetic field, as a crater on the far side of the
Moon, and a small planetary object (2244 Tesla). Meanwhile, his ideas
continued to inspire both respectable scientists of the sort you’d
happily take back to the academy, and legions of backyard free-energy

The 21st century has seen a dramatic resurgence of interest in Tesla
and his work. 2006, the 150th anniversary of his birth, was declared
the Year of Tesla by UNESCO and was marked by celebrations in both his
native Croatia and in his family’s homeland, Serbia: Belgrade airport
is now officially Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. 2006 also saw the
birth of the Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric car designed
by Lotus; perhaps less excitingly, though no less significantly, an
engine on Silverlink’s North London Line was named the Nikola Tesla in

This change in Tesla’s posthumous fortunes is perhaps best reflected
in the titles of his biographies: the first, published in 1944, was
Prodigal Genius; 1981 saw him as a Man Out of Time; by 2001 he was The
Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century.

Early Years

Nikola Tesla was born at midnight between 9 and 10 July 1856 in the
hamlet of Smiljan, then part of the Hapsburg Empire, now in Croatia.
He was the fourth of five children born to Duka Mandic and Milutin
Tesla, priest of the neighbouring Serbian Orthodox Church. Legend has
it that thunder and lightning raged that night.

The Tesla household was a lively one. Duka, although never formally
schooled, had a passion for European poetry, which she could recite at
length thanks to her prodigious memory – an attribute Nikola
inherited. His mother was an endless source of inspiration to Nikola,
who attributed all his abilities to her influence. The family
traditionally sent its sons into the army or the clergy, but young
Nikola was different.

He began inventing at an early age. At five, he built his own
waterwheel, whose smooth sides differentiated it from the paddle
wheels of the surrounding countryside. Another mill powered by June
beetles looked promising until a friend ate Nikola’s entire fuel
supply, a sight that caused the young inventor to be violently sick.
His attempt to fly off a barn roof using an umbrella as a parachute
was less successful, leaving him to be discovered, unconscious, by his
mother. As an older child, he imagined himself transported through the
air in a vacuum-powered flying machine – he even built a small working
prototype vacuum cylinder – and constructing a huge water wheel at the
base of the Niagara Falls. This much, at least, would prove a
prophetic vision.

Family life was bucolic; the children shared their lives with farm
animals, including a number of pigeons, but tragedy struck when Nikola
was five. His 12-year-old brother Daniel, a hero to Nikola, died in an
accident. Accounts differ – he may have been killed by a favourite
horse, or he may have fallen down some stairs. Nikola may even have
been blamed for the fall. Whatever the case, Daniel’s loss deeply
affected Nikola, who soon began to show signs of the hypersensitivity
that would mark him out as an eccentric for the rest of his life. In
middle age he wrote:

“I contracted many strange likes, dislikes and habits, some of which I
can trace to external impressions while others are unaccountable. I
had a violent aversion against earrings of women… I would not touch
the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver.
I would get a fever looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was
anywhere in the house, it caused me the keenest discomfort.” (“My
Inventions”, Electrical Experimenter, Feb-Oct 1919.) It seems likely
that his phobias prevented Tesla from ever enjoying intimacy with

During a brief spell studying electrical engineering and mathematics
at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz, the precocious Tesla
developed a passion for Alternating Current and Voltaire. But he never
gained his degree, possibly being expelled for dissolute behaviour. In
1882, following two lost years in Prague, Nikola’s family secured him
a job at the Paris headquarters of the Edison Telephone Company. Here
he did such a good job improving and repairing the engines at the
company’s French and German power stations that he was presented with
a personal letter of introduction to Thomas Edison himself. It read:
“I know two great men and you are one of them: the other is this young

And so it was that, with only four cents, some technical diagrams and
a book of his own poetry in his pocket, Tesla joined the great tide of
immigration sweeping into America.

Coming to America

When Tesla and Edison met in New York City in 1884, the “Wizard of
Menlo Park” was a powerful, wealthy man, deeply embroiled in custody
battles over patent ownership for both the light bulb and the
microphone. He was already distributing power to his neighbours in
Manhattan, providing electric light to Roselle, New Jersey, and
seeking to replace the gas lighting monopoly with one of his own:
Direct Current (DC) electricity.

Tesla impressed Edison, though the differences in their personalities
were clearly marked: Tesla was principled, fastidious and dapper, an
inspired dreamer; Edison was unscrupulous, personally slovenly and
workmanlike as an inventor. He also provided the idealistic young
Tesla with his first taste of the harsh realities of commercial
enterprise, something he would never fully grasp.

When Tesla offered to improve the efficiency of the company’s
turbines, Edison gave him the go-ahead, promising $50,000 when the
task was completed. Tesla spent almost a year working day and night
like a human dynamo, overhauling and automating Edison’s workshop and
patenting a few new devices along the way. The deed done, Tesla
approached his boss for the agreed fee, only to be rebuffed with a
guffaw: “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humour.”

Appalled by what he saw as a breach of honour and ethics, Tesla quit
the company. He probably also realised that staying with Edison, with
his commitment to DC, was a dead end if he wanted to get his beloved
AC system off the ground. Tesla was quickly sweet-talked by investors
into setting up his own Tesla Electric Light Company, for which he
patented a new arc light but, once again, was the victim of his own
success, being forced out of the company after a year and paid off
with near worthless stock bonds.

From the spring of 1886, Tesla found himself one of the thousands laid
low by that year’s economic depression, digging ditches in New York
until providence smiled the following year. The head of his labour
crew, also working far below his capabilities, introduced him to AK
Brown, manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Brown was
impressed with Tesla’s AC theories and provided him with a company,
The Tesla Electric Company, and a laboratory at 33 South Fifth St.

And so, after a tumultuous start, began Nikola Tesla’s life as a

The Wizard of the West

With a flurry of patents, in 1888 Tesla made the motor of his dreams a
reality. His refined polyphase system utilised rotating magnetic
fields rather than mechanical parts to drive its motors, removing the
friction and vibration that dogged earlier motors and vastly
increasing their efficiency. A simple and elegant idea, it was
rapturously received by the AIEE, and Tesla swiftly gained the
attention of the inventor and businessman George Westinghouse, who had
an AC generating plant in Buffalo, New York. Westinghouse bought up
the Tesla system and hired him to upgrade his existing power plants.

Word of their partnership soon spread to Edison, whose DC system was
proliferating along the East Coast and the Edison PR machine went into
overdrive, warning of the dangers of AC – which was actually
considerably safer – by publicly electrocuting a vast menagerie of
animals, including a circus elephant. The War of the Currents waged
for years, reaching a grim climax of sorts in 1890 with the first
electrical execution of a human, murderer William Kemmler. It was a
slow, gruelling process, at least partly because the prison, in
Auburn, New York, used what Edison had argued was the more lethal AC.

The war’s real end came in 1893 when, to the delight of both Tesla and
his boss, Westinghouse was awarded a contract to install a
hydroelectric plant at the base of the Niagara Falls. Tesla’s
childhood vision had come true and, as of June 2006, a statue of him
astride one of his motors now commemorates the occasion. The same
year, Tesla would take to the stage as an electrical superman at the
colossal 1893 Columbian Exhibition, the Chicago World’s Fair, a
Depression-defying spectacle powered entirely by Westinghouse AC.
Here, Tesla presented himself to the tens of thousands of visitors as
the tamer of currents, engulfed by sparks, flames and halos of light.

The “New Wizard of the West” as one journalist dubbed Tesla, was now
at the height of his fame. In Paris and London, he met the world’s
leading scientists and lectured to enthralled gatherings about the
wireless transmission of information and energy. A steady stream of
celebrities, scientists and journalists visited the Fifth St
laboratory to be dazzled by Tesla’s remotely powered fluorescent
tubes, lightning-generating coils, and in Mark Twain’s case, a
vibrating platform with unfortunate laxative effects.

Tesla thrived in the public eye, dreaming up and demonstrating new
inventions like his “Teleautomatic devices” – remote controlled
vehicles and weapons, which he hoped, and failed, to sell to the
military. More controversially, in St Louis, Missouri, in 1893 he
performed what would later be recognised as the first successful radio
transmission. Tesla filed two patents for radio that year, but it
would not be until 1943, three months after his death, that the US
Supreme Court acknowledged that his patents had partly formed the
basis of Guglielmo Marconi’s more famous 1895 experiment. Marconi’s
fame and fortune would only increase as Tesla’s own star waned.

For the time being, however, Tesla could do no wrong. In 1899, he
convinced hotelier Colonel John Jacob Astor to invest in his vision of
a global, wireless communications network that one day would allow us
to communicate with the denizens of Mars.

Tesla’s Colorado Springs laboratory, with its 142ft (30m) transmitter
A purpose-built laboratory was constructed on land outside the town of
Colorado Springs, Colorado, elevation 6,000ft (1,800m) (and now home
to NORAD) where his nearest neighbours were grazing cattle herds and a
school for the deaf and blind. With an armoury of huge coils,
amplifiers and transformers inside and, outside, a 142ft (43m) tall
transmitter mast, the new Prometheus could experiment with truly
gargantuan electrical currents, hurling man-made lightning into the
dry mountain air to be seen and heard for miles around.

Curiosity-seekers approaching the experimental station were confronted
with forbidding warning signs, while Dante’s “Abandon Hope All Ye Who
Enter Here” hung above the lab entrance. Those who did get close
enough told of the ground crackling beneath their feet, sparks flying
from startled horses’ hooves and hundred-foot (30m) lightning bolts
emanating from the external mast. On one occasion, Tesla blew the
town’s entire electricity supply, causing a blackout until he repaired
the generators himself.

While at Colorado Springs, Tesla realised that the Earth was “a
conductor of limitless dimensions”. He was convinced that he had sent
ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) waves half way around the world,
creating a column of energy in the Indian Ocean, which could be tapped
for its power using simple equipment like a radio tuner. Outside the
station, Tesla was able to power bulbs wirelessly, while inside he
noted manifestations of ball lightning and, on one occasion, a dense
fog, leading him to believe that he would one day be able to modify
the weather and create moisture in arid climates. His most
controversial claim, however, and one that probably marked the
beginning of the end of his reputation as a serious scientist, was
that he had received radio signals from outer space, most likely Mars
or Venus. This makes Tesla, unwittingly, the first radio astronomer,
though he himself assumed that the signals were directed by another

(This photograph demonstrates Tesla’s unique flair for publicity. It
was made using both timed and double exposures and shows Tesla calmly
reading, apparently during a raging indoor lightning storm. First
published in Century Illustrated Magazine, June 1900.)

With the Colorado Springs experiments, Tesla’s vision finally
outstretched the capacity of the public imagination. Marconi’s 1901
radio transmission across the Atlantic was astounding enough to
comprehend, but radios in outer space and wireless energy broadcasts
were ideas from another time, or another planet. HG Wells and Jules
Verne may have been describing such things in their fiction, but to
claim to have mastered them in reality was too much. It’s no wonder
some people would later consider Tesla to be not of this Earth. He was
still on a roll, however, convincing banker JP Morgan to invest
$150,000 in what was to be Tesla’s greatest creation – and also his


On a 200-acre (80ha) site near Shoreham, on New York’s Long Island,
Tesla, with architects Stanford White and WD Crow, attempted to
realise his most grandiose dreams. Wardenclyffe was to be one of the
world’s first industrial parks, housing 2,000 workers, hundreds of
generator and transformer buildings and, its crowning glory, a 187ft
(57m) tower with a 120ft (37m) earthing rod underground (“to have a
grip on the Earth so the whole of this globe can quiver”), topped by a
55-tonne, 68ft- (21m-) diameter copper dome. This colossal
transmission tower was to be twinned with another in England; the pair
would transmit radio signals and, eventually, power, across the
Atlantic Ocean.

Tesla’s dream was that the Wardenclyffe tower would send radio signals
and, eventually, power to its twin across the Atlantic.

Even as the tower was raised, however, the money began to run out; it
became clear that Tesla’s plans were outgrowing even Morgan’s outsized
wallet. Tesla, it was apparent, was not a man of the world, and the
world just wasn’t ready for Tesla’s vision. Morgan certainly wasn’t,
and refused further investment, to which Tesla responded with
spectacular electrical tantrums, creating at Wardenclyffe a lightshow
the likes of which the world had never seen before, or quite possibly

Still living at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Tesla sank further into
debt until, by 1905, Wardenclyffe was being hired out to anyone who
would take it. In a dismal echo of Tesla’s dazzling World’s Fair
performances, the inventor’s dream palace was eventually used to stage
vaudeville performances. The tower was finally demolished in 1917,
sold for scrap by the site’s owners. It took several dynamite blasts
to bring Tesla’s industrial Xanadu crashing to the ground.

Although Tesla would never stop working and would never be forgotten,
Wardenclyffe was the last time that his ideas came close to such full,
majestic expression. The world was moving into darkness: the Great
Depression came a decade after World War I, followed by World War II.
Although he continued to present military applications of his ideas to
the Army – robots, remote control weapons, electric vehicles, even an
early radar concept – at heart Tesla was a man of peace, who saw
technology as bringing an end to war.

Meanwhile, his own circumstances grew ever less salubrious. Although
he never lost his charm or style, he was forced to sit and watch as
others accrued wealth and fame from ideas that he himself had first
presented to the world and patented decades earlier. Nobody denied
this, except perhaps Marconi, but Tesla was no longer interested in
the practicalities of invention; as always, his mind moved on. “Let
the future tell the truth,” he would say. “The present is theirs. The
future, for which I really worked, is mine”.

In later life, he became fascinated by cosmology, criticising
Einstein’s then-new ideas, while every year on his annual interview
day, the press lapped up his increasingly extravagant pronouncements
about death-rays and free energy. One of the last patents registered
by Tesla, in 1928, was for a vertical take-off and landing aircraft
that looks very like a helicopter. His childhood dreams were never far

Things certainly weren’t all bad. He still had important friends and
supporters and, in 1931, Time magazine featured “Genius” Tesla on its
cover, dedicating four pages to celebrating his 75th birthday. He also
received letters of thanks and admiration from 70 leading scientists
and industrialists, Einstein among them. But as the years wore on, the
ever-reclusive Tesla was reduced to a caricature: the mad genius, the
Great Inventor (he was even known to sign his name ‘GI’). This process
reached its apogee (or possibly its nadir) in 1941, when Max Fleischer
pitted Superman against a mad scientist called Tesla in his first
animated adventure.

Tesla always recognised the problem. His natural flair, his love of
spectacle and the big idea led the world to see him as a romantic
visionary, a poet of science rather than a practical inventor. Whether
or not they were all workable, his dreams were grander than the
world’s capacity to realise them. Our world today is not that far
removed from the one envisaged by Tesla almost a century ago, and
perhaps, had the course of history been different, we would now be
enjoying further fruits of his genius – and we might still. But for
now, Nikola Tesla remains a martyr to weird science and, if such a
thing were ever to exist, our patron saint of electricity.