Today marks the 157th birthday of mad and maddening scientist Nikola Tesla, a man that science fiction writers and fans have practically taken to heart as a patron saint. There are a myriad of reasons why: his ingenuity. The fact that history proved him correct in matters concerning ideas about electricity that his rivals tried to bury. That sly moustache.
Tesla’s intriguing nature lends itself naturally to high-spirited tales of fiction, internet memes, and some high class strutting from David Bowie. Below, the Tor.com staff lists some of their favorite instances of Tesla pop culture.
1.) Kate Beaton’s “Tesla: The Celibate Scientist” comic strip
Ladies always be standing in the way of Tesla’s science! (More bloomers in the machine?) This six-panel strip is such a perfect mixture of Nikola Tesla’s current fandom with his actual scientific and stage efforts. He truly was the Justin Bieber of his time.
Beaton did a follow-up Tesla strip featuring his, ah, “adventures” with Edison and Marconi but it just makes us kind of sad. – Chris, Sarah, Carl…pretty much everyone in the office.
2.) Nikola Tesla turns out to be David Bowie in the film version of The Prestige
My first choice would have to be Tesla as portrayed in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which is a fantastic book, and of course the fact that David Bowie was cast in the movie version turns the awesomeness factor up to eleven. – Bridget
3.) The end of Tesla’s life as chronicled in The Invention of Everything Else
This short literary novel by Samantha Hunt tells a possible tale of Tesla at the end of his life, post-World War II, cooped up with pigeons in the New Yorker Hotel with only just-hired hotel maid Louisa as regular company. The story is mostly concerned with the maid, who has two relatives who are absolutely certain they’ve constructed a time machine. The maid and her family are poor, but constantly striving for bigger things and the parallels between her family and Tesla are striking (and eventually, tragic.)
The novel takes pity on Tesla and the subdued nature in which it deals with Tesla stayed with me long after I read the book. Nikola is often imagined as larger than life, part of an encroaching whiz-bang science fiction future, and it’s refreshing to read a story where that pretense falls away.
In a larger sense, the story speaks to fans of science fiction, as well. You can strive and you can build the world you wish existed, but don’t ever forget that you also need to make the best of the world you’ve been given. Even if it ruins you. – Chris
It wasn’t until I was 22 years old when I found out that Thomas Edison was a total jerk and did everything in his power to screw over Nikola Tesla. I know a lot of people get this information in history class much younger, but for some reason, I didn’t. So, when it became apparent to me that Tesla was the true genius of electricity and not Edison it rocked my world. Then, years later I saw Drunk History’s very helpful video on Tesla in which I learned he was the “electric Jesus.”
If you haven’t seen this, you should watch it right away, mostly for John C. Reilly’s brilliant lip-sync portrayal of Tesla, but mostly for Crispin Glover’s sadistic and evil Thomas Edison. The part where Edison/Glover starts electrocuting animals is terrible/hilarious. I really like the part when Edison says “Fuck. This. Alternating current is bad…” – Ryan
5.) Tesla Becomes Besties with Superman
In 2003 two-issue Elseworlds comic JLA: The Age of Wonder, Superman crashes on Earth in the 1850s instead of in the 20th century. The comic is zippy and interesting in the way that it kicks off the DC superhero universe pre-atomic-age, but perhaps the best part is how Clark Kent becomes Tesla’s devoted lab assistant. The two form a mutually beneficial relationship. Clark blooms in his power via Tesla’s (sometimes unwitting) guidance and Tesla’s research goes further than it ever did in real life now that he has a Superman assisting him.
Perhaps it’s best that history unfolded the way it did, though. Tesla ends up deploying a death ray during World War I and Clark, well, Clark seems kind of dim. – Chris and Sarah
6.) American gothic folk duo The Handsome Family sings a dirge to send Tesla on his way.
The always-jovial Handsome Family celebrated Tesla as a doomed genius in their song “Tesla’s Hotel Room.” He lovingly nurses sick pigeons and pets their feathers in his half-darkened room—which creates a sweet, sad picture, until they pull back the curtain on his fantasy of creating a death-ray. They imagine him as one of the last guardians of a period of wonder in American life, and his death, after he wanders in front of a cab while daydreaming of an X-ray god, leaves the world a colder, less magical place, where a man who feels a kinship with birds is replaced by evil, elephant-murdering Edison and oyster-sucking Westinghouse. Listen to the song at the above link. – Leah
7.) Tesla Corner in Manhattan
New Yorkers can visit Tesla Corner, the intersection of West 40th St. and 6th Ave. if they feel like being Tesla for a little bit. The intersection, at the southwest corner of Bryant Park, was commemorated in 1994 and evokes the scientist’s idle pigeon-tending activities in the park as he entered his twilight years.
His actual labs are downtown. The first, on the fourth floor of 33-35 West Broadway, was lost to fire on March 13th, 1895 and the second, at East 46th Houston St, is now a nondescript residential building just off of the Broadway-Lafayette stop. (Do you think Tesla pronounced it “how-ston” or “hew-ston”?)
We barely scratched the surface, of course. What about his role in steampunk fiction, for example? Let us know what your favorite fiction and art involving Tesla is! Like you did here, last year.
Stubby the Rocket is the mascot of Tor.com and saw Mark Twain there, crying.