Nov 1 2010 2:04pm

The Tesla Tragedy

Nikola TeslaThe story of Nikola Tesla is one of the great personal tragedies of modern history. Arguably one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all time, Tesla faced poverty, slander and persecution during his lifetime. His numerous inventions and discoveries offered the potential to revolutionize the world, and when and where they were implemented, they did so. But Telsa came into conflict with Thomas Edison, America’s foremost inventor at the time, and Edison’s superior sense of business and advertising destroyed Tesla’s reputation and left him and many of his ideas frustrated and unfulfilled. Thankfully, with the rise of steampunk and a renewed interest in nineteenth century science, Tesla has come back into the public eye and, one hopes, will finally get the recognition he deserves.

Tesla was born in 1856 into a Serbian family living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From an early age, Tesla was fascinated with science and endeavored to become an engineer. When he immigrated to the United States in the 1880s, he brought with him an idea for a new and more efficient method of power generation known as Alternating Current (AC). He was introduced to Thomas Edison, then one of America’s most prestigious inventors and the man responsible for the incandescent light bulb being used increasingly throughout the United States. But Edison was not interested in helping Tesla develop Alternating Current, which would have represented a direct challenge to the Direct Current (DC) system of generation already in use by Edison. Instead, Edison hired Tesla to make improvements to the DC generation plants, allegedly offering $50,000 if the seemingly impossible task could be accomplished. When, far from failing, Tesla made an impressive overhaul of the generator design, Edison claimed that the offer of $50,000 had been a joke. Tesla promptly resigned.

Faced with financial hardship, Tesla was eventually reduced to digging ditches for the Edison company. In 1887, Tesla filed patents for his AC power generation technology. Soon after, he joined with industrialist George Westinghouse to try and realize the dream of AC power. Because of AC’s superior qualities, this represented a direct attack on Edison’s DC power. What followed was a competition known as the “War of the Currents.” Edison, already extremely adept at advertising and self-promotion, launched into a vicious propaganda campaign as he tried to brand AC power as inherently dangerous. In addition to his slander, Edison had a man named Professor Harold Brown travel around giving demonstrations of animals being electrocuted with Alternating Current on stage in front of audiences. In 1890, Brown conducted the first electric chair execution, using an AC generator. Efforts were then made to have the technique of electrocution named “Westinghousing.”

In spite of Edison’s horrendous propaganda, in 1893, the Columbian Exhibition (a World’s Fair held in Chicago) was lit by a hundred thousand lamps powered by AC generators. In the end, Tesla and Westinghouse persevered, but the monetary damages imposed by the War of Currents robbed Tesla of his financial security.

The radical development of Alternating Current that set him so at odds with Edison was but one of Tesla’s many scientific accomplishments. Others included the discovery of wireless energy transmission, experiments with long-distance radio, x-ray photography, radio-based remote control, proto-robotics, radar, and even a death ray (which he invented with hope of ending war by making the invasion of a country impossible).

The tragedy of Tesla is profound. He was truly a genius and a visionary, and his death, alone and penniless, is both heartbreaking and unworthy of a man of his accomplishments. It is worth noting that Drunk History has a rather remarkable Tesla episode that, although suffering from the disjointedness and absurdity of any Drunk History episode, is really quite a reasonable summary of Tesla’s story. Be forewarned, however, that it does involve scenes of intoxication and its side effects.

G. D. Falksen feels a deep sympathy for Tesla, and for any artist or inventor who is stifled in spite of dedication and hard work. More information can be found on his Twitter and Facebook.

This article is part of Steampunk Fortnight: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. penjab
I have to say that so far, I have seen no references made to the 90's series "Legend" starring Richard Dean Anderson and John D Lancie. D Lancie's character was based on Tesla who invented things that Richard Dean Anderson's character Ernest Pratt imagined in his dime novels. It seems the perfect representation of this Steam Punk.
Eli Bishop
2. EliBishop
To include the "death ray" in a list of Tesla's "scientific accomplishments" is awfully misleading. It's one of the things he talked about but never provided any evidence of being able to actually do.
3. nebojsha
actualy, tesla invented so many things, some so advanced, that, after his death, russian and american secret services take all his documents and seal, and they are still sealed... i'v heard stories about his experiments with earth magnetic field, ionosphere, and so many others...
Marena Halisi
4. Messmer
That bastard Edison...just imagine if Mr. Tesla had been able to develop all his theories, produce all his inventions...I think the world could be a pretty different place.
5. Deprogrammer9
Nikola Teslas Death Ray aka Teleforce.
6. James C. Wallace II
I would recommend a great book about Tesla and Edison called AC/DC; The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol.
A facinating read about the intensity of their own desires for a standard in electrical current.
Edison wanted DC current and Tesla advocated for AC current as the standard. This was one case where Tesla won out, though not without great difficulties.
7. Austin S.
It's true that Edison was a jerk, but I've noticed that many steampunks get carried away in their hatred of him. In reality, Edison accomplished many things that we should be grateful for, the most important of which, I would argue, is simply being a living embodiment of his time's zeitgeist. His work would inspire people around the world, such as H. G. Wells, who based his character The Time Traveler in The Time Machine on Edison, as well as an entire generation of rational inventors.

Tesla, meanwhile, wasn't exactly the easiest man in the world to like... He was an unmitigated genius, but was cursed with the mental and emotional problems that usually accompany such talent. Even today, people who aren't "marketable" are often pushed down or trivialized. Many true geniuses are so eccentric that they simply can't fit into society, and their lives end up being unfulfilling and lonely. It's sad, but still a fact of life.

So I feel like Edison gets a little bit more hate than he deserves. Christopher Columbus, for example, was a far worse human being than Edison could ever have been, and yet we still celebrate Columbus Day every year. =)
Michael Burke
8. Ludon
Tesla, meanwhile, wasn't exactly the easiest man in the world to like... He was an unmitigated genius, but was cursed with the mental and emotional problems that usually accompany such talent. Even today, people who aren't "marketable" are often pushed down or trivialized. Many true geniuses are so eccentric that they simply can't fit into society, and their lives end up being unfulfilling and lonely. It's sad, but still a fact of life.

So then, could Tesla be compared to Beethoven? Not only in their problems during their lives but in how (poorly) they are remembered. I guess that most people who have heard of the Tesla Coil couldn't tell you anything about the man who invented it. (I have to admit that I don't know much.) Many people could whistle or hum the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth and even attempt passages of his Ninth but couldn't say a thing about where or even when he lived.

I'm not so sure it would be that simple a comparison. And, being successful through force doesn't mean always having a place in the public's memory. How many people reading this have heard of Juan Trippe? He, like Edison, could demolish his opposition with either brute force of legal action or through slick business decisions such as buying from opposing suppliers then promising to withhold all future orders if they sold their goods to his competition. He pushed his airline to such a high status that no one questioned its high profile inclusion in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Today, Pan Am is long gone as an airline but it lives on in the public memory as a cultural icon. But, what about Juan Trippe? I'd suspect that only students of aviation history or business history would be able to say much about Juan Trippe. Changing attitudes saw him as more an example of what was wrong with American business. (However. I should point out that with the current trends in American attitudes, I wouldn't be surprised to see him hailed once again as a great business leader.)

I think the answers this thread is seeking are too simplistic. I don't think you can sum it up as cleanly as saying that Tesla is mostly forgotten because Edison was so strong. I think the answers can be found in going beyond the friction between Tesla and Edison. History is so much more than a linier timeline. History is a richly woven tapestry in which many threads interact. Who was threatened by Tesla's work? How many people, businesses, corporations, etc. would have been threatened by his work? How many people had a part in suppressing his reputation?

As I've rambled through this reply, I've thought that this thread could be touching on the very heart of the steampunk ethic. The individual pitted against the establishment. But then, I could be wrong.
9. Hawkido
Tesla wasn't an inventor. Edison was.

According to Edison "Invention is 1% inspiration ans 99% perspiration"

Tesla's prototypes always worked. Before the prototypes were built, Tesla could tell the engineers what parts would wear out and how quickly. For Tesla invention was 1% inspiration, and 99% trying to find funding to build what was deemed as the impossible at the time... He couldn't give away the rotating magnetic field as it was percieved as "a perpetual motion scam" Tesla tried to sell remote guided torpedoes to the Navy during World War 1 and they laughed... How many Allied ships were sank in sea battles during the World Wars?

The Death Ray has been picked up as the HAARP Array in alaska... Look it up very interesting... Tesla's death ray could only use the Ionisphere to reflect the beam down on the ships and aircraft at a range of 90 miles... but the HAARP array combines two of his theories. One the Death ray itself... or High energy Radiowaves, and Two it uses a magnetic wave to distort the Ionisphere to a different shape. so the range is actually extended to the entire hemispere... The HAARP array is being developed to be an offensive weapon.
10. Austin S.
Ludon, I mostly agree with you. It's definitely more complicated than "Tesla failed because of Edison". Their rivalry is such that it captures the imagination, and so people tend to focus on it to perhaps the exclusion of other issues.

As for Mr. Trippe, I suggest that his first mistake was in not naming his airline after himself. Edison had the foresight to name his company after himself, and so secured himself as a household name. Which, of course, is an intrinsic part of this discussion. In order to be successful in our world, you don't just need to sell a product, you need to sell yourself. Tesla, as a man, was a poorly marketable product, despite his incredible gifts. Edison, however, functioned much better as the image of the rational scientist.
11. Electron Wrangler
I admire the intent of the article, but it's pretty lightweight.

No mention of his OCD, or the fact that he voluntarily gave up his patent royalties to give Westinghouse better funding for the War of the Currents, or the fact that the real cause of his ruin was his obsessive experimentation with long-distance wireless power delivery and the fact that he hoodwinked JP Morgan to fund his research in that doomed field? No word on his failure to monetize his invention of radio or his long patent battle with Marconi? No column space to his showmanship with lightning, the way he courted attention in the press, the fact that he tended to talk about the results he expected from his experiments as if they had already happened (thus his claims to have invented a death ray towards the end of his life) Not a word on his long friendship with Samuel Clemens or his position in New York society? He had such a rich and fascinating life! -- a brilliant man, yes, and also passionate, stubborn, blinded to the impossible, and staggeringly bad with matters of finance.

Sometimes I think Howard Hughes or Elvis Presley would make a better comparison for him than Edison ;)
12. Oceangrinder
That in iteslf says something not only about those who run the world, but what type of future we'll be left with.
THINK about THAT. Men who would be willing to destroy "our future" for a few bucks to get ahead, because he wanted it to be his design. Thank goodness someone had heard the rumour and the head to see progress.
I understand there are two sides to this. But with everything that we've seen so far in "Modern History" it's clear that people are last in every corporate decision. We have an economy that works to sustain itself through repeat customers with low-quality goods. I'd far rather have a man like Tesla running the pack.
It does not seem a far cry to sue JP Morgan for what has been stolen from every individual's past, present & future world wide. It's not like there isn't any proof.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment