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Nikola Tesla, the modern Prometheus
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Subject: Tesla, the Modern Prometheus
Nikola Tesla, the Modern Prometheus
by Henry E. Hardy
Imagine a world in which Tesla never lived. A world without radio.
A world without efficient hydroelectric power. A world without Star
Wars. A world without the familiar alternating current.
Now, imagine a world as Tesla might have envisioned it: A world in
which wireless power is broadcast free all over the world. A world in
which missiles and bombers are kept at bay by powerful beams and
electromagnetic fields. A world in which Earth is in regular contact
with extraterrestrial beings.
Tesla was born at midnight between July 9 and 10, 1856 in the
village of Smiljan in Coratia, now part of Yugoslavia. From the age of
five, he showed an uncanny talent for inventing things, and was also
troubled by strange mental flashes. At first these flashes, as real as if
actually perceived, were of past events. Later, Tesla's great
inventions would appear to him in a flash, not only running, but
worn by use.
In 1881, the young Tesla found employment as an engineer in the
new telephone office in Budapest. Tesla as well as many others, had
been struggling with the idea of a workable alternating current
system of electrical transmission. One day in 1883, as Tesla was
walking with a friend and reciting Goethe's Faust, he recited the
The glow retreats, done in the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil,
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!
Tesla stopped waving his arms oracularly, and froze in midair as if
he had suffered a seizure. His companion tried to lead him to a seat,
but Tesla was frantic, and seized a stick and began to draw in the
dirt. "See my motor here, watch me reverse it!" This was the system
which was to stun the scientific community when he described six
years later to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Tesla
Polyphase System now used almost universally throughout the
United States and much of the world.
Tesla's invention was a quantum improvement over previous
alternating current schemes. By making use of the rotating magnetic
field produces by two out of phase electrical currents, Tesla's system
eliminated the need for as commutator to reverse the field. By
exploiting the use of inductance, the need for brushes to carry the
charge were also eliminated. By allowing much higher voltages to be
safely transmitted and stepped down, the Tesla system allowed the
transmission of electricity over large distances, unlike the direct
current Edison system, its main rival. Although Tesla worked for
Edison for a brief period after coming to America in1884, the two
giants of electricity soon quarreled over a $50,000 royalty claimed
by Tesla for work in redesigning Edison's dynamo's. When Tesla
approached Edison after the completion of the work, Edison is
reported to have said, "Tesla, you don't understand our American
With that, Tesla walked out and began to seek independent backing
for his radical new scheme of electrical power. He found this backing
in the form of the inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse.
Westinghouse agreed to buy Tesla's basic patentents for $60,000,
plus a $2.50 royalty per horsepower generated and a $2,000 a month
retainer. The "War of the Currents" had begun in earnest.
Westinghouse worked tirelessly promoting the efficiency of the
Tesla system. Edison countered by frequent electrocutions of
neighborhood stray pets found near his West Orange, N. J. laboratory.
The animals, he said were being, "Westinghoused." A similar fate,
Edison implied, was in store for the unwitting user of the dangerous
new Tesla system.
Always a master showman, Tesla delighted in feats of electrical
wizardry, whether for his friends like Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
and Robert Underwood Johnson or for huge crowds at busy
expositions. In the next few years, Tesla developed and
demonstrated a great many surprising machines, such as a radio-
controlled robot submarine, radio powered handheld florescent
lamps, and the carbon button, or molecular bombardment lamp,
which was the forerunner of both the point electron microscope and
the cyclotron. However, Tesla's most sublime pleasure was to himself
take the stage and display his technological mysteries.
Chauncey McGovern of Pearson's Magazine, gave a contemporary
account of one such display in the Manhattan loft used by the
eccentric inventor. "Not to stagger on being shown through the
laboratory of Nikola Tesla," wrote McGovern, "requires the possession
of an uncommonly sturdy mind..."
"Fancy yourself seated in a large, well lighted room, with mountains
of curious-looking machinery on all sides. A tall, thin young man
walks up to you, and merely by snapping his fingers creates
instantaneously a ball of leaping red flame, and holds it calmly in his
hands. As you gaze you are surprised to see that it does not burn his
fingers. He lets it fall onto his clothing, on his hair, into your lap, and
finally, puts the ball of falme into a wooden box. You are amazed to
see that nowhere does the flame leave the slightest trace, and you
rub your eyes to make sure you are not asleep."
Tesla delighted in letting as much as two million volts of high
frequency electricity play over his body. The light and streamers of
fire which occasionally flashed forth from his workshop caused
considerable concern among his neighbors, it was another of Tesla's
mighty toys which finally led him to be persuaded to move from the
city to a climate more congenial (or at least less populated,) for his
Another area of Tesla's invention concerned robotics and remote
control devices. Tesla demonstrated his "teleautomation" boat and
torpedo-firing submarine to thousands of people at great exhibitions
like the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893, which was attended
by 25,000,000 people, one third of all Americans then living. Tesla
and Westinghouse provided the electrical system for the entire
exhibition. Visitors could marvel at the model kitchen of the future,
which boasted electric light, electric fans, and even an electric
dishwasher. Tesla himself frequently appeared wreathed in electrical
streamers produced by electrifying himself with his ubiquitous Tesla
coils, operating at up to 200,000 volts.
Over the next two years, Tesla turned to an even more ambitious
plan. He designed and tested a series of devices intended to make
possible to reception of broadcast power anywhere on earth. He
delighted in lighting a wireless lightbulb held in his hand or in
demonstrating a variety of remotely powered and remote controlled
machines. It was during this time that Westinghouse, under pressure
from bankers to renegotiate the generous fee to be paid to Tesla,
convinced the inventor to sell his rights outright for $216,000. After
a fire destroyed much of his lab in 1895, Tesla turned to another
massive project: the constructionof the world's first hydro-electric
Built under the supervision of the Westinghouse Company, the plant
was initially capable of generating 15,000 horsepower, an
astonishing amount for that time. The use of Tesla's polyphase
system paved the way for the eventual victory of Tesla's alternating
current over Edison's direct current.
The lack of acceptance of many of Tesla's ideas was doubtless
influenced by his many eccentricities. He was prone to fall into
various kinds of fits or trances. He seemed to court death with a
lifetime of outrageous stunts, and yet was miraculously unhurt. He
had a phobia of germs, and insisted on having exactly eighteen clean
napkins with every meal with which he would clean the silver and
plates. He would compusively calculate the cubic contents of each
portion before eating it.
Tesla also made a variety of unusual claims, such as his statement
that he had invented a death ray that could destroy aircraft at a
range of 250 miles or his belief that he had received communications
from alien intelligences via radio. He also claimed to have designed a
new generation of "teleautomatic" airplanes, which would use
wireless broadcast power, and not rely on wings or aerodynamic
surfaces for support. Perhaps because of such wideranging claims, a
cult developed about Tesla which claimed that he had come as a
Messiah from the planet Venus. Although Tesla attempted to
discourage such speculations, his behavior and the popular
mythology which surrounded him tended to support them.
One biographer referred to him as "The Man Who Fell to Earth."
During the late eighteen-nineties, Tesla used his new Colorado
laboratory to explore a number of unique applications of his theories.
Using giant Tesla coils as big as 55 feet in diameter, he produced
artificial lightning 135 feet long, with potentials as high as
12,000,000 volts at 1100 amperes. The resulting artificial storms
could be seen and heard for many miles, and could induce continuous
arcs an inch long in lightning rods twelve miles away. When the
many natural storms which afflicted the local environment would
strike, Tesla would be in ecstasy almost as great as during his own
It was also in Colorado that Tesla caried out a series of experiments
in ultra-low frequency waves, of the type used by Project ELF in
Northern Michigan and Wisconsin. In addition to world wide
communication, Tesla claimed that such waves could be used for a
variety of other effects, such as broadcast power, weather control,
and remote control of robot craft. In 1900, Tesla approached J. P.
Morgan with a novel proposition. He wanted to build a world-wide
radiobroadcasting service. At this time, the emphasis was still on
point to point transmission, rather than broadcasting. Tesla
envisioned world-wide news, weather, and entertainment
programming. Morgan, whose daughter was in love with Tesla, was
persuaded to stake Tesla $150,000.
In 1901, Marconi startled the world with his transmission of a
wireless signal across the Atlantic. Tesla's bitter complaint that the
Italian inventor had used 17 of his basic patents was not resolved by
the courts for many years.
Tesla worked on the "World Wireless Telephone Transmitter" for
five years. Finally, the great tower at Wardenclyffe was abandoned
in 1906 for lack of further financing. In 1917, he first described the
principles for radar. Some of his later patents, such as his 1927
patent of the VTOL, or vertical take off and landing aircraft, couldn't
even be built for lack of capital.
Tesla lived until 1943, gradually withdrawing from the world until
pigeons were his closest companions. One day, early in January,
1943, he called his messenger boy, Kerrigan, and gave him an
evelope addressed to, "Mr. Samuel Clemens." He close friend Clemens
had been dead for 25 years, but Tesla insisted, "He was in my room
last night. He sat in that chair and talked to me for an hour. He is
having financial difficulties and needs my help. So, don't come back
until you have delivered that envelope!"
Tesla died in his sleep on January 7, 1943, at the age of eighty-six.
Althought Tesla had been a naturalized American citizen for more
than 50 years, since July 30, 1891, his paper and effects were
impounded by the FBI. They were then released into the custody of
the Office of Alien Property (OAP).
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show
some of the reasons for the keen interest in the documents
apparently shown by the U. S. Government. A letter from January 8,
1943, from an agent in the New York Bureau, named Foxworth, to the
head of the New York division of the agency described some of the
reasons that the FBI wanted the documents secured:
Experiments and research of Nikola Tesla, deceased.
Espionage -- M. Nikola Tesla, one of the world's outstanding scientists
in the electrical field, died January seventh, nineteen forty-three at
the Hotel New Yorker, New York City. During his lifetime, he
conducted many experiments in connection with the wireless
transmission of electrical power...and what is commonly called the
Foxworth went on to describe other putative inventions of Tesla
such as a "working model" of a "revolutionary type of torpedo" and
perfected plans for his wireless power transmission scheme.
The bulk of Tesla's papers were later given into the custody of the
Yugoslav government. However, some of Tesla's papers seem to have
disappeared into the U. S. military research complex. As late as
September 5, 1945, Col. Holliday of the Equipment Laboratory,
Propulsion and Accessories Subdivision, wrote to Lloyd L. Shaulis of
the OAP in Washington, confirming an agreement for the
photocopying of documents in Tesla's and certifiing that the
information would be used, "in connection with projects for National
Defense by this department."
Since that time, the United States has denied knowing of the
existence of any secret Tesla papers. However, one Tesla biographer,
Margaret Cheney, has reported that many of the lost papers are kept
in a secret library at a Federal Agency known to her, but unrevealed
for reasons of national security. She states that she believes that the
archives contain such lost Tesla works as, "Art of Telegeodynamics,
or the Art of Producing Terrestrial Motions at Distance," "New Art of
Projecting Concentrated Non-Dispersive Energy Through Natural
Media," and "A Method of Producing Powerful Radiations."
Although the U. S. Supreme Court finally decided on the June 21,
1943, six months after Tesla's death, on the issue of the invention of
radion by declaring Marconi's patents had been preceded by Tesla,
this belated recognition did little to repair the swift slide of the
inventor into obscurity.
In school as most of us were taught, Edison got credit for electricity,
Marconi for the radio, and radar was invented by the British in
World War II. In fact, it is difficult to catalogue even Tesla's
innovations which were definitely proven to work. One list from a
recent issue of the Smithsonian magazine gives a good selection of
inventions for which Tesla is credited, "florescent lights,
x rays, the electron microscope, microwave transmission, satellite
communication, solar energy, guided missiles, computers, the
automobile speedometer, television, vertical takeoff aircraft, and
Interest in Tesla has been increasing since the early 1980's. The
proposals for Star Wars and other Teslian technologies make his
proposal for an electronic "Chinese Wall" around the United States
look prophetic rather than pathetic.
At a recent Tesla symposium hold at the Colorado College in Colorado
Springs, several papers suggested used for Tesla's technology which
tend to confirm some of the inventor's claims. For instance, the New
York Times reported that, in a paper entitled, "Star Wars Now!"
Thomas E. Bearden, a retired nuclear engineer and army war games
analyst, noted a number of designs for making weapons based on
Tesla's more exotic ideas. The hypothetical devices included what he
termed a Tesla Howitzer and a Tesla Shield that could allegedly stop
Thus, it seems, we have a paradox. There is intense interest in the
military community in certain ideas proposed by Tesla. For instance,
Project ELF. Tesla predicted weather control, remote localized
electrical effects, and perhaps even mind control might be possible
with such a device. Or "Star Wars." Tesla believed that it was possible
to build a literal "wall" of what he called "teleforce" waves around
the United States. His ideas of and electromagnetic mass driver and
of charged particle beam weapons no longer seem improbable. Isn't
it interesting that public awareness of such a man is virtually zero,
due to the lack of attention paid to him in schools and by the
For those who are interested in more information on Tesla, the
standard reference work on his life is Margaret Cheney's 1981 book
"Tesla, Man Out of Time" (available in paperback.) For other recent
articles on Tesla and his work, see Science, Vol 214, 30 Oct., 1981,
pps. 521-525; New York Times, Aug. 28, 1984, sec. C. pps. 1,3;
Smithsonian, June, 1986, pp. 121-133.
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