The Greatest Geek

Richard Barnett

  • Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
    Princeton, 520 pp, £19.95, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 05776 7

Over six feet tall and thin as wire, with Slavic cheekbones and a ‘Wild West moustache’, Nikola Tesla combined confidence and charisma with a gift for big tech, electro-prophecy and bullshit. He was a near perfect Thomas Pynchon character, and his cameo appearance in Pynchon’s Against the Day in 2006 confirmed his status as a counter-cultural hero. Pynchon’s Tesla is a fleeting and mysterious presence, a man around whom other characters weave tall tales. Towards the end of the novel, in a sly nod to a constant on conspiracy websites, one of them wonders whether Tesla was behind the Tunguska Event, a ten-megaton blast that destroyed 830 square miles of Siberian forest on 30 June 1908:

The story was abroad that Tesla, seeking to communicate with the explorer Peary, then in the Arctic, projecting unspecified rays from his tower at Wardenclyffe in a direction slightly west of due north, had mistaken his aim by a small but fatal angle, causing the beam to miss Peary’s base at Ellesmere Island, cross the Polar region over into Siberia, and hit the Stony Tunguska instead.

Reading this passage in the spirit of Bernard Carlson’s assiduous, endlessly patient biography, we might respond in two ways. Taking the claim at face value, we could list the many good reasons why Tesla couldn’t possibly have caused the Tunguska Event (now thought to have been the result of a comet disintegrating in the atmosphere). By 1908 he had largely abandoned his grandiose electrical experiments at Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island. His proposal for a ‘death ray’ – a kind of anti-aircraft rail gun firing tungsten pellets, highly impractical and in any case hardly a weapon of mass destruction – didn’t appear for another 25 years. And on the day of the explosion Robert Peary’s crew were in New York, where they stayed for another week before embarking for Ellesmere Island. The biggest question, though, as Pynchon’s Professor Vanderjuice notes, is why on earth Tesla would have wanted to do such a thing: ‘Did Tesla want to send Peary a message, or beam him a quantity of electric power, or for some undisclosed reason blast him off the map?’

Or we could acknowledge that in toying with this evidently absurd story, Pynchon captures a broader truth about Tesla and his influence. Between 1888 and 1905 Tesla took the idea of passing electric currents through coils of wire and – in service, he later claimed, of an enduring vision of transmitting power wirelessly around the world – invented or anticipated many of the technologies on which modern life depends: national power grids, wifi, remote-controlled drones, even the internet. He worked with Thomas Edison, the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ (in many ways a better candidate for Carlson’s subtitle), and with George Westinghouse, whose system for the distribution of electrical power eventually beat Edison’s to become the world standard. When Marconi carried out the first transatlantic radio broadcasts in the winter of 1902 Tesla joked, accurately, that the Italian had built a transmitter from 17 of his patents.

Yet Tesla’s place in the master narrative of techno-scientific modernity – another invention of the years around 1900 – is far from clear. Like many scholarly works of reference, the Cambridge History of Science volume on the modern mathematical and physical sciences doesn’t mention him at all. Other books, more than a few of them self-published, link him with secret plots involving free energy, anti-gravity propulsion, the supposed technologies of the pharaohs, mind control and time travel. His most fruitful years coincided with the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity and the electron, and the beginnings of the quantum revolution in physics. But they were also the era of the first major UFO flap – with reports in 1897 of a mystery dirigible crashing in Aurora, Texas, and the recovery of not quite human bodies from the wreckage – and in which a young H.G. Wells forged the myths and obsessions of modern sci-fi.

In Carlson’s eyes, Tesla’s relationship with modernity in all its forms – its fixation with progress and explanation, capital and connection, but also its fragmentation of narrative and the self – is more complex and revealing than even the conspiracy nuts have imagined. One of his concerns is the shape of a scientific life, as it is lived and as it appears to historians, and he sees Tesla’s life as a three-act tragedy, driven by talent, ambition and a growing preference for publicity over practical reality. Carlson’s major source for Tesla’s boyhood, and an intriguing instance of his heroic programme of self-mythologising, is an autobiography he compiled in 1919 from a series of articles in Electrical Experimenter magazine. My Inventions – the title is a little too neat – depicts Tesla’s early life from inside his own head, or rather from inside the head that his 63-year-old self chose to reconstruct.

As in any Bildungsroman, young Tesla is endowed with many incipient virtues. He is curious and imaginative; on seeing sparks of static electricity fly from the fur of the family cat, Macak, he asks: ‘Is nature a gigantic cat? If so, who strokes its back?’ He is persistent and independent; when his father, a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church, bans him from the library to stop him ruining his eyesight, Tesla retreats to his bedroom and casts his own candles so that he can read in secret at night. He is brave and quick-thinking; when a fire-engine, drawing water from a nearby river, breaks down during a blaze, he realises that the hose must be kinked, and jumps in to clear it. Most important, he is a scientific visionary, an idealist searching for the fundamental principles of the physical world. In the autumn of 1874, as he dodges military service by bivouacking in the mountains above his hometown of Gospić, he begins to work out his own version of the scientific method. ‘When I get an idea,’ he said in his acceptance speech for the 1917 Edison Medal,

I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind. It is absolutely the same to me whether I operate my turbine in thought or test it actually in my shop. It makes no difference, the results are the same.

Unlike Edison, an obsessive benchtop tinkerer, Tesla claimed he developed his inventions on an ideal test-bed: a fully functioning model of the physical world he had constructed inside his own head. This way of working had obvious advantages for an obscure young engineer who lacked the funds for a large private workshop, but also two enormous drawbacks. First, it tied him to the mid-19th-century ether physics on which his mental model was built, making it increasingly difficult for him to update his private universe – and hence his inventions – with developments in mathematical physics. Second, how could he sell mere ideas, however perfectly polished, to hard-nosed Gilded Age industrialists? From the very beginning of his career as an inventor, Carlson argues, Tesla came to see illusion as a necessary counterpart to ideal. These illusions were not deceptions or lies, but rather a kind of theatrical performance with a practical purpose, demonstrating ‘the exciting and revolutionary changes that his invention would bring about for society’.

Tesla’s first serious opportunity to exercise his powers of illusion came in the late 1880s with the War of the Currents, a ten-year struggle for market dominance in the emerging US electrical industry which pitted Edison’s direct current (DC) network against Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC). Though Tesla’s earliest experiments had been with AC, one of his first jobs after leaving the Joanneum Technical School in Graz in the late 1870s was with the Société Electrique Edison, one of three companies managing Edison’s business in France. His familiarity with the complex dynamics of large electrical systems impressed his more practical-minded colleagues, and two years later he was sent to Edison’s head office in New York with orders to improve the company’s DC dynamos. He lasted six months; some say – Carlson doesn’t – that Edison told Tesla a new and more efficient arc-lighting system would be worth $50,000 to its designer, but that when Tesla presented a set of blueprints and asked for payment Edison replied: ‘Tesla, you don’t understand our American sense of humour.’

After spending the harsh winter of 1885 digging ditches, Tesla met two men – Alfred Brown, a senior official in the Western Union telegraph company, and the lawyer Charles Peck – who helped him to become a major force in the War of the Currents. Impressed by his capability and charisma, Brown and Peck went into partnership with him. They would put up the money for a workshop; Tesla would build and patent his new AC technologies; and all three would share the income from licensing or selling the patents. His favourite project at this point was an improved AC motor, but Brown and Peck were dubious; powerful and reasonably efficient DC motors were already widely available. To persuade them, he devised his first illusion, in some ways his most successful. Beneath a polished wooden table he concealed a four-coil electromagnet which, when wired up to an AC dynamo, would create a rotating electromagnetic field. On the table he placed an egg made of polished copper; when he switched on the current the egg stood spinning on its end. The illusion – the Egg of Columbus – was also an allusion, and an ambitious one. A story, probably apocryphal, relates that when he returned from his voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus was ridiculed by members of the Spanish court: any fool, they said, could have accomplished what he had been so richly rewarded for doing. In reply Columbus challenged them to make an egg stand upright. The greybeard nobles tried and failed; Columbus took the egg, gently cracked one end and stood it on the table.

Throughout the spring of 1888 Peck, Brown and Tesla worked hard to incubate their golden egg, and on 7 July it hatched. Westinghouse bought the new AC patents in a deal worth $200,000 over ten years, with Tesla slated to receive just under half the profits. In the short term the deal gave Tesla financial security and the freedom to pursue his ideals, but Carlson sees it as the root of his later troubles. By selling his patents he lost control of them, and even when he did hold on to them he had a tendency to get into hot water by selling exclusive licenses to several investors. Litigation, particularly over the emerging technology of radio, took up an increasing proportion of his time and his funds, and the loss of income from his European patents and licences during the First World War drove him almost to bankruptcy. For the moment, though, he was rich and famous, and tired of solving practical problems with generators and arc lights. He turned his attention instead to a new ideal – one that would consume his fortune and destroy his reputation.

James Clerk Maxwell’s four field equations, published in 1865, had unified electricity, magnetism and optics, and predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves moving through space at the speed of light. In 1886-87 the German physicist Heinrich Hertz reported the discovery of these waves, and on a trip to Europe in the summer of 1889 Tesla saw a demonstration of Hertz’s work, in which an induction coil was used to send current across a spark gap. Historians have tended to interpret these experiments as the beginning of a story about the wireless transmission of information which ends with Marconi’s first broadcasts. For Tesla, though, they suggested an equally grand, equally lucrative possibility: the wireless transmission of power. On his return to Europe he began to experiment with high-frequency transformers, devising a new kind of oscillating steam engine to generate AC currents at ten or even twenty thousand cycles per second. In his autobiography he claimed that one pocket-sized oscillator nearly destroyed an entire Manhattan block by inducing a sympathetic resonance in the buildings, while another made his friend Mark Twain shit himself.

Tesla’s wireless illusions drew ever larger audiences across the US and Europe. In one demonstration at the Royal Institution in February 1892 he spelled out the name of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, in electric light and made glass vacuum tubes glow as if by magic. Lord Rayleigh, who was to share a Nobel Prize for the discovery of argon, saw in Tesla ‘the genius of a discoverer’, but others weren’t so sure. A.P. Trotter, editor of the Electrician, observed that Tesla had been ‘so occupied in waving long glowing electrodeless tubes in the air … that he had no time to explain “how it was done”. Nor, I think, could he.’ Engineering in its 19th-century big-tech form – bridges, buildings, ships – was in some ways a Newtonian, even a Euclidian endeavour, but electrical engineers like Thomson and Trotter were more closely in touch with the leading edge of mathematical physics, and they found Tesla’s lack of theoretical engagement disconcerting.

On the same trip to Europe, as he watched lightning strike trees in the mountains of Serbia, Tesla had something like a vision of how he could put his big idea into practice: a comparatively small source of power might be made to tap into the Earth’s own resonant frequency and ‘broadcast power around the entire planet’. In the spring of 1899 he secured $100,000 from John Jacob Astor IV (later the richest man to drown on the Titanic) for the development of a new lighting system. Disregarding Astor’s expressed intentions, Tesla spent it on moving his entire wireless-power operation to the mountain resort of Colorado Springs. Here he had the space to work on a much larger scale, with electricity supplied at no charge by the El Paso Power Company. Just as important, he also saw a chance to escape the anxieties of public life in New York. He had continued to devise and perform illusions, most spectacularly with an electrically-powered and remote-controlled model boat in 1898. But he suffered a deep bout of depression after losing his apparatus and research notes in a fire in 1895, and some of his former supporters were beginning to draw unflattering comparisons with Marconi’s early successes. According to Town Topics, a New York scandal sheet, he was fast becoming ‘America’s Own and Only Non-Inventing Inventor, the Scientist of the Delmonico Café’. As the end of the century approached he seems to have felt the need to produce a new and irresistibly spectacular illusion.

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‘Give me but one firm spot on which to stand,’ Archimedes probably never said, ‘and I will move the earth.’ Colorado Springs was Tesla’s first shot at finding a firm spot on which to build his global power network. In a wooden barn on the outskirts of town he built his most imposing transformer yet, with two tall conical coils and a retractable mast. Much if not all the equipment had to be made and calibrated by hand; Tesla and his assistants made capacitors by filling tanks with brine and adding glass bottles, discovering in the process a noticeable dielectric difference between champagne magnums from their hotel and bottles of Manitou Springs mineral water. According to Carlson, locals watching Tesla’s nocturnal operations would have seen ‘a blue beam rising straight up over the station, the result of a corona of fine [electrical] streamers surrounding the mast’; other sources speak of thunderclaps audible for miles around, horses spooked by electric shocks through their shoes, and luminous butterflies fluttering through the town.

If he could generate such phenomena over a few hundred yards of prairie, Tesla reasoned extravagantly, there should be no difficulty in repeating them on a continental or even planetary scale. He returned to New York early in 1900, and filed a patent – the most troublesome of his career – for a system that would transmit electrical energy wirelessly over unlimited distances. Demonstrating the originality of an entire system proved far more complicated than securing the rights to a single component, especially as he had allowed very few people to witness his work at Colorado Springs. Like Marconi he had grand visions of a wireless future, but unlike Marconi he had no clear results from his experiments and few practical proposals for making money from them. Astor and Westinghouse declined to invest, but aid came from John Pierpont Morgan, the financier behind General Electric, who paid $150,000 for a 51 per cent share in Tesla’s new patents. Tesla took out a mortgage to buy two hundred acres of land at Wardenclyffe on the northern shore of Long Island, and commissioned the architect Stanford White to build a laboratory like no other on earth.

In the few years that Tesla occupied Wardenclyffe, it stood as a great work of science fiction, a counterpart of Wells’s time machine or Frankenstein’s laboratory which had, somehow, made it off the page. A 187-foot pinewood tower, crowned with a hemisphere of steel girders, sat above a 120-foot well with 16 pipes radiating out into the earth, giving it – in Tesla’s words – ‘a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver’. A thick and well-insulated underground conduit connected the tower with the main laboratory, 350 feet away, from which he could control the flow of current. Exactly what he hoped to do and how he hoped to do it is far from clear, and Carlson’s best guess is that by channelling something like two hundred kilowatts of power through the tower Tesla thought he could make the Earth’s electromagnetic field jiggle like a balloon filled with water. Some evidence suggests that, in imitation of Marconi’s transatlantic broadcasts, Tesla planned to build an identical tower in the Outer Hebrides to detect and amplify these telluric quivers. From the outset, though, Wardenclyffe was in serious financial trouble. Morgan, preoccupied with his rearguard action against Theodore Roosevelt’s anti-trust legislation, was slow in paying up, and by 1902 Tesla was raising funds by selling his personal property and taking loans from local banks. On 17 July 1903 Morgan, having realised that Tesla was taking his money without any intention of producing a marketable technology, flatly and finally refused to provide any more. Tesla ‘expressed his frustration by cranking up the power and hurling lightning bolts’.

Over the next two years everything fell apart. In 1904 Tesla tried to recapitalise the project with a new prospectus, but investors were scared off by Morgan’s controlling stake and his public withdrawal of support. Tesla’s AC patents expired in May 1905, dramatically reducing his income; that autumn he suffered a breakdown, physical and mental, and work at Wardenclyffe stopped. The great tower was torn down in 1917 – possibly by his creditors, possibly by the US Marines, who feared that U-boats might use it as a landmark – and by the early 1920s Tesla was a recluse, living in barely genteel poverty and flitting from cheap hotels when he couldn’t pay his bills or was caught keeping pigeons in his room.

For the next generation of scientists and engineers, working under the exacting demands of the Second World War and the Cold War, Tesla’s lack of theoretical rigour, his inability to create a great American corporation, and his association with European mysticism rather than practical Yankee ingenuity looked like simple failure. Their children and grandchildren, countercultural and environmentally aware as well as ‘fast, cool and high-tech’, have taken the opposite view. According to the online comic the Oatmeal, Tesla is ‘the greatest geek who ever lived’, a prescient and eccentric hero for the age of wifi and steampunk. Yet a better clue to Tesla’s most enduring influence on the 20th century is to be found in a record of experiments at the Colorado Springs laboratory made in December 1899 by Dickenson Alley, a young photographer, commissioned by Century magazine to get spectacular pictures of Tesla’s experiments. Alley’s photographs of lamps glowing in the icy darkness of the prairie are profoundly eerie, evoking those hurried snaps of lights in the sky that continue to bewitch UFO-chasers. But it’s another of his images, a double exposure, that captures the spirit of Tesla’s illusions. In it Tesla sits cross-legged, reading calmly, as a huge multi-fingered electrical streamer appears to erupt from a silver sphere high above his head. Tricks that tell truths, ambition and ability shading into hubris and unreason, the mad scientist alone in his magnificent laboratory, shooting huge, malign sparks from towering coils: it is in the flickering darkness of the cinema that Tesla’s illusions, created in the first decade of popular filmmaking, have made the world quiver.

Every self-respecting mad scientist has a death ray lurking somewhere in his lab, and Tesla’s last illusion was, fittingly, a version of this sci-fi staple. In 1931 a young science writer, Kenneth Swezey, organised a small party for Tesla’s 75th birthday and assembled a volume of congratulatory messages from Einstein, Robert Millikan, Oliver Lodge and other leading scientists. Tesla was put on the cover of Time, and for the rest of his life he held birthday press conferences. At the 1934 celebration he announced his plans for a ‘particle beam weapon’: he had, he said, offered his device to the governments of the US, the UK and the USSR, but would gladly donate it to the League of Nations as a deterrent against future wars. The FBI began to keep a weather eye on him, and a week or so after his death on 7 January 1943 the US government seized his papers and effects and had them examined by the MIT physicist John Trump.

Trump found nothing worthy of scientific or military concern, and at the end of the Second World War Tesla’s papers were shipped to the new Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade. But the Feds were not the only ones who had been taken in. Tesla had settled a $400 bill at the Governor Clinton Hotel with a box containing, he claimed, a fully functioning model of his weapon, which would explode if ‘an unauthorised person’ were to tamper with it. After his death Trump went to investigate. The hotel staff had stowed the box away in a back room; they left him alone with it. Trump took a deep breath and opened the box. In it he found nothing but a broken, dusty electrical resistor.