Wednesday, October 19, 2016

American Experience: Nikola Tesla (WGBH/PBS, October 18, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the PBS American Experience program on Nikola Tesla last night after the Contenders episode, and while I’m still not sure how they decide who’s an “American Experience” and who’s an “American Master,” the Tesla story is interesting enough it deserves to be told. I first heard of Nikola Tesla from reading L. Sprague de Camp’s book The Heroic Age of American Invention in my teens — de Camp, who also wrote a biography of H. P. Lovecraft and helped edit and complete some of Lovecraft’s unfinished manuscripts for posthumous publication, regarded Tesla as the third in a triumvirate of American inventors (though only one of them was actually born in the U.S.) along with Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson who shaped the electrical age as we know it. De Camp hailed Tesla’s one commercially successful invention, the induction motor — a way of using alternating current to power an electric motor without having to convert (“commutate”) it to direct current first — but dismissed him in his later years as a “crank.” The Tesla story as presented here by David Grubin, credited as both writer and director of this episode, is rather bizarre; he was born in modern-day Croatia (though his ethnic heritage was Serbian). His dad was an Orthodox priest and wanted young Nikola to follow him into the priesthood, but instead he took after his mom, an amateur inventor. Since both Serbia and Croatia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when he went to school he was taught in German. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army but ran into the wilderness to avoid military service; later he won a military scholarship to Austrian Polytechnic — essentially the Austrian equivalent of MIT — in Graz (coincidentally also the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger) and did well in school until midway through his second year, when he had an argument with one of his professors over whether electric generators needed commutators — the magnetic devices that converted alternating to direct current — and he ended up leaving school, briefly becoming a pool shark, losing most of the money his family had given him to stake him through school, then winning it all back, giving up his gambling addiction and asking to take the final exams anyway, but the extension he asked for to study was denied and he was expelled. He tried again to go to school in Prague, but he didn’t know the required languages, Czech and Greek, and eventually he ended up in Paris working for a subsidiary of Thomas Edison’s company.

Edison’s managers in Paris offered him a letter of recommendation to the Great Man himself, and on that Tesla decided to emigrate to the U.S. Edison actually hired him for about six months, during which he designed (ironically enough) an improved commutator for Edison’s DC generators, but he walked out on his job with Edison over Edison’s insistence that direct current, not alternating, was the future of electricity. (This was probably Edison’s biggest mistake.) Tesla couldn’t find another job in his field and had to resort to digging ditches to make ends meet until a couple of financial backers — what would today be called “venture capitalists” — offered to support his research in alternating-current motors. The advantage of alternating current then — and now — is that it can be “transformed”; you can lower the amperage (the amount of current) and raise the voltage (the force with which it travels through the wires conducting it) so that it can be moved great distances; then another transformer can lower the voltage and raise the amperage so the current can be used to power electric lights and other household devices. With direct current, you had to build a power station every mile or so; with alternating current, you could transmit power over hundreds of miles and build the sort of grid we know today: a handful of giant power generating stations moving high-voltage power over long distances, then transformers to reduce the voltage so the current can be used domestically. Tesla’s VC’s cut a deal between him and George Westinghouse, who was attempting to build a competing power system to Edison’s using alternating current, and Tesla originally got a royalty deal on his successful AC motor which would have made him a multimillionaire — but later Westinghouse went to Tesla and said he couldn’t afford to pay him the agreed-upon royalties, and rather than contact an attorney or renegotiate the deal, he meekly acceded to Westinghouse’s demand that he give up royalties altogether. As presented in the American Experience program, Tesla was a dreamer, literally given to visions, which colored his observations of his own experiments as a scientist. He was also superstitious; he regarded 3 as his lucky number, and when he lived in hotels (which was virtually all the time) he insisted that both the floor number and the number of his room be divisible by 3. Tesla was definitely not the sort of person Edison was — he would never have defined genius as “2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration,” as Edison did — nor would he try to confirm that his gadgets would work by building models of them until they were totally worked out not only in his head but on paper as schematic drawings.

Because he wasn’t the sort of practical researcher Edison or Thomson were (and intriguingly Thomson has become virtually forgotten as a cult has been built up around Tesla, even though, at 700 patents, Thomson is ahead of Tesla on the list of most productive U.S. inventors and behind only Edison, with 1,300), Tesla had a hard time finding financial backers, especially since he was pursuing visionary ideas it would have been hard to, in today’s argot, “monetize.” Among his inventions were fluorescent tubes (which he called “cold light” and tried to illuminate wirelessly) and various means of conducting electricity through the air without wires. In 1900 he got an investment of $150,000 (about $4.25 million in today’s money) from J. P. Morgan to build a giant Tesla coil — a device he invented for creating a sudden burst of released electricity — in Shoreham, New York with the idea of sending electricity through the air so end users could get it for free. Modern physicists say that’s simply not possible — too much of the electricity disperses too quickly for any useful quantity to be received more than a few feet away — but in the process Tesla worked out a way of sending Morse-code messages without wires, thereby essentially inventing radio. Alas, he was frozen out of the credit (and the money) for radio by Guglielmo Marconi — though eventually in 1943, the year Tesla died, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was Tesla who had indeed invented radio and Marconi had, as Tesla charged, infringed on at least 17 of Tesla’s patents. Also, as Tesla’s notoriety increased, so did his craziness; he claimed that exposure to electrical energy could improve human brainpower, he claimed to be in communication with Martians via his electrical gadgets (one wonders if this is where the plot of the movie Red Planet Mars came from), and his later ideas included designs for vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft and electrically powered death rays. Tesla didn’t show any signs of a romantic or relationship life with other people, but according to this documentary he liked to feed the pigeons on New York’s streets and parks, fell in love with one particular female pigeon, and was heartbroken when she died.

Tesla died January 7, 1943 at age 86 in room 3327 (a number divisible by 3) of the New Yorker Hotel, the last survivor of de Camp’s triumvirate of electrical inventors (Edison died in 1931 and Thomson in 1937), and at least partly due to the counter-cultural appeal of some of his wilder speculations (including his claim that, because thoughts were just electrical impulses in the brain, it should be possible to photograph them) and also due to the way his life fits the narrative of brilliant but unworldly genius exploited and done in by capitalism, a cult formed around him years after his death. A heavy-metal band called itself Tesla and on one of their CD’s published copies of the diagrams and patents that documented Tesla as the real inventor of radio. A 1980 Yugoslavian film called The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla was a part-dramatization, part-documentary on Tesla in which an actor named Petar Bozovic played Tesla and J. P. Morgan was played by Orson Welles (returning, in a way, to the sort of Gilded Age tycoon part that had made Welles a star in the first place). There are no fewer than 48 films listed on in which an actor plays Tesla, including a TV series made this year and two feature films listed as “in development” for 2017. And of course the most famous use of Tesla’s name currently is as the name of Elon Musk’s electric-car company, since it’s well known that Musk sees himself as a modern-day visionary on the order of Tesla. (Google News just linked to a Wall Street Journal article showing Tesla the company currently pursuing what could have been one of the madder dreams of Tesla the inventor: cars that can drive themselves across country: The American Experience show about Tesla was only an hour long (they could easily have got two hours out of him) but was fascinating even though the Tesla they depict must have been a handful to be around and one can readily understand why he didn’t achieve the wealth and success he sought in his lifetime — and a modern-day Tesla would probably not have any better luck in ours!