Category Archives: Nikola Tesla

Living Tesla’s Dream

Cities at night seen from space
American Midwest at night – a piece of Tesla’s worldwide electric grid, taken from the ISS, 9/29/2011

Today is the 160th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth. Tesla was a seer of electricity, whose vision of a world transformed with an electric grid powered by his alternating current system surely seemed like a wild dream in the late 19th century. Tesla is claimed as a hero in both Serbia and Croatia, having been born and raised Serbian in what’s now Croatia—a treasured icon, kind of a cross between Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln.

Exactly ten years ago, I was in Belgrade for the premiere of Violet Fire, the opera about Tesla that I worked on as librettist with composer Jon Gibson, along with many other hugely talented artists and performers. Our opera had been invited there as part of a celebration of Tesla’s 150th birthday. In fact, Violet Fire’s opening night fell on Tesla’s birthday, July 9 (he’s popularly supposed been born on midnight between July 9 and 10).

National Theater in Belgrade
National Theater in Belgrade, showing the Violet Fire banner

My week in Belgrade was wonderful, nerve-wracking—as theater can be—and surreal. The first performance went well. The next night, many of us went to see another performance in the Belgrade summer arts festival (BELEF)—this one by Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde musician/artist who counts Tesla as an inspiration. After the performance I got pulled backstage to meet Ms. Anderson, and told her how much I’ve been inspired by her work.

I found myself in a dim bar-like room, with Laurie Anderson and Nikola Tesla—well, a performance artist dressed in Tesla’s distinctive formal attire, who had made appearances in various locations in downtown Belgrade that day. Several Croatians were there, including a tall young woman who was an aspiring filmmaker—and an actual descendant of Tesla. The group of us left the theater, led by the festival’s director through the balmy summer night to the open plaza of Republic Square.

Program image, Belgrade Arts Festival, 2006
Program image, BELEF (Belgrade Summer Arts Festival) , where Violet Fire had its premiere in 2006

There under the stars, across from the National Theater where our opera was still running, we joined a crowd of people in and around a strange looming structure—an ad-hoc building glowing blue from inside. This was Cluster, its maker explained to me—a participatory software project, housing multiple computers and sharing freely with all visitors. It was an inspired tribute to Tesla, who had envisioned sharing the fruits of his work freely with the world.

I felt like I had wandered inside a dream—walking with Tesla’s ghost, his great-grand niece and Laurie Anderson down dark streets to discover a pulsing blue thought-cluster. And this feeling, I’m realizing now, is something like what I struggle to describe about Tesla and his legacy. Our increasingly wireless world, with its lit-up nights, its virtually free streaming data, its electric cars, is an embodiment of Tesla’s visions for the future. We are living inside his dream.

Tesla also imagined the future as a peaceful place where war would be obsolete, where women would be equal to men, and we’d all be knitted together in a hive of productive work. Right now this all seems very far away from the intractable problems, suffering and discord that still surround us. Someday, maybe, more of Tesla’s dream will become reality.

More about Violet Fire:  www.violetfireopera.com

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Tesla in Bankruptcy

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower under construction
Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower

On March 18, 1916—one hundred years ago today—the New York World ran an article with the headline: “Tesla No Money Wizard; Swamped by Debts, He Vows.” The news followed a court filing that revealed the great inventor, Nikola Tesla, had no assets and owed thousands in back rent to the Waldorf Astoria, where he lived.

This moment in Tesla’s life marks a turning point: his great discoveries in alternating current, radio, telerobotics and other fields were all behind him. Tesla had been pursuing several projects, including the development of his bladeless turbine and marketing medical devices. But his company suffered from high overhead, and he was paying continuing legal fees in a fight to declare that his radio patents had precedence over those of Marconi. To have his financial difficulties aired so publicly must have been extremely painful for a man who made a point of living at the highest standards of Old World elegance.

Tesla’s financial trouble would also lead to the final destruction of his massive Wardenclyffe Tower. The domed tower, built at the eastern tip of Long Island, had been part of Tesla’s grand plan to beam information and ultimately, electric energy around the planet. By 1916, with the project stalled, Tesla signed over the Wardenclyffe property to the Waldorf Astoria. A year later, the hotel had it demolished, and its materials sold for scrap—a sadly anticlimactic end for a project that embodied a far more ambitious vision for radio broadcasting than Marconi’s.

Many inventors deal with terrible disappointments, and many find themselves swamped by investments in their own dreams. But Tesla’s ups and downs seem to have an epic sweep. While he continued to come up with large-scale ideas after 1916—including his “death ray” antimissile system—none would come to fruition. Instead, he became a sort of future-science seer, making predictions that were welcomed more as science fiction than as real-world technologies.

See more posts on Tesla:

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Link to Violet Fire, the opera about Nikola Tesla I worked on as librettist:

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola Tesla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambitious Elegy for Tesla is a high-tech, dreamlike and heartfelt meditation on Nikola Tesla, the legendary scientist and inventor. Jaffe’s multimedia installation fills the Rowan University Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D printed models of his iconic inventions, and animatronic, motion-activated figures of Tesla that move and, in some cases speak.

Tesla stands as an avatar of massive creativity, with his hundreds of patents, and basic breakthroughs in alternating current, radio, robotics, and even computer circuitry. Jaffe pays homage to his achievements, while embedding them in the medium of a life that had strangely mythic elements. She’s particularly sensitive to the poignancy of the older Tesla, the eccentric loner who fed and cared for pigeons, whose limitless imagination had run up against the limits of the public’s reception of his work.

This aspect of Tesla is part of what drew me to work with composer Jon Gibson on Violet Fire, an opera that tried to capture the inner life of Tesla in all its strangeness through music, movement and video. So I was delighted to be asked to write the catalogue essay for this exhibit. One part of the Tesla mythos is the white pigeon he befriended, and who triggered in him a vision of blinding light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds herself, surrounds Tesla with a flock of tenderly modeled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as carriers of his ongoing inspiration, and markers of his intense, intuitive connection with the natural world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Elegy for Tesla, gallery view

But Tesla, in the form of his motion-activated doppelgangers, steals this show. Curator Mary Salvante coordinated an NEA-funded collaboration between Jaffe and students and faculty in Rowan’s Engineering Department to create the systems that animate her sculptures. They stand, and move, in a perfect salute to Tesla as “magician” of wireless electricity.

I’ll be at the reception on Thursday – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through January 30.

Elegy for Tesla, an installation by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan University Art Gallery/West, Glassboro, NJ, through January 30, 2016

Reception Thursday, October 8, 5-8 pm, starting with artist presentation and panel discussion at 5 pm.

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Nikola Tesla’s hidden contribution

Tesla cover image

Tesla featured on the cover of the Electrical Experimenter, 1902

Nikola Tesla is a hero to geeks everywhere, who will be celebrating his birthday this week. World-famous in his lifetime, the prodigiously gifted inventor fell into semi-obscurity after his death in 1943, even though his inventions helped create the world we live in now.

Tesla’s fans know about his groundbreaking work in many fields: his invention of radio (sorry, Marconi), his creation of the alternating-current motor, his singlehanded development of remote-control robotics, to name a few—all before 1900. Like some virtuoso of invention, Tesla worked solo, perfecting most of his inventions in his head. Eventually, he held several hundred patents.

But there is one development for which he hasn’t gotten credit, even as a collaborator. And if you’re thinking it may be the electric car—that’s not it. We should also give Tesla his due for contributing to the birth of modern science fiction.

Tesla’s imagination never turned off, and he continued to churn out ideas with world-changing implications—if they had been realized. His World Broadcasting System, anticipating the Internet by decades, ended as a half-built ruin on Long Island. He thought up “death rays” made of charged-particle beams, experimented with using principles of resonance to cause earthquakes, and even proposed pulling electricity down from the ionosphere, to provide virtually free energy around the globe.

These and other huge-scaled projects didn’t come to be, but they inspired others who were part of Tesla’s circle. One of them was Hugo Gernsback, a young writer, inventor and publisher of popular science and science fiction—a term that he coined. (The Hugo award, one of science fiction’s highest honors, is his namesake.) Tesla’s inventions and ideas resonated intensely with Gernsback: articles about Tesla ran regularly in his early magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, and Tesla’s autobiography, My Inventions, appeared in its pages. The young author inserted Tesla into a sci-fi story of his own, The Magnetic Storm, in 1918. A few years later, Gersnback founded the legendary Amazing Stories—the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction.

Tesla’s work can be seen as a kind of template for early science fiction: they both share a worldwide focus, speculation on war and peace, and a general hope in the possibilities of human progress. The way I see it, it was as if some of the visions Tesla was offering couldn’t be encompassed by society in his time, and had to spill over into the arena of imagination. There they fed the blossoming of a new art form—the first in human history to focus on the future.

Science fiction has become an immersive background to our lives, via Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, the Matrix and many other imagined future worlds that owe their existence to the genre of popular science fiction. It’s almost second nature for us now to slip into these virtual environments, trying on possibilities and working through ominous scenarios, using the future as a canvas to help us figure out what’s happening now, and where we want to go. We take this time-shifting between present and future for granted—as much as we take for granted the electrical power that surrounds us, thanks to Tesla’s worldwide electrical grid.

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla, and thank you for helping to introduce us to the future.

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Mark Twain & Crowdfunding

Mark-Twain-Nikola-Tesla-Laboratory-1894
Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s Laboratory, 1894

I’ve just written a guest post for The Head & The Hand Press, considering how Mark Twain’s innovations in publishing could be seen as a precursor to the growing trend of crowdfunding for books. Twain/Clemens thought outside the box not only in his writing, but in the business of books. You can read the post here.

Twain’s passion for innovation and invention led him to admire the work of Nikola Tesla. Here’s a picture of him in Tesla’s New York laboratory, holding what looks like one of Tesla’s wireless light bulbs. You can just make out Tesla on the left.

And speaking of crowdfunding, the preorder campaign for The Head & The Hand’s Asteroid Belt Almanac is in its final week. Order a book, support a great independent press, and get a beautiful anthology of new writing and art, all at once!

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Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved seeing Gravity. In my opinion, the Planet Earth should be nominated for a supporting-player Oscar. I drank in the massive, stunning views of the earth in the background of so many scenes—completely convincing, thanks to high-level CGI effects. At those screen-filling distances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmosphere, the delicate outer membrane that makes life on earth possible. There they were: the biosphere and the atmosphere, as seen from space for real by just a few hundred people so far.

That soft shell of atmosphere offers a visual analogue to other, unseen layers, both actual and imagined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of reality that’s tied to physical things like computers, servers, satellites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain digital, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem farfetched to think of this quickly filling-in worldwide web as another, invisible shell surrounding the earth’s surface.

And then there’s the noosphere, an idea put forward by the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Verdansky, a Russian scientist who himself gets credit for coming up with the term “biosphere.” With the noosphere (the prefix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teilhard invites us into a kind of thought experiment: imagine that all of human thought surrounds the earth in an invisible shell. As our mental outpourings grow and intensify, this “thinking layer” fills in and comes into its own. Teilhard suggested that the noosphere would emerge out of technologies “extending a closely interdependent network” around the world. At that time he was referring to radio, teletype and television—but his description seems to eerily anticipate the Internet and our current web of digital communication.

This promise of the noosphere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libretto for Violet Fire about Nikola Tesla’s vision of the earth becoming “a single brain” through his planned World Broadcasting System. In Leaving Alexandria, the novel I’m working on, it has helped me envision the accumulation of knowledge, from ancient libraries to our expanding digital cybersphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translucent envelope of our atmosphere, but that doesn’t stop us from experiencing them around us.

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How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s something about the inventor Nikola Tesla that has strongly attracted artists—much more than his arch-rival Edison, let’s say. Tesla’s amazing life and grand visions have pulled artistic creations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, novels and stories, film and video. I know about this firsthand, because it happened to me. Discovering his story led me to write a libretto for what became the opera Violet Fire.

Nikola Tesla, born in 1856 to Serbian parents in Croatia, was a visionary scientist/inventor who helped create the bedrock of our technological world, with his groundbreaking discoveries in electricity, radio, robotics and even computer circuitry. His intense stream of visualizations led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull electrical energy from the upper atmosphere, still sound like science fiction. He was a charismatic figure who moved through New York’s Gilded Age high society, befriending Mark Twain and others, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire
From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s story knocked me over. How could he not be universally known? His visions seemed like those of a mystic, yet they had led to inventions that have had global effects on how we live. With his strange, outsized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to portray him. I centered the story on Tesla’s relationship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of powerful light. Violet Fire was brought to life by the beautiful, haunting music of Jon Gibson, and the contributions of director Terry O’Reilly, choreographer Nina Winthrop, and video designers Sarah Drury and Jen Simmons. Exactly seven years ago, on Nikola Tesla’s 150th birthday, my collaborators and I had the great honor of seeing the premiere of Violet Fire at the National Theater in Belgrade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tesla. A large-scale opera, Lightning in His Hand, has been mounted in Hobart, Tasmania. Melissa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recently performed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jarmusch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tesla is rediscovered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in artforms we haven’t yet imagined. Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla.

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