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:

More posts about Tes­la


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:

Nikola Tesla







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

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola Tesla










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.


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.


Mark Twain & Crowdfunding

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!


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.


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.