Tag 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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