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

More posts about Tes­la

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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:

Nikola Tesla

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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