Tag Archives: Tesla

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.


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.