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.

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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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