Now then: where did we leave off last time in 1894? Ah, yes. Tesla’s friendship and partnership with TC Martin, his publisher and promotor.
And one of the most lasting things that Martin did for Tesla by way of promotion, was introduce him to Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor (and later chief editor) of The Century Magazine, and to his wife, Katharine. The couple were to become Tesla’s closest friends.
Telsa and the Johnsons actually first met in late fall of 1893, when Martin—angling to get a profile of Tesla in The Century—arranged an invitation for he and Tesla to one of the many soirees that the Johnsons hosted in their townhouse at 327 Lexington Avenue. (Don’t bother going to have a look today—327 Lexington is now a 27-floor apartment building, with a Japanese restaurant on the ground level).
But what soirees the Johnsons held.
Depending on the night, when attending a dinner party at the Johnsons, guests could expect to dine with the likes of New York mayoral candidate Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, sculptor August Saint-Gaudens; actress Eleonora Duse; poet and editor in chief of the Century, Richard Watson Gilder; naturalist John Muir; activist for children’s rights Mary Mapes Dodge; composer Ignace Paderewski; or thespian Joseph Jefferson.
The guest list was what it was because Johnson, by virtue of his role in the magazine world, was a fixture in the arts and culture scene in New York in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He’d started out as a teenaged telegraph operator who would send and receive messages from another young telegraph operator named Thomas Edison. He joined the staff of the popular magazine Scribner’s Monthly in 1873 and would visit his old friend Edison from time to time at Menlo Park to do write-ups about Edison’s inventions.
In 1881, when Scribner’s became The Century Magazine, Johnson was named associate editor, and he would later serve as its chief editor from 1909 to 1913. To boost The Century’s circulation, Johnson convinced Ulysses S. Grant to write a series of articles about his Civil War campaigns. With the help of Mark Twain, Johnson then convinced the general to write his memoirs, which went on to become a massive bestseller, rescuing Grant’s family from the prospect of bankruptcy and poverty after this death from cancer just a few days after the memoir was completed.
Johnson married Katharine McMahon of Washington, D.C., in 1876.
Of Irish ancestry, Katharine was red-haired, beautiful, and described variously in the sources as poised, ebullient, coquettish, wistful, a gracious host, fiery, difficult to live with, dominant, manipulative, selfish, egocentric, and histrionic.
So, quite a range of descriptors but I think I can imagine how that set of adjectives could all apply to a single individual of a certain personality type.
And I don’t think it a stretch to say that from both implicit and explicit reference in the various Tesla biographies, as well as reading extracts from her letters and messages to the man, Katharine Johnson was at least infatuated with (if not outright secretly in love with) Tesla.
She was always trying to get him out to visit her. A sample of her invitations to him:
- Dear Mr. Tesla…we want you to come this evening and brighten us up. As a great favor come to us immediately.
- Dear Mr. Tesla, I shall expect to see you tomorrow evening.
- Come soon?, and,
- Will you come to see me tomorrow evening and will you try to come a little early? I want very much to see you and will be really disappointed if you do not think my request worthy [of] your consideration.
And while Tesla would spend a great deal of time with the Johnsons, I think there’s an undercurrent of tension within some of his correspondence with Katherine. I think he understood perfectly well Katharine’s obsession with him and did his best to gently tamp down her feelings without hurting them or offering offense.
When Tesla arrived for his first time meeting the Johnsons he appeared “pallid, drawn and haggard,” looking as one reporter described it as having “reached the limits of human endurance.” But he proved to be a riveting conversationalist.
Tesla dazzled them with predictions of what his technology would make possible someday.
“The time will come,” he told Katharine, “when crossing the ocean by steamer you will be able to have a daily newspaper on board with the important news of the world, and when by means of a pocket instrument and a wire stuck in the ground, you can communicate from any distance with friends at home through an instrument similarly attuned.”
Sorry—is that your cellphone ringing, or is it mine?
Tesla also wowed the assembled guests by reciting Serbian poetry for them. Some of the sources claim Tesla translated it spontaneously off the top of his head, but I wonder whether this might have been a carefully prepared party trick that Tesla—ever the showman—used to impress people, all the while claiming that he was translating it on the spot.
Tesla loved Goethe, as I’ve mentioned before, and would often recite from the poet’s Faust. But in this case, he recited a poem by Jovan Zmaj, called ‘Luka Filipov.’ This heroic ballad recounts the deeds of Serbian hero Luka Filipov and his death in an 1874 battle against the Turks. Enthralled, Johnson had Tesla prepare English translations of this and other poems by Zmaj for The Century and he included ‘Luka Filipov’ in his anthology, Songs of Liberty. From then on, Tesla always referred to Robert as Luka and Katharine as Madame Filipov.
Johnson described his new friend’s personality as “one of distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity and force.”
Katherine, on the other hand, began trying to take care of Tesla. She worried for his health. She invited him for Christmas dinner with their family because she thought he needed to eat better and more than he did. Tesla accepted the offer, but would decline more and more often in later years as Katherine’s feelings for him became clear. He likewise demurred when Katherine invited him on extended vacations, such as when she urged Tesla to summer with her and the family in the Hamptons. Tesla always had the convenient excuse of pressing matters at his lab that he couldn’t get away from.
Nevertheless, over the coming years Tesla would spend a great deal of time with the Johnsons socially, taking part in public events like the symphony as well as their private parties attended by the who’s-who of New York’s arts and culture scene.
In December 1893, within weeks of them meeting and hitting it off, Tesla invited the Johnsons to the premiere of Dvoř?k’s New World Symphony. “I immediately secured the best seats I could for Saturday,” wrote Tesla to Robert. “Nothing better than the 15th row! Very sorry, we shall have to use telescopes. But I think the better for Mrs. Johnson’s vivid imagination.”
As a thank-you, Katharine sent Tesla flowers on 6 January 1894, Orthodox Christmas. “I have to thank Mrs. Johnson for the magnificent flowers,” Tesla wrote in his reply. “I have never as yet received flowers, and they produced upon me a curious effect.” Tesla returned the favour by sending Katharine a Crookes radiometer which he felt was “from the scientific viewpoint the most beautiful invention made.”
When word reached New York that the great electrical pioneer Heinrich Hertz had died on New Year’s Day at the all-too-young age of just 36, this little trio of Tesla’s friends became deeply concerned for the inventor’s health.
“For God’s sake,” Martin wrote to Tesla, “let it be a warning to you. All Europe mourns for such an untimely taking off.”
But for all his warnings, Martin remained concerned.
“I do not believe that [Tesla] will give up work at any very early date,” Martin wrote in a letter to Katherine Johnson on January 8, 1894, just two days after she’d sent Tesla flowers. “Talking of California with him in a casual way elicited the fact that he had a couple of invitations to lecture there so that I don’t want to jam his head into that lion’s mouth. I believe he is going to take more care of himself and you may have done us all a great deal of service by your timely words.”
But then Martin adds something rather curious. “Yet in spite of that,” he writes, “I fear he [Tesla] will go on in the delusion that woman is generically a Delilah who would shear him of his locks. If you can manage it, I believe it would be a good scheme to have that Doctor get hold of him. My prescription is a weekly lecture from Mrs. RUJ.”
It’s unknown who this ‘doctor’ he mentioned is, but it seems clear even Martin knows (and so, presumably, her husband Robert knew, too) that after a matter of only a few weeks’ acquaintance, Katherine has not only a keen interest in Tesla but has some noticeable sway over him in getting him to—if not change—then at least moderate his behaviour to take better care of himself.
In February of 1894, Martin’s attempt to forge a connection with Robert Underwood Johnson bore fruit, and his profile of Tesla ran in Century Magazine. “Mr. Tesla has been held a visionary, deceived by the flash of casual shooting stars,” wrote Martin, “but the growing conviction of his professional brethren is that because he saw farther he saw first the low lights flickering on tangible new continents of science.”
I think this phrase of Martin’s “deceived by the flash of casual shooting stars” is important to note.
We’ve talked before about how and why it was that Tesla was largely forgotten for most of the 20th Century, and why he didn’t appear in history textbooks the way Edison did, despite his foundational contributions to our modern, technological society. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s because even in his own lifetime Tesla had detractors.
Critics portrayed Tesla as “an impractical visionary enthusiast.”
“His inventions already show how brilliantly capable he is,” one newspaper reported, but his “propositions seem like a madman’s dream of empire.”
“One is naturally disappointed that nothing practical has as yet proceeded from the magnificent experimental investigations with which Tesla has dazzled the world,” wrote one critic in Electrical World.
I think this “shooting stars” phrase from Martin is his way of responding to those critics—as was his article as a whole. Remember: he was trying to build up Tesla’s reputation in the press, in the public imagination, and ultimately in the eyes of investors.
Even in his own time, there were peers and colleagues within the electrical engineering community who wished that Tesla wasn’t so distractible, that he was more committed to doing the work to bring his inventions and innovations to a place of real technical refinement and application, rather than flitting from one thing to the next (the “casual shooting stars” that Martin references) with his ideas only half explored. In this way, Telsa reminds me Leonardo da Vinci: someone who simply had too many ideas to spend too much time on any one of them.
In most cases, Tesla’s contemporaries who offer criticism of the man speak not in tones of professional jealousy or (as some have argued) from a desire to suppress the achievements of Tesla for whatever reason, but rather from a place of disappointment. They thought Tesla capable of true greatness and wished that he would direct his efforts in ways that would let him make further dramatic contributions as he had with his AC system.
But Tesla was to the last his own man, and he trusted his own vision to guide him, as he had with AC. And so his remaining years were primarily directed at wireless energy, rather than more commercial applications.
The Century article was not to be the only press coverage that Tesla was to receive in 1894—again, largely thanks to the promotional efforts of Martin and Johnson, who had connections at various papers.
The New York Herald had already been covering Tesla’s for several years, but they were now joined by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (Manhattan’s biggest daily), the New York Times, and the Savannah Morning News.
The New York World profile ran in the summer and was written by popular columnist Arthur Brisbane (who understood nothing about electricity), under the headline and subheads OUR FOREMOST ELECTRICIAN, “Greater Even Than Edison,” “The Electricity of the Future.”
“Every scientist knows his work,” wrote Brisbane of Tesla, “and every foolish person included in the category of New York society knows his face. He dines at Delmonico’s every day. He sits each night at a table near the window … with his head buried in an evening paper.”
Brisbane’s article was illustrated with a full-length drawing of Nikola Tesla resplendent in formal cutaway coat and striped dress pants and radiating a halo of “the Effulgent Glory of Myriad Tongues of Electric Flame After He has Saturated Himself with Electricity.”
“When Mr. Tesla talks about the electrical problems upon which he is really working he becomes a most fascinating person,” Brisbane wrote. “Not a single word that he says can be understood. He divides time up into billionths of seconds and supplies power enough from nothing apparently to do all the work in the United States. He believes that electricity will solve the labor problem… It is certain, according to Mr. Tesla’s theories, that the hard work of the future will be the pressing of electric buttons.”
And I can’t help but feel like Tesla had a bit of fun at Brisbane’s expense during the interview process for the article.
At one point, Brisbane describes Tesla’s eyes as being “set very far back in his head. They are rather light. I asked him how [that] could [be, as he was] a Slav. He told me that his eyes were once much darker, but that using his mind a great deal had made them many shades lighter.” Brisbane said that this tracked with a theory on brain usage and eye color that had heard about and took it as evidence of the man’s genius.
Now, the sources that report this episode either do so without comment (as does Marc Seifer) or concur with this “thinking hard makes your eyes change colour” idea (as John J. O’Neill does in his problematic Tesla biography Prodigal Genius, since for him its further evidence that Tesla was indeed the superman of science that O’Neill was out to portray him as).
None of Tesla’s biographers, however, really seem to interrogate why Tesla would say something like this to a reporter. Generally, I think your answer to that question probably lines up with just who you think Tesla was: if he’s the mystic superman of science, then like O’Neill perhaps you believe in this explanation of heroic or superhuman mental exertion. If you think this is some whacko belief that Tesla actually held, you might chalk it up to his more eccentric personality quirks and possible mental health issues and probably just ignore it, as W. Bernard Carlson does. Seifer takes a middle way, I think.
But I personally suspect that there is another, more reasonable, explanation.
Tesla, as we’ve seen in previous episodes, was something of a trickster and definitely had a sense of humor. And I also get the sense that he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
So, I suspect that claiming his eyes had lightened up due to mental exertion was Tesla’s mocking reply to an insulting and kind of vaguely racist question. All Slavs have dark eyes? Well, take it from this blue-eyed boy of Slavic descent: some of us don’t. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer goes the old saying, and in this case I think Brisbane fell for the answer he was given and simply didn’t get that he was being made fun of.
Likewise, in the New York World article, Brisbane describes how the owner of Delmonico’s marvelled at Tesla’s ability to pick up pool and become expert at it in a single night.
“That Mr. Tesla can do anything,” Delmonico is quoted as saying. “We managed to make him play pool one night. He had never played, but he had watched us for a little while. He was very indignant when he found that we meant to give him fifteen points. But it didn’t matter much, for he beat us all and got all the money.”
Delmonico said “it wasn’t the money we cared about, but the way he studies out pool in his head, and then beat us, after we had practiced for years. [It] surprised us.”
But, as you’ll recall from Episode 3, Tesla was a well-known pool shark in his university days. That he withheld this fact from the boys at Delmonico’s in order to hustle them is both hilarious and telling. I told you Tesla was a trickster. And it reinforces, I think, my earlier contention that he didn’t just translate Serbian poetry off the top of his head, but instead led people to believe that he did to seem all the more impressive.
The New York Times also ran a profile of Tesla, this one in September 1894, that tried to explain Tesla’s work in high frequency and the science behind his wireless lights.
“I look forward with absolute confidence to sending messages through the earth without any wires,” Tesla was quoted as saying. “I also have great hopes of transmitting electric force in the same way without waste.”
In addition to these profiles, Tesla also had to deal with some reporters who, hoping to cash in on Tesla’s popularity, decided they didn’t need to be bothered with the pesky time-waster of actual interviews and instead just wrote up bogus stories. Think of it as late 19th Century ‘fake news.’
“For example,” recounted Martin, “one vivid young lady of the press, in her anxiety to be instructive, went so far as to depict herself undergoing a brilliant electrical ordeal that is possible only with the body entirely naked.”
Martin was quick to assure his readers that no such indecent had ever happened, owing to Tesla’s phobias about women.
W. Bernard Carlson in his book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age likens this press coverage to that of “a modern-day professional athlete who often tries to strike a balance between boasting about his or her ability (which is, after all, the purpose of the interview) and displaying some modesty about his accomplishments. “It is an embarrassment to me,” Tesla told one reporter, “that my work has attracted as much public attention, not only because I believe that an earnest man who loves science more than all should let his work speak for him, but because I am afraid that some of the scientists whose friendship I value very much suspect me of encouraging newspaper notoriety.”
Which is, of course, what he and Martin were actually up to.
Tesla was worried about the possibility of piracy due to all these profiles, however. He wanted to talk about his overall goal, but he also had to keep key details secret lest competitors get on the trail. One reporter who spent a day with “this kindly wizard of Washington Square” revealed that Tesla “confided to me that he was engaged on several secret experiments of most abundant promise, but their nature cannot be hinted at here. However, I have Mr. Tesla’s permission to say that some day he proposes to transmit vibrations through the earth [so] that it will be possible to send a message from an ocean steamer to a city, however distant, without the use of any wire.” Tesla was so concerned with secrecy, that often even his laboratory assistants weren’t let in on the details or purpose of his experiments.
Thanks to these profiles and the hard work of the Johnsons and Martin at promoting him, as well as his triumph at the World’s Fair late the year before, throughout 1894 Tesla became a darling of New York high society set—Mrs Astor’s 400, which we talked about in the Gilded Age episode. As one source puts it, he was “a sought-after guest swirling through Manhattan’s most glittering homes, private salons, and lavish restaurants.”
Among Tesla’s new society friends was Stanford White, the famed architect. White—who designed such notable structures as the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan, the second Madison Square Garden, the New York Herald Building, the Rhode Island State House, and the University of Virginia Rotunda—was designing Power House No. 1 at Niagara Falls, which was to shelter all three of Tesla’s thirteen-foot-tall AC dynamos that would harness the waterfall…But I’m getting ahead of myself. That will have to wait for our next episode on the War of the Currents…
White would also, in a few years’ time, help develop Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower, his last design before being shot to death in 1906 by a jealous husband.
At White’s urging Tesla and Robert Underwood Johnson joined the Player’s Club, which we’ve mentioned before, and where luminaries like Mark Twain would hang out. After much cajoling, in November 1894, Tesla finally accepted White’s invitation to go sailing with him and the architect wrote gleefully, “I am so delighted that you have decided to tear yourself away from your laboratory. I would sooner have you on board than the Emperor of Germany or the Queen of England.”
And it was Tesla’s lab where he would often reciprocate all the attention lavished on him by the Gilded Age’s One Percenters.
We’ve already talked about Tesla’s friendship with Mark Twain, for example. Twain was often a guest whenever Tesla would hold his salons. But Twain would also visit by himself and when he did, he would help Tesla with unusual experiments that tended to fall outside the inventor’s normal wheelhouse.
Best known were those times that Tesla and Twain were experimenting with what was in effect a primitive x-ray machine…before Wilhelm Röntigen announced his discovery of “X-radiation.”
As early as 1892, Tesla was producing what he called ‘shadowgraph’ pictures with what he termed in his public demonstrations a “very special radiation.”
Late in 1894, Tesla decided to investigate whether his lamps affected photographic plates in the same way as light coming from the sun or other sources of illumination. To do so, he sought the assistance of Dickenson Alley, a photographer employed by Tonnele & Company. Over a period of several months they tried a variety of phosphorescent lamps, Crookes tubes, and vacuum bulbs with different kinds of electrodes. Since this was not a major project, Tesla and Alley worked on it periodically, and Alley stored spare glass photographic plates in a corner of the laboratory. However, they noticed that the unexposed plates had “unaccountable marks and defects” indicating that they had somehow been spoiled. Tesla wondered, in passing, if the plates might have been affected by cathode rays, which were a stream of charged particles that passed between the electrodes in some of his vacuum tubes when a voltage was applied across the electrodes. Tesla had recently read reports about how a Hungarian student of Heinrich Hertz, Philipp Lenard, was getting interesting results using tubes with an aluminum window that allowed the rays to pass out of the tube. However, before he could follow up on this hunch…well, that would be getting ahead of myself. We’ll talk about just why this research came to a halt on our episode about 1895.
In the meantime, however, once Twain got involved, the pair would aim a Crookes tube (which, unbeknownst to them, turned out to produce x-rays) at glass photographic plates to produce negatives of x-rayed hands, feet in shoes, and—get this—40-minute-long exposures under x-ray of Mark Twain’s skull! Yikes! Think of the precautions that you have to take when you get an x-ray at the dentist—lead vest, the technician stands behind a shielded wall, a 1-second burst of x-rays to make an exposure—and, wow, you would not want to have a 40-minute-long exposure. Of course, they didn’t know that x-rays were dangerous at the time, so I guess it wasn’t bad for them?
Think of all the books Twain never wrote after getting his brain cooked by x-rays…
Seriously, though: I think, again in the age of technological marvels that we live in, it’s probably hard for us to imagine how wonderous (and maybe kind of eerie or terrifying) it would have been to see your own bones in a photograph and you still alive and intact. But no one had ever seen anything like this before.
Tesla claimed that these x-rays of Twain’s skull were made at a distance of forty feet. If this was true (and we have only Tesla’s word on this), he would have to have been using equipment far more advanced than anything commonly believed to have existed at that time. Unfortunately, none of this equipment or research survives to the present day…and we’ll get to why in a couple of episodes when we look at 1895…
So, unable to host suares for the 400 at his room at the Gerlach Hotel, Tesla instead relied on his laboratory on South Fifth Avenue as a social draw.
Tesla would first host the great and the good to elaborate dinner parties in the private dining room of Delmonico’s. When hosting such parties at the restaurant (or later, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel), Telsa would often pop into the kitchen to supervise the preparation of the dishes personally.
And Tesla was apparently a fan of the keto diet in his younger years. According to O’Neill, Tesla ate a lot of filet mignon, roast saddle of lamb (though, for his own reasons, Tesla only ever ate the central portion of the tenderloin, despite the saddle being large enough to serve a party of diners). He also liked baby lamb chops and roast squab with nut stuffing. This is more than a bit ironic, however, since squab is essentially a young pigeon and one of the things Tesla is known for (especially later in life) was his love for (and some would say obsession with) pigeons. We’ll get to that in future episodes…
Generally, however, Tesla’s preferred fowl was roast duck, and it was often this dish he made the central focus of the dinners he threw for members of The 400. Under Tesla’s direction, the kitchen would prepare the duck under a “smothering of celery stalks”–a method of Tesla’s own devising. Tesla himself would apparently eat only the duck breast and not touch the rest of the bird.
After dinner, Tesla invited his guests to join him at his laboratory for private displays of his various apparatus. Remember: with electricity just becoming widespread in this time period it was unfamiliar to and very poorly understood by most people. Tromping up the stairs to Tesla’s lab would have been a bit like being invited into a magician’s inner sanctum, full of excitement, mystery, and anticipation at the secrets about to be revealed.
His lab at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue was on either the third or fourth floor loft of the building—sources seem to differ. I suspect given Tesla’s preference for things in threes that it was probably on the third floor. On the floors below him were a dry cleaners and a pipe-cutting operation (remember that—it will become important a few episodes from now…)
“Be prepared for a surprise or two,” Tesla was quoted as saying by a reporter who was invited to one of these sessions. The reporter recounted being “ushered…into a room some twenty five feet square, lighted on one side by two broad windows, partially covered by heavy black curtains. The laboratory was literally filled with curious mechanical appliances of every description. Snakelike cables ran along the walls, ceiling, and floor. In the center was [an electric dynamo which sat upon] a large circular table covered with thick strips of black woolen cloth. Two large brownish globes, eighteen inches in diameter, [were sus]pended from [the] ceiling by cords. Composed of brass, coated [and insulated with] wax, [these globes] served the purpose of spreading the electrostatic field.
“Promptly suiting the action to the word, he called in several employees from the workshop and issued a succession of hurried orders which I followed but vaguely. Presently, however, the doors were shut and the curtains drawn until every chink or crevice for the admission of light was concealed, and the laboratory was bathed in absolutely impenetrable gloom…
“The next minute exquisitely beautiful luminous signs and devices of mystic origin began to flash about me with startling frequency. Sometimes they seemed iridescent, while again a dazzling white light prevailed.
“What impressed [us] most of all, perhaps, was the simple but cheerful fact that [we] remained unscathed, while electrical bombardments were taking place on every side.”
“‘Take hold,’ said a voice, and I felt a sort of handle thrust into my hand. Then I was gently led forward and told to wave it. On complying, I spelled the word ‘Welcome’ flaming before my eyes. Unfortunately, I was totally unable at the time to appreciate the kindly sentiment implied.
A hand approached mine ere I had quite recovered, and I felt the tips of my fingers lightly brushed. Fancy my dire dismay when I immediately experienced an acute tingling sensation, accompanied by a brief pyrotechnic display that was surprising to say the least. When the daylight as well as my equanimity was in a measure restored, I learned something of the meaning of these wondrous experiments, which may be said to foreshadow in a way the electric light of the future.”
These “devices of mystic origin” were just a few such lamps that Tesla had devised: some were tubes with gases at a low pressure and some had phosphorescent coatings (like modern fluorescent tubes), but none had filaments.
Tesla also demonstrated the utility of his wireless system for ordinary incandescent lamps by connecting a standard sixteen candlepower Edison-style bulb to his resonating coil in the center of the room, and the Edison bulb, too, flashed to life.
To further impress his visitors and convey just how much energy could be concentrated by the capacitors in his oscillating transformer, Tesla would sometimes pass through his apparatus “energy at a rate of several thousand horsepower, put a piece of thick tinfoil on a stick, and approach it to that coil. The tinfoil would melt, and would not only melt, but while it was still in that form, it would be evaporated and the whole process took place in so small an interval of time that it was like a cannon shot. Instantly, I put it there, there was an explosion. That was a striking experiment. It simply showed the power of the condenser [i.e., capacitor], and at that time I was so reckless that in order to demonstrate to my visitors that my theories were correct, I would stick my head into that coil and I was not hurt; but I would not do it now.”
The Johnsons were often invited to these displays. “We were frequently invited to witness his experiments,” recalled Robert, experiments in which “lightning-like flashes of electrical fire of the length of fifteen feet were an every-day occurrence, and his tubes of electric light were used to make photographs of many of his friends as a souvenir of their visits.”
Robert was so moved that he wrote a poem called “In Tesla’s Laboratory” that he published in Century Magazine.
Here in the dark what ghostly figures press!—
No phantom of the Past, or grim or sad;
No wailing spirit of woe; no spectre, clad
In white and wandering cloud, whose dumb distress
Is that its crime it never may confess;
No shape from the strewn sea; nor they that add
The link of Life and Death,—the tearless mad,
That live nor die in dreary nothingness:
But blessed spirits waiting to be born—
Thoughts to unlock the fettering chains of Things;
The Better Time; the Universal Good.
Their smile is like the joyous break of morn;
How fair, how near, how wistfully they brood!
Listen! that murmur is of angels’ wings.
And as he attended more and more session in Tesla’s lab, Johnson began to wonder why the photographs Tesla made were only used as souvenirs for friends.
Johnson hatched an idea to have special pictures taken using one of Tesla’s new phosphorescent light bulbs—which we would today call a fluorescent light—and published them as a world first in The Century.
To write up an accompanying article, Johnson reached out to Martin, whose biographical essay which appeared in early 1894 had been well received, even by competitors. This second piece, Johnson proposed, would focus on Tesla’s lab itself.
Tesla was, Johnson wrote, “the first person to make use of phosphorescent light for photographic purposes—not a small item of invention in itself. I was one of a group consisting of Mark Twain, Joseph Jefferson, Marion Crawford and others who had the unique experience of being thus photographed.”
Naturally, the pictures of Twain—by then perhaps the most recognizable man on the planet—would would become the centerpiece of the article, and Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) visited Tesla’s laboratory on March 4, 1894, and again on April 26 to have these photos taken.
Martin was only too happy to agree to another commission, but suggested they take precautions to ensure that news of the photographs didn’t leak out before they went to press. By which Martin meant that he didn’t trust Tesla to keep quiet about them until publication time.
“I will lock [them] up or put [them] in a safe deposit vault, if you wish until the hour of publication,” Martin told Johnson. “But I want to get one of the first as a historical souvenir.”
Tesla, with an eye to the impact these photos could have on potential investors, became impatient for the publicity and wanted to put the photos out right away as Martin had foreseen.
“I think that we ought to have a little talk about giving to the daily newspapers a hint that [you have] succeeded in taking photos by phosphorescence,” Martin warned Tesla. “It will leak out some hour and then someone with the customary arrogance [will place it] in the papers. [We need] to get our priorities established. I think R. U. Johnson feels the same way.”
This insistence on waiting to announce and publish these photos became another point of disagreement and tension between Tesla and Martin.
For the poses, Tesla had each guest hold a large loop of wire in their hands. When the resonating coil in the center of the laboratory was activated, enough current was wirelessly transmitted from the coil to the loop to light up bulbs placed between the visitor’s hands. My favourite of this series is of Mark Twain. Dressed in a dark suit, Twain holds two ends of a great hoop of wire (which you can see loops around behind him). He’s looking down at the bulb lighting up in front of him as, over his shoulder, Tesla looks on from the half-darkness. I’ll include the photo in the episode’s show notes at teslapodcast.com.
“Strange as it may seem,” wrote Martin, “these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.”
As planned (and much to Tesla’s frustration), Johnson and Martin hold on to the photographs until they were ready to publish, which ended up being in the April 1895 issue of The Century. By then, however, the photographs were an artifact of a truly lost past. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll talk about that more in a few episodes’ time…
As 1894 drew to a close, Tesla invited the Johnsons to once again visit his lab.
“Dear Luka,” Tesla wrote on December 21, “You have not forgotten the visit to my laboratory tomorrow, I hope. Dvořak will be there and a number of other celebrities in America’s elite.”
Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Filipovs rounded out a truly remarkable year for Tesla, one that certainly lived up to the letter Tesla had written to his uncle Petar a year earlier.
But, as 1895 dawned, no one could know that within mere months Tesla and his work would suffer the most devastating set back imaginable…
But that will have to wait. Because next time we’re going to witness one of the final battles of the War of the Currents, and learn how the ultimate prize—the electrification of Niagara Falls—was finally won.