On March 13, 1895, at the height of his powers, Tesla suffered a devastating tragedy as his world–and his work–came crashing down around him.
First things first: this is the very special Maury Povich video one of our listeners, Anthony, sent in!
And the other promised item was an article from The Economist sent in by listener Abe, about a New Zealand company working to transmit power wirelessly through the air. Click here to read all about their efforts.
Now then, back in Episode 26, before we detoured to witness the end of the War of the Currents for a couple of episodes, we watched Tesla become the darling of New York high society and spent time with him and his fancy new friends exploring his laboratory.
And, as 1895 dawns for Tesla, his lab is where we’ll spend most of our time this episode, too, looking at the momentous events of the first few months of the new year, all of which centre in one way or another around Tesla’s lab.
You’ll recall from the last few War of the Currents episodes, that Edward Dean Adams, the driving force behind the promotion of hydroelectric power at Niagara, relied on Tesla’s advice at a critical moment in 1893 when his company had to decide between using AC or DC for Niagara.
Now, a few years later and feeling like Tesla hadn’t steered him wrong, Adams visited Tesla lab at 33–35 South Fifth Ave. After seeing several demonstrations, Adams agreed to promote Tesla’s latest inventions, and together they launched the Nikola Tesla Company in February 1895.
So what would Adams have seen Tesla hard at work on?
In early 1895, Tesla was pursuing four main lines of research. One was his oscillator (his combination steam engine and electric generator), which Tesla regarded “as a practically perfected machine, but which of course, suggests many new lines of thought every day.” Second was his new wireless lighting system, while a third “was the transmission of intelligence any distance without wires.” And the fourth, according to Tesla, touched “on the nature of electricity.”
Since this new company was going to promote not only Tesla’s recent high-frequency patents but also those assigned earlier to Peck and Brown—remember them from Episode 10?—Adams and Tesla included Alfred Brown as a director in the company. In addition, they invited another Niagara promoter, JP Morgan’s lawyer William Rankine (who we met back in Episode 28), as well as Charles F. Coaney to serve as directors.
The Nikola Tesla Company planned to manufacture and sell machinery, generators, motors, and electrical apparatus, and the directors planned to issue $500,000 of stock to capitalize it (equivalent to $16.7 million dollars today).
If all the stock sold, Tesla’s share of the funds would have enabled him to develop his high-frequency inventions. But it still wouldn’t have been enough to manufacture anything on a commercial scale. So, despite the claim that the Nikola Tesla Company was going to manufacture electrical apparatus, it appears the plan was much more in line with the “patent, promote, sell” model that Peck and Brown had used back in the 1880s. This strategy had also worked for Tesla in the sale of the European rights to his motor patents in 1892.
The real goal of the company likely would have been that, once Tesla’s lighting system and oscillator had been perfected, then either the patents or the entire company could be sold. Not unlike a successful tech startup today that develops some clever app or digital service and then gets bought by Google, or Facebook, or Amazon.
I told you this era had a lot of similarities to our own.
Adams eventually invested about $100,000 in Tesla’s work for a controlling interest in “fourteen U.S. patents, many foreign patents,” and any future inventions which Tesla might conceive…but there were few other takers. Why not?
After all, Tesla apparently had half a dozen entirely new inventions in the works. Mechanical oscillators that might replace the steam engine. Electrical oscillators that were key to his system of fluorescent lighting, remote control, and his now secret work in wireless transmission. And there were more out-there ideas he’d mused about, including ozone production, cheap refrigeration, the cheap manufacture of liquid oxygen, and the manufacture of fertilizers and nitric acid from the air.
One factor: poor business conditions.
You’ll recall our discussion of the Panic of 1893 back in our episode on the Gilded Age. Well, that Panic led to a five-year-long recession in the United States. During the mid-1890s, neither the existing electrical manufacturers nor utility companies were especially profitable. There was no incentive for investors to take a chance on Tesla’s next-generation technology when the companies using the previous generation DC lighting or AC power generators weren’t earning any money.
A second factor holding back the success of the Nikola Tesla Company? Nikola Tesla himself.
Tesla’s ideas were all more or less still on the drawing board and he had gained his backers because of his track record in AC and because of the promise held by his various oscillators. But Tesla had a problem developing his ideas for commercial purposes after his initial burst of inspiration.
His biographer, W. Bernard Carlson, suggests this is due to the challenge of switching from divergent thinking— the fun stage where you come up with lots of ideas and designs—and moving to convergent thinking, in which you focus on perfecting the most promising version and making it reliable, efficient, and cost-effective.
For a mind like Tesla’s, convergent thinking was probably deadly boring.
“A notable faculty of Tesla’s mind is that of rushing intuition,” noted one reporter. “You begin to state a question or proposition to him and before you have half formulated it, he has suggested six ways of dealing with it and ten of getting around it.”
But in the mid-1890s, Tesla seems to have just given up on doing development work entirely.
Instead, he focused on the variety in his invention work.
In his lectures, he wouldn’t show just the best style of a lamp, he would show a dozen variations of various quality and potential. Every few months Tesla would invite reporters to his lab so they could write up his latest discovery. But rather than getting across the power of Tesla’s genius, the flightiness that came across in these articles scared off investors. They were worried—rightly, it turned out—that Tesla would never buckle down and get to the nitty-gritty of creating a marketable product.
And none of Tesla’s partners were in a position to rein him in. Peck had died unexpectedly in 1890, and while Brown was on the board of the company he didn’t get involved in Tesla’s inventions. Adams and Rankine were talented businessmen, but they were too busy with Niagara Falls to focus too hard on Tesla’s work back in Manhattan—and besides, they were finance guys and not experts in patent strategy or engineering who could steer Tesla’s technical work.
And, as if to double down on avoiding development work, when there was no investment interest in his wireless lighting system and his oscillator, instead of refocusing his efforts and doing the work to make them more efficient and thus more attractive to investors, Tesla decided instead to expand the scope of his plans: instead of a system to light a few rooms he would look to power the whole Earth instead.
See what I mean?
After spending several years entertaining visitors with his phosphorescent lamps and oscillating transformer, Tesla decided that these were little more than party tricks. “A system of [power] transmission, based on the same principle, was absolutely worthless,” he would later explain.
Tesla rejected the idea of transmitting power using electromagnetic waves through the ether or atmosphere for both practical and theoretical reasons.
Thinking about his experiments in which his transmitter was connected to both an antenna and to the ground, tesla understood two things to be happening during this setup: electromagnetic waves radiated out from the antenna and a current passed into the ground. But because the waves travelled into space in all directions and away from the receiver, Tesla was frustrated by the energy loss.
“That energy which goes out in the form of rays,” said Tesla “is unrecoverable, hopelessly lost. You can operate a little [receiving] instrument by catching a billionth part of it, but except this, all goes out into space never to return.” As a result of this inefficiency, Tesla didn’t see much point in exploring electromagnetic waves any further.
Instead, it was what happened when the current passed into the ground that intrigued Tesla.
Why not, wondered Tesla, have the transmitter send waves of current through the Earth to a receiver and then use electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere for the return circuit? By using the ground current in this way, Tesla believed more energy could be sent from the transmitter to the receiver.
In making this decision, Tesla was turning him back on the thinking of the other early wireless pioneers—Hertz, Lodge, and Marconi—who focused their efforts on transmitting electromagnetic waves through the air.
Just as Tesla had invented his AC motor by bucking the prevailing thinking, he looked to do the same with wireless power by inverting the roles played by electromagnetic waves and the ground current in his high-frequency apparatus. For Tesla, it was the ground current that should transmit energy and the electromagnetic waves which would serve as a simple return mechanism to complete the circuit. Tesla would later decide that the circuit was completed by assuming an electric current could be conducted through the upper atmosphere.
…Unfortunately, while such revolutionary thinking had led Tesla to great innovations in AC power they would not prove as successful when it came to wireless power transmission.
Tesla’s thinking here reveals itself as based on nineteenth-century practices in power and telegraphic engineering (which emphasized complete circuits) and not on the electromagnetic theory that had sprung from the work of James Clerk Maxwell.
You might recall back in Episode 17 we talked about how Tesla decided from time to time that major theories widely held to be accurate within the scientific community were wrong and that he, Tesla, was in the right. Now, this attitude is what drove Tesla to his greatest insights and innovations when he rejected the supposed impossibility of an AC motor and power system. But, it was to prove a fatal flaw and a reminder that scientists—and everyone else, really—should strive to remain humble and skeptical. Someone always knows more than you do.
Tesla’s experiments with Geissler tubes and his early neon lights made Telsa believe that the findings of Hertz and Maxwell about the nature of electromagnetic waves were in error. These incorrect conclusions he was setting himself on a path that would lead farther and farther away from core scientific consensus and down experimental paths that were doomed to failure.
“But Steve,” I can hear some of you say, “how can you claim that Tesla’s later work was doomed to failure? Maybe Maxwell was wrong and Tesla was right all along. Maybe it was just that Tesla never had the funding he needed to make his breakthrough, or maybe the government and the energy companies that are keeping his innovations secret because they don’t want us all to have free energy!”
How do I know? Well, let me ask you this: do you have a cellphone? Are you listening to this podcast on a smartphone or maybe through Bluetooth earbuds? Where do those devices get their signals to connect wirelessly to networks to make phone calls or download your favourite podcast about the life of Nikola Tesla? Is it through the ground? No. It’s through the air, using electromagnetic signals.
Congratulations, you’ve just helped prove Maxwell’s theory correct.
We know that Maxwell was right because the technology we have that is based on his foundation works, reliably. And, unfortunately, Tesla’s wireless system never did.
Maxwell was no slouch. His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for Einstein’s special relativity as well as quantum mechanics. Many physicists regard Maxwell as the 19th-century scientist having the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. Though he’s not nearly as well known outside the field, Maxwell’s contributions to science are considered by many physicists to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.
And, unfortunately, it was the dawning of this new era in physics—the one that would revolutionize our world in the 20th Century—that Tesla was rejecting entirely by deciding that he was right and everyone else was wrong. These were the first steps down the wrong path…one that would dominate the rest of his career and the commitment to which would prevent him from ever achieving anything like the breakthroughs that he’d made in his early years in electrical engineering.
Tesla had realized for a number of years that the earth carried a charge, which is part of why he decided to utilize the planet itself as a carrier of electrical energy. If the earth was full of potential energy, he reasoned, it could be tapped in to and transmission lines would be superfluous.
Having decided to maximize the ground current and minimize the electromagnetic waves radiating from his apparatus, Tesla began to use a very large inducers and very small capacitors in his transmitting circuit, connecting them to the ground usually via the water-main system in order to determine the frequency of earth’s electrical charge.
In the first experiment with ground currents, Tesla used a tall, cone-shaped coil powered by a high-frequency current from an alternator and a bank of condensers. While one terminal of the coil was grounded, the other was left free in space. When the power was turned on, “purple streamers of electricity [were] thus elicited from the earth and [poured] out to the ambient air.”
But what caused this outpouring of electrical streamers? For Tesla, they were evidence that he was tapping the earth’s electricity.
As TC Martin wrote at the time: “if [Tesla] he has not yet actually determined the earth’s [precise] electrical charge, or ‘capacity,’ he has obtained striking effects which conclusively demonstrate that he has succeeded in disturbing it. [When his oscillations] are in harmony with the individual vibrations of the [earth], an intense vibration or surging will be obtained.”
Martin suggested—and it’s unclear whether this is his own imagination or something Tesla mused about—that once the Tesla device was perfected not only could information and power be transmitted but it might be used to modify the planet’s weather.
And he ended the article with something that Tesla definite did suggest as a possibility: that “Perchance, we shall ‘call up’ Mars in this way someday, the electrical charge of both planets being utilized as signals.”
More on the Martian connection in a later episode.
Tesla was now convinced that rather than simply sending a current from one point to another on the earth’s surface, might it be possible to transmit power by using resonance? By pumping electrical oscillations into the ground at the earth’s resonant frequency, Tesla thought he might be able to broadcast power around the entire planet.
Tesla believed that he would not need to pump huge amounts of electrical energy into the earth; only a small amount was needed, at the right frequency, to serve as the trigger, and the earth’s natural resonance would do the rest.
This belief harkened back to an experience from his childhood that we recounted way back in Episode 2: that when young Tesla and some friends were tromping out in the snowy mountains of his homeland, they took to rolling snowballs down the mountain and accidentally triggered an avalanche.
Witnessing this avalanche begin from such a small cause left a profound mark on Tesla and convinced him of the tremendous forces stored up in Nature that can be released by small triggering forces. The search for such triggers influenced many of his later experiments, including his quest for wireless energy through the resonance of the earth.
But in pursuing four lines of research at once, Tesla was wearing himself out. During a visit to his lab in March 1895 a reporter described Tesla with the following:
“I was a trifle shocked the first time I saw Nikola Tesla as he suddenly appeared before me _ and sank into a chair seemingly in a state of utter dejection. Tall, straight, gaunt, and sinewy of frame like a true Slav, with clear blue eyes and small, mobile mouth fringed with a boyish mustache, he looked younger than his thirty-seven years. But what arrested my attention chiefly at the moment was the pallid, drawn, and haggard appearance of the face. While scanning it closely I plainly read a tale of overwork and of tremendous mental strain that must soon reach the limits of human endurance.”
Tesla was aware excessive work was taking a toll on him—this was a repeating pattern with Tesla throughout his life: frantic exertion, followed by total physical collapse. But, as he explained to the reporter, he couldn’t stop working:
“These experiments of mine are so important, so beautiful, so fascinating, that I can hardly tear myself away from them to eat, and when I try to sleep I think about them constantly. I expect that I shall go on until I break down altogether.
And it was in this physical and mental state that Tesla suffered one of the great tragedies of his life.
At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 13, 1895, a fire broke out at 33–35 South Fifth Avenue (now West Broadway), near Bleecker Street, in the building containing Tesla’s laboratory.
Now, given all the electrical equipment in Tesla’s lab, you might expect that it was the sparks those devices threw off that set the building ablaze. That turns out not to be the case, however. The building’s night watchman said definitively that the fire started on the floors below Tesla’s lab.
Keen listeners might remember in Episode 26 I mentioned that on the floors below Tesla’s lab there was a dry-cleaner and either a pipe-cutting business or a steam-fitting manufacturer, depending on the source you consult. And I mentioned that this fact would be important later. Well. Now’s the time.
Because it was in the premises of one of these two businesses where the fire began. However, there’s debate as to which was the origin of the blaze.
One source suggests that the pipe-cutter had over time “saturated the loft building with oil, and “it burned like a tinder-box,” making the watchman’s buckets of water futile in trying to put out the blaze. It’s also possible, however, that the chemicals used by the dry cleaners could have been the culprit.
Marc J. Siefer says in his Tesla biography that some investigators intimated at the time that the night watchman himself may have been responsible, perhaps by smoking carelessly near oily rags.
Margaret Cheney says in her Tesla bio that it was a gas jet on the first floor that ignited the oil-soaked rags.
Whatever the cause and wherever the fire started, the results are not in dispute.
The fire gutted the six-story building and Tesla lost everything.
The fire was so intense that the whole loft building imploded, with the upper floors collapsing down on the lower. Tesla’s lab, which had been on the 4th floor was now suddenly on the second floor. O’Neill says that Tesla also had equipment on another floor of the building, but the inferno claimed it all.
Interestingly, Margaret Cheney suggests that one reason the fire burned so intensely might have been due to a supply of liquid oxygen—a highly flammable substance commonly used today as rocket fuel—contained in Tesla lab. As we mentioned earlier, one of Tesla’s research ideas at this time was a way to cheaply manufacture liquid oxygen, which had lucrative industrial applications. It’s unclear how far Tesla had progressed down this road of research or whether he ever manufactured any liquid oxygen, but it’s an interesting theory for the consuming fury of the blaze.
Or it could just be due to oil-soaked timbers and dry-cleaning chemicals.
Without hope of saving the building, all the firefighters—who battled the blaze for three hours—could do was prevent the flames spreading to an adjacent box factory and the nearby elevated railroad.
As dawn broke, the New York Sun reported, all that remained were “two tottering brick walls and the yawning jaws of a somber cavity aswim with black water and oil.”
“In a single night,” reported the New York Herald, “the fruits of ten years of toil and research were swept away. The web of a thousand wires which at his bidding thrilled with life had been twisted by fire into a tangled skein. Machines, to the perfection of which he gave all that was best of a master mind are now shapeless things, and vessels which contained the results of patient experiment are heaps of pot sherds.”
Fortunately, for once, Tesla had not been toiling away late at night working on some apparatus or he might have been trapped in the flames.
Instead, Tesla discovered what had happened only the next morning as he strolled down the street to work around 10am. Imagine the charred, smouldering wreck that greeted him.
“It cannot be true,” he repeated again and again as he paced before the spot where the building used to be. His fifteen employees stood by, dumbstruck. They had apparently been gathered for some time, but none had had the heart to fetch Tesla and break the news to him.
When a New York Times reporter approached him, Tesla waved him away, saying, “I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say? The work of half my lifetime, very nearly; all my mechanical instruments and scientific apparatus, that it has taken years to perfect, swept away in a fire that lasted only an hour or two. How can I estimate the loss in mere dollars and cents? Everything is gone. I must begin over again.”
Tesla staggered away.
“Utterly disheartened and broken in spirit, Nikola Tesla, one of the world’s greatest electricians, returned to his rooms in the Gerlach yesterday morning and took to his bed,” reported the New York Herald the next day. “He has not risen since. He lies there, half sleeping, half waking. He is completely prostrated.”
The fire and destruction of Tesla’s lab was worldwide news, highlighting both the personal and public significance.
Headlines read things like “Work of half a lifetime gone” and “Fruits of Genius Swept Away.” In London, the Electrical World reported Tesla’s physical collapse.
The magazine Current Literature said of Tesla’s loss, “To have all of his innumerable marvels swept away at one stroke is a calamity to the whole world as well as to himself.”
Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun, one of the most revered newspaper editors of his day, wrote in a special editorial the day of the fire:
“The destruction of Nikola Tesla’s workshop, with its wonderful contents, is something more than a private calamity. It is a misfortune to the whole world. It is not in any degree an exaggeration to say that the men living at this time who are more important to the human race than this young gentleman can be counted on the fingers of one hand; perhaps on the thumb of one hand.”
Tesla’s losses were total.
The major part of his fortune was invested in the apparatus in that building. And he carried no insurance on any of it.
But the monetary loss was secondary.
“The Tesla laboratory was, in a sense, a private museum,” T. C. Martin wrote. “The owner kept in it many souvenirs of bygone toil and experiment… Perhaps the most painful loss of all is the destruction of Mr. Tesla’s notes and papers. His memory is all right, and flashes on any experiment of the past with the revealing power of a search-light, but the time it will take for the inventor to recreate his ongoing investigations will also cost other experimenters years of sweat and pain.”
All his specially designed dynamos, oscillators, motors, vacuum bulbs, not to mention all his records, papers, correspondence, mementos, his World’s Fair exhibit–all gone. A real kick in the teeth was the fact that Tesla had just recently brought all his notes and papers, to the laboratory to start organizing them. Along with his apparatus, Tesla estimated he lost $80,000 to $100,000 in his own investment the apparatus in the laboratory—that’s between $2.6 and $3.3 million dollars today.
Far more costly, were the lost years of work, however.
Some of his apparatus existed in similar form elsewhere—his dynamos and oscillators and motors—but his newly developed wireless transmitters and receivers were unique and would all have to be completely rebuilt. As Tesla himself later said, a million dollars could not have compensated for the setbacks in his research. And that’s a million dollars in 1895 money…
Knowing his delicate mental state, Tesla’s friends were worried for his well-being. Robert and Katharine Johnson searched for Tesla around the city at his usual haunts, but to no avail.
An emotional letter from Katharine, written the day after the fire, finally reached Tesla some days later, probably at the Gerlach Hotel. She told of their search and the hope of consoling him in his “irreparable loss.”
“It seemed as if you too must have dissipated into thin air,” wrote Katherine. “Do let us see you again in the flesh that this awful thought may vanish,” she implored. “Today with the deepening realization of the meaning of this disaster and consequently with increasing anxiety for you, my dear friend, I am even poorer except in tears, and they cannot be sent in letters. Why will you not come to us now—perhaps we might help you, we have so much to give in sympathy.”
For his part, Tesla downplayed the fire at his lab in his 1918 brief biography, perhaps not wishing to dwell on past tragedy.
He described reaching “tensions of about 1,000,000 volts with my conical coil” with steady progress being made “until the destruction of my laboratory by fire in 1895, as may be judged from an article by T. C. Martin which appeared in the April number of the Century Magazine. This calamity set me back in many ways and most of that year had to be devoted to planning and reconstruction. However, as soon as circumstances permitted, I returned to the task.”
Next time, we’ll look at the remainder of 1895 and how Tesla began to return to the task and move on with his grand plan—bringing wireless power to the world—and how he kicked himself for missing out on a new discovery that he’d actually made years earlier.