033 – Tesla Goes West (1899)


Tesla takes a momentous professional leap and heads west to Colorado Springs. There he builds the experimental station that would allow him to understand the fundamental principles needed to build his world wireless system.

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Tesla vs Edison – Feb 22- Mar 12, 2023

On Stage Feb 22-Mar 12, 2023 at the Center for Puppetry Arts, located in Atlanta Georgia. Known as the “War of Current,” this debate between alternating and direct current electricity became one of the greatest feuds in American history between Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla and businessman Thomas Alva Edison.

See Sparks Fly Between Two of History’s Most Impassioned Inventors in Tesla vs Edison (press release)

‘Tesla vs Edison’ electrifies history with whimsy, humor, puppets (review from The Emory Wheel)


In August 1898, John Jacob Astor returned from his self-funded adventures in the Spanish-American War.

The heir to a $100 million fortune (that’s north of $3 billion in today’s money), Colonel Astor (as he insisted that everyone call him after the war) was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, who had become rich first in the fur trade and then in New York City real estate.

As one of the wealthiest families in America, the Astors ruled New York high society. I’ve mentioned “the 400” previously–the creme de la creme of New York’s social elite. Why were there 400? Because that’s how many guests could fit into the ballroom in the New York home of Mrs. Astor, the colonel’s mother.

Educated at Harvard, when he graduated Astor followed family tradition and invested in Manhattan real estate. Envious of the success that his cousin, William Waldorf Astor, was having with a new hotel, the Waldorf, Astor built his own luxury hotel next door in 1897–because that’s what insanely wealthy people with huge egos who make people call them “Colonel” do–and he named it the Astoria. The complex soon became known as the Waldorf-Astoria, and at the time, it was the largest hotel in the world.

The Colonel was also widely considered to be cold-hearted, humourless, weak-minded and almost completely devoid of personality.

Is it any wonder then that despite the Colonel’s return in August, Tesla put off going to see him until December 1898?

Tesla spent the intervening months trying his best to raise funds for an expanded, scaled-up version of the system that had already outgrown his New York lab. He demonstrated his system in August 1898 for Prince Albert of Belgium (whom he met previously in Paris), and Tesla secured a loan of $10,000 (about $363,000 today) from a partner in the dry-goods firm of Simpson and Crawford.

But by December, Tesla had set his sights firmly on Astor.

So why did Tesla think Astor was a good potential investor to court (other than the vast fortune, I mean?)

Well, Astor was fascinated by science and technology. Working in a laboratory at the family estate at Ferncliff, Astor tinkered with several inventions, including a bicycle brake, a vibratory disintegrator used to produce gasoline from peat moss, and a pneumatic machine for improving dirt roads. In 1894 he published a science-fiction novel, A Journey in Other Worlds, which described life in the year 2000 and travel to Saturn and Jupiter. In this novel, Astor speculated on new technologies such as a worldwide telephone network, solar power, and even a plan to modify the weather by adjusting the Earth’s axial tilt. 

Astor was also familiar with Tesla’s work since he was a director of the Cataract Construction Company, the firm that had built the Niagara power plant. Astor presented Tesla with a copy of his novel in February 1895, and Tesla thanked him for “an interesting and pleasant memento of our acquaintance.”

And if you remember back to Episode 30, Astor was an enthusiastic backer of a fraudulent inventor from Philadelphia named John Ernst Worrell Keely, who claimed to have discovered a “vaporic” or “etheric” force which could provide power to a motor. Remember: it was not for nothing that Astor was considered “weak-minded” by his contemporaries.

It must have been frustrating for Tesla that a fraud like Keely was getting Astor’s backing. Surely, Tesla must have thought, Astor would want to fund him, too, since Tesla at least had a track record of successful invention and innovation.

To get to the Colonel, Tesla went through his wife, Ava. While the Colonel was seen as dour, Eva was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in America.

Tesla relocated to the Waldorf-Astoria in the fall of 1898, and combined with his regular dining at Delmonico’s in order to be seen by the rich and powerful of New York, it’s possible he was able to arrange to bump into the Colonel and Eva from time to time.

Seifer reports in his book that the three eventually got to dining together occasionally and that Tesla was always careful to bring Eva a bouquet of flowers when they did.

Ava, who was enthralled by the inventor’s experiments, seemed to be on Tesla’s side in getting her husband to fund his endeavours, but when the two men finally met alone in late 1898 Tesla still felt the need to apologize for not joining Astor on his adventures during the Spanish-American War. You’ll recall from last episode that Astor had invited Tesla on his crusade, encouraging him to unleash his teleautomaton torpedoes against the Spanish.

Upon hearing Tesla’s apology, the Colonel told him not to worry.

“During the gunfire,” Astor replied, “I realized that your life was too precious to risk on such a trip. I see, however, from recent reports that you have been attacked after all, but it has been by reporters instead.”

“I’m glad,” Tesla quipped, “that I am living in a place in which, though they can roast me in the papers, they cannot burn me at the stake.”

The ice thus broken, Tesla convened a meeting with Astor and two of his associates, Clarence McKay and Darius Ogden Mills, to showcase his progress with oscillators, fluorescent lights, and various patent applications. Tesla also marshalled articles from technical journals as well as reports from the Royal Society and Roentgen Society, and testimonials from eminent scientists like Sir William Crookes, about the progress Tesla had made with his inventions.

“It is for a reason that I am often and violently attacked [in the press],” Tesla explained to the Colonel. “[M]y inventions threaten a number of established industries. My telautomaton, for instance, opens up a new art which will sooner or later render large guns entirely useless, and will make impossible the building of large battleships, and will, as I have stated in my patent long before the Czar’s manifesto, compel the nations to come to an understanding for the maintenance of peace.”

Astor, while intrigued, was more skeptical.

“You are taking too many leaps for me,” Astor said, causing his associates to also hit pause on their potential support. “Let’s stick to oscillators and cold lights. Let me see some success in the marketplace with these two enterprises before you go off saving the world with an invention of a different order, and then I will commit more than my good wishes.”

Tesla waited until the new year and then made a more direct pitch to Astor.

Emphasizing his past successes–that he had “brought to commercial perfection some important inventions which, even at the most conservative estimate, must be valued at several million dollars”–Tesla said that in the past, Westinghouse had paid him $500,000 for the AC polyphase system and that Edward Dean Adams had invested $100,000 to become a partner in his company, and that “I am fully confident that the property which I have now in my hands will pay much better than this.”

Tesla’s new system, he said, had reduced the need for expensive copper components to almost nothing. He could run 1000 of his new lamps on the same amount of wire needed for just a single incandescent lamp, and generate 5000 times as much light in the process.

Plus, there were Tesla’s innovations in oscillators, wireless power transmission, wireless telegraphy and remote control, plus side products generated by his devices, such as fertilizers and nitric acid condensed from the air, the production of ozone, cheap refrigeration and cheap manufacture of liquid air.

Given these facts, Tesla concluded, it was only a matter of time before G.E. or Westinghouse or some enterprising individual paid Tesla a handsome sum for the rights to such innovations. And wouldn’t Colonel Astor prefer that those rights–and the fortune that they would generate–belonged to him and not to someone else? And so, really, Tesla’s asking price of $1000 per share (roughly $36,000 today) for an interest in his company was kind of a bargain, if you think about it.

Astor had one condition for his support–that Tesla’s priority was to exploit his innovations in fluorescent lighting (to which Tesla quickly agreed)–and then on January 10, 1899, Astor signed papers purchasing 500 shares of the Tesla Electric Company in exchange for $100,000 and a seat on the company’s board.

Advancing $30,000 to Tesla, Astor prompted headed to Europe for an extended holiday.

Tesla immediately set to work refining his fluorescent lighting system…

Haha–no, I’m kidding.

Astor was out of the country, so naturally, Tesla ignore his benefactor’s wishes and instead turned back to his pursuit of wireless power.

After such an effort to wrangle investment out of Colonel Astor, why did Tesla ignore the deal he’d made? Was Tesla just a jerk?


Well, not entirely.

There’s little doubt that Tesla felt he knew better than some mere moneyman where the real potential for innovation was, so an Astor or not, Tesla wasn’t going to let the Colonel boss him around. But pride and ego weren’t the whole reason Tesla turned immediately back to wireless.

That had to do in large part with a young Italian we’ve mentioned before, Guglielmo Marconi. Tesla had been following developments with Marconi’s wireless system and was growing concerned.

From the start, Marconi sought to develop a system that could send telegraph messages wirelessly, and he focused on increasing the distance over which he could send them. In order to finance and promote his system, Marconi travelled to England in 1896 to take advantage of the business connections via his mother’s family, the Jamesons, of Jamesons Irish Whiskey fame. So, you know, Marconi wasn’t all bad.

Marconi steadily improved his apparatus, and by the fall of 1898 he could send messages over distances of eighty to one hundred miles. Unlike Tesla, who demonstrated his apparatus privately to friends, potential investors, and an occasional reporter, Marconi offered regular public demonstrations of his system.

Such public demonstrations got the press in both England and America on Marconi’s side, as soon reporters were touting Marconi’s wireless telegraph as a breakthrough.

This positive coverage of Marconi annoyed Tesla since, from his perspective, Marconi had done nothing new. As far back as 1890, Tesla had been experimenting with wireless apparatus, and in an 1893 lecture, he had outlined how one could send messages over a distance.

Careful to avoid using Marconi’s name, Tesla complained in the Electrical Review in January 1899 that “One can not help admiring the confidence and self-possession of experimenters, who put forth carelessly such views and who, with but a few days’, not say hours’, experience with a device, venture before scientific societies, apparently unmindful of the responsibility of such a step, and advance their imperfect results and opinions hastily formed. The sparks may be long and brilliant, the display interesting to witness, and the audience may be delighted, but one must doubt the value of such demonstrations.”

The irony here, of course, is that you could easily put those same words in the mouths of Tesla’s critics, who felt the same way about the flashiness of his demonstrations but found actual achievement or application wanting in the inventor’s work.

That Tesla’s comments were a thinly veiled attack on Marconi was lost on no one. Soon, New York gossip rag Town Topics poked fun at Tesla, taking the view that while Tesla was making promises, Marconi was getting results:

            Tesla, America’s Own and Only Non-Inventing Inventor, the Scientist of the Delmonico Caf and Waldorf-Astoria Palm Garden, has been at it again. This time the news of young Marconi’s success in telegraphing through space fired Tesla to feats hitherto undreamed of, and he filled columns in the Herald–which paper, I much fear me, inclines to help Tesla make a guy of himself–with profound droolings about volts and resistances and circuits and amperes and things and things. Tesla says he can do everything that Marconi has done. Of course, he doesn’t really do them but that may be because he is afraid someone else may find out how they are done. He knows all about the theory and the practical machinery of Marconi’s messages through miles of space and could prove it too–if old Bill Jones were alive. Indeed the actual results of the methods of the two inventors show only this slight difference: Marconi telegraphs through space and Tesla talks through space.

In March 1899, Marconi successfully sent a message from France across the Channel to a receiver at the South Foreland Light-house in England.

Not to be outdone, Tesla announced that he was prepared to send messages instantaneously around the world. As he boasted in the New York Journal:

            The people of New York can have their private wireless communication with friends and acquaintances in various parts of the world.

            It will be no great wonder to have a cable tower [with a balloon tethered to it] than it is now to have a telephone in your house.

            You will be able to send a 2,000 word dispatch from New York to London, Paris, Vienna, Constantinople, Bombay, Singapore, Tokio [sic] or Manila in less time than it takes now to ring up central.

By the spring of 1899, Tesla had all the elements he needed for his ideal wireless power system: he had perfected the circuitry needed to create a powerful high-voltage, high-frequency transmitter, he had discovered how to tune his transmitter and receivers by adjusting the capacitance and inductance, and he had become convinced that the atmosphere could serve as the return circuit for his system.

But there remained research to be done.

First, he had to figure out the laws of propagation of currents through the earth and the atmosphere to ensure that his system could send power or messages from one point to another. Next, Tesla needed to build coils and capacitors capable of working at millions of volts to power a global system. And finally, knowing that he would need to deliver power or messages to specific users, Tesla sought to improve his methods of tuning, or as he put it, “to perfect means for individualizing and isolating the energy transmitted.”

Having now promised worldwide wireless telegraphy in the press, Tesla knew that he had to deliver results. It was time, as the saying goes, to put up or shut up.

So that’s why he took Astor’s money to build the plant he needed to work out the operating details of his wireless system.

His laboratory, and indeed all of Manhattan, provided too confining for such endeavours. And so Tesla took to heart Horace Greeley’s famous advice to “Go West, young man,” and in May 1899, he relocated to Colorado Springs, where he would live and work until January 1900.

But, before he left, there was one last middle finger to extend to his one-time bestie and hype man, TC Martin.

After shipping his equipment to Colorado in the early spring of 1899, Tesla arranged an interview profiling him and his lab with the editor of the Electrical Review magazine, Charles W. Price, the chief rival of Martin and his publication, Electrical World. The interview was accompanied by sensational photographs by Dickenson Alley.

Complete with a glowing description (no pun intended) of Tesla and his experiments, the article ran in the March 29, 1899 issue. Starting with a full-length portrait of the inventor grasping an illuminated basketball-sized wireless vacuum lamp, the essay described the evolution of Tesla’s high-tension transformer, which resulted in Tesla’s flat, spiral transmitting coil.

This eight-foot transmitter, which looks like a sun wheel or spider’s web, allowed Tesla for the first time to generate two individualized vibrations, or tuned circuits, simultaneously and also produce many millions of volts.

Other prints depicted the flamboyant engineer transmitting high currents through his body to illuminate a variety of vacuum tubes, such as one that he whipped around his head in a multiple exposure. With one hand seeming to pluck a refulgent rod out of the midst of a spiral galaxy of blurred light and the other grasping a sparking, circular high-tension coil, the operator’s body[was] charged to a [great] potential

That little bit of petty publicity taken care of, it was finally time to decamp to Colorado.

Okay, so, why Colorado Springs?

Well, even when headed out to the frontier, Tesla–grown accustomed to the finer things in life–couldn’t be without at least some luxuries. Tesla was the original “glamper.”

Colorado Springs was founded in 1871 as a posh mountain resort that–with its scenic natural beauty, high altitude (its 6000 ft above sea level), dry climate, and fluoride-rich waters–attracted a well-to-do clientele seeking relief from a variety of ailments, including tuberculosis. Nearby gold mines also produced a number of millionaires who built fine homes in Colorado Springs.

Yeah, okay, but why Colorado Springs? Bankrolled by Astor, Tesla could have picked anywhere he wanted.

Well, at least one newspaper report suggests Tesla made a brief visit to Colorado Springs in 1896 to conduct a few wireless experiments, so he’d at least been there before.

With the town situated at the foothills of the Rockies, one wonders if Colorado Springs would have reminded Telsa of his childhood home in Smiljan.

The immediate cause for his choice of the town, however, might have been the invitation of Leonard E. Curtis, a partner of Tesla’s patent attorney, who himself had moved to Colorado Springs for his health. He suggested Tesla could make use of Colorado’s wide-open spaces to safely perform experiments he couldn’t contemplate in New York.

Tesla seemed to agree. “My coils [in New York] are producing 4,000,000 volts,” Tesla told Curtis in a letter, “and sparks jumping from walls to ceilings are a fire hazard.”

And an elevation of 6000 ft meant Tesla could begin to grapple with how currents were conducted through both the earth’s crust and the atmosphere at high altitudes.

Plus, Colorado Springs was almost 1800 miles away from the New York press that had begun to turn on Tesla, so there was that to factor in, too.

Intrigued by the invitation, Tesla laid out his needs to Curtis: “This is a secret test,” said Telsa. “I must have electrical power, water, and my own laboratory. I will need a good carpenter who will follow instructions…My work will be done late at night when the power load will be least.”

Curtis arranged everything, including free power from the local electrical utility, the El Paso Power Company.

On his way to Colorado Springs, Tesla stopped in Chicago to lecture before the Commercial Club–home of the city’s business elite. While the high point of the lecture was a demonstration of his radio-controlled boat, Tesla also outlined his plans to broadcast power, signal Mars, and use electricity to convert atmospheric nitrogen into cheap, abundant fertilizer.

Interviewed by the Chicago Times-Herald, Tesla took the opportunity to explain the difference between himself and Marconi–again without mentioning his rival by name.

While Marconi was pursuing mere applications for money, Tesla argued–in keeping with his nature as an idealist inventor–that he was seeking the underlying principles of this new technology:

“What I am doing is to develop a new art,” he told the interviewer. “Is that not more important than the attempt to elaborate an old art in some of its phases? I want to go down to posterity as the founder of a new method of communication. I do not care for practical results in the immediate present. Where I have time I stop to develop the application of the principles that I have announced, but that is part of the work which it is usually safe to leave to others. They will do it because there is money in it. For myself I am content to find the new principles through the knowledge of which the applications become possible.”

Departing Chicago by train, Tesla arrived in Colorado Springs on Thursday, 18 May 1899.

He was met at the station by Curtis and a few local dignitaries. A horse and carriage took him to his hotel, the Alta Vista, where he stayed, in room 207–another hotel room number divisible by 3. In this case, by the number 69–6 and 9, also (of course) divisible by 3.

No sooner had he reached his hotel than he was cornered by a reporter asking about his plans for his time in Colorado Springs. “I propose to send a message from Pike’s Peak to Paris,” promised Tesla. “I see no reason why I should keep the thing a secret longer. I have been preparing for a long while to come here and carry on these experiments which have been so much to me. I am here to work out a system of transmission at a distance. I propose to propogate [sic] electrical disturbances without wires.”

The inventor was feted by a banquet in his honour, sponsored by Curtis, at the El Paso Club. Well known throughout the region because his AC power transmission system had been adopted at lead, silver, and gold mines in such camps as Telluride (which we mentioned waaaay back in Episode 18), Tesla was introduced to society people, town officials, and even the governor of Colorado.

With the social calls out of the way, Tesla’s first order of business in Colorado Springs was the construction of an experimental station, and seven miles east of town. Located on an empty pasture known as Knob Hill, the station was positioned between the State Deaf and Blind Institute and the Printers’ Union Home. While the experimental station no longer exists, its location was basically at the intersection of East Kiowa and North Foote streets, near Memorial Park in modern-day Colorado Springs. I am also told that the city bus that runs along there is not only an electric bus, but that it is wrapped in a Tesla themed sticker, showing a famous photo of Tesla sitting calmly amidst the electrical storm caused by the giant magnifying transmitter in his experimental station–keep that photo in mind, we’ll talk about it later.

According to W. Bernard Carlson, the experimental station was built by a local carpenter, Joseph Dozier, and was a sixty-by-seventy-foot wooden barn, consisting of one large, open space and two small offices on the front. Over the main space, there was a roof that could be opened and closed, as well as a balcony for viewing the countryside.

A view on a clear day stretched virtually to Wyoming to the north and New Mexico to the south, and it was common to witness lightning storms in the distance while you yourself were standing in sunshine.

John J O’Neill in his biography of Tesla, Prodigal Genius, makes a somewhat grander assessment of the experimental station. In his telling, the station was “was an almost square barnlike structure nearly one hundred feet on each side. The sides were twenty-five feet high, and from them the roof sloped upward toward the center. From the middle of the roof rose a skeleton pyramidal tower made of wood. The top of this tower was nearly eighty feet above the ground. Extensions of the slanting roof beams extended outward to the ground to serve as flying buttresses to reinforce the tower. Through the center of the tower extended a mast nearly two hundred feet high, at the top of which was mounted a copper ball about three feet in diameter. The mast carried a heavy wire connecting the ball with the apparatus in the laboratory. The mast was arranged in sections so that it could be disjointed and lowered.”

Tesla’s initial plan for cabling across the Atlantic was to eventually erect two terminal stations, one in London and one in New York, with one of his oscillators placed at the top of each tower towers, communicating via giant disks suspended in captive balloons floating 5,000 feet above the earth to flash messages back and forth in an instant through what we would now call the ionosphere.

So his first set of experiments were to be the transmission of very high frequencies up long wires to terminals situated two miles in the sky. Helium-filled balloons more than ten feet long were ordered from a balloon company in Germany, and thousands of feet of wire and cable were shipped from the Houston Street lab. However, Tesla soon realized that existing balloons could not lift the weight of hundreds of feet of wire.

Instead, Tesla designed that telescoping mast O’Neill mentioned, one that could hoist a thirty-inch copper-covered ball to a height of 142 feet. To stabilize the mast, Tesla added a twenty-five-foot tower to the roof of the station. There was also a smaller tower with a hanging metal ball used to measure how capacitance varied with distance from the earth.

Despite the imposing structure he’d built, Tesla’s primary concern was secrecy. There was a single window in the station, but when local boys kept peeking through it, Tesla had it boarded up. There was also a fence built around the whole station, with signs reading KEEP OUT. GREAT DANGER. and a quote from Dante’s Inferno added by an assistant: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Tesla was joined in Colorado Springs by assistants who came from his New York laboratory: first, Fritz Lowenstein (who went back to New York in the fall of 1899) and who was then replaced by Kolman Czito. Tesla also hired a local teenager, Richard B. Gregg, whose father knew Curtis.

Under Tesla’s direction, Lowenstein and Gregg built an enormous magnifying transmitter. In the station’s main room, they constructed a circular wooden wall about six feet high and 49 feet in diameter. Around the top of this wall, they wound two turns of thick cable in order to create the primary winding of the transmitter. In the center of the room, they built the secondary coil using a hundred turns of finer wire. One end of this secondary coil could be connected to either a spherical terminal inside the laboratory or the copper ball atop the mast while the other end was grounded.

To power the transmitter, Tesla tapped into the AC power that ran the streetcar line that stopped just at the edge of the Knob Hill prairie and converted that incoming current to 20,000 or 40,000 volts as needed.

Perhaps Tesla should have affixed one of those GREAT DANGER KEEP OUT signs to the inside of his experimental station, too. Because there was danger aplenty for those inside the building, as well as outside.

In his 1919 article “Can Radio Ignite Balloons?” Tesla describes the great danger associated with his experiments in Colorado Springs. Admit- ting that “fires of all kinds and explosions can be produced by wireless transmitters,” he recounted causing such a fire whereby he was forced to crawl to safety, lucky not to have burned down his entire lab.

In late June and early July, Tesla began making observations of whether the Earth possessed a natural electrical potential or charge and doing so for the first time free of the electrical interference that was already ubiquitous in New York due to the sea of telegraphy, telephony, lighting, and power lines.

If it turned out that the Earth had no charge, Tesla would have to use his magnifying transmitter to introduce a tremendous amount of power in order to make the Earth vibrate electrically and transmit power over distances.

I’m not going to go into the details of the apparatus Tesla designed to measure the earth’s electrical potential–just think of it as sort of like a seismograph, but instead of measuring and recording earthquakes, it did so for high voltage.

Using this device–a coherer–Telsa found that “[t]he earth was literally, alive with electrical vibrations.”

He noticed that his receivers were more strongly affected by lightning strikes that were part of far-off thunderstorms than they were by lightning from nearby storms.

Once such claim is made by John J O’Neill in his biography of Tesla, Prodigal Genius. I’ve mentioned the issues with this book in the past and won’t rehash them here. Instead, I will let O’Neill’s prose speak for itself and, well, you can make up your own mind as to his reliability:

“The gods of the natural lightning may have become a bit jealous of this individual who was undertaking to steal their thunder, as Prometheus had stolen fire, and sought to punish him by wrecking his fantastic looking structure. It was badly damaged, and narrowly escaped destruction, by a bolt of lightning, not one that made a direct hit but one that struck ten miles away.

The blast hit the laboratory at the exact time, to the split second, that Tesla predicted it would. It was caused by a tidal wave of air coming from a particular type of lightning discharge. Tesla tells the story in an unpublished report.

He stated:

I have had many opportunities for checking this value by observation of explosions and lightning discharges. An ideal case of this kind presented itself at Colorado Springs in July 1899 while I was carrying on tests with my broadcasting power station which was the only wireless plant in existence at that time.

A heavy cloud had gathered over Pikes Peak range and suddenly lightning struck at a point just ten miles away. I timed the flash instantly and upon making a quick computation told my assistants that the tidal wave would arrive in 48.5 seconds. Exactly with the lapse of this time interval a terrific blow struck the building which might have been thrown off the foundation had it not been strongly braced. All the windows on one side and a door were demolished and much damage done in the interior.

Taking into account the energy of the electric discharge and its duration, as well as that of an explosion, I estimated that the concussion was about equivalent to that which might have been produced at that distance by the ignition of twelve tons of dynamite.”

End quote.

Whatever you make of O’Neill’s account, the fact that his instrumentation was more affected by far-off storms was a genuine puzzler for Tesla, since common sense would make you think that closer strikes would be picked up more powerfully by the receiver and not strikes farther away.

Then, one night, as he walked back to the hotel with Lowenstein, it came to him: stationary waves. The more distant lightning strikes could register more powerfully if the lightning bolts set up stationary waves in the earth’s crust.

Okay, but what’s a stationary wave?

When you were a kid, did you ever tie one end of a skipping rope to a fence? Well, if you flicked that rope up and down and sent a wave down the length of the rope to the fence, and then the wave travelled back from the fence to your hand, that’s a kind of simple stationary wave. A true stationary wave that we’re talking about here would happen if, in addition to flicking the rope, you also managed to tune that vibration you’re introducing so that it matched the resonant frequency of the rope itself. Then, the two waves–one going from your hand to the fence, the second from the fence back to your hand–would essentially sync up such that even though you were still flicking the rope up and down the waveform the skipping rope made, it’s peaks and valleys, would look like they were standing still.

Tesla reasoned that the lightning strikes triggered an electromagnetic wave in the earth’s crust that reflected back on itself to create a stationary wave.

Tesla had originally considered the possibility that electromagnetic stationary waves might be set up in the earth as far back as 1893, when preparing for his lecture before the Franklin Institute. At the time, however, he dismissed the idea as impossible. Now, in Colorado, he’d proved himself wrong.

And on 3 July 1899, during a spectacular thunderstorm, Tesla got a chance to confirm his hunch.

A massive, violent thunderstorm broke out in the mountains to the west, passed over Colorado Springs, and then moved quickly east onto the plains. According to Tesla, the storm produced no less than 10-12 thousand lightning strikes inside of two hours. Many of the bolts showed 10 or 20 branches. The flashing was almost continuous and even later in the night when the storm had calmed down 15-20 discharges per minute were still visible.

Using his coherer device connected to the ground, Tesla rigged a telegraph relay to sound at each lightning strike. Though not even adjusted for peak sensitivity, the relay began to tap out its measurements when the storm was still 80-100 miles away, an estimate Tesla based on measuring the intervals between thunderclaps.

Just imagine Tesla and his assistants standing around the experimental station counting: “1-Mississippi-2-Mississippi-3-Mississippi…”

As the storm, tracking west to east, passed overhead, they actually had to adjust the sensitivity of the telegraph relay downward, to make it less sensitive, because it was recording so many lightning strikes they worried the springs would break and destroy the machine.

Tesla also rigged up a second instrument to measure the lightning, based on a design used by Russian physicist Alexander Popov in 1895. Tesla attached an electric doorbell connected to the Earth and to an elevated terminal in the station so that the bell rang in response to each lightning discharge.

Imagine the cacophony in the experimental station, between the peals of thunder, a telegraph relay hammering away like a pair of those windup chattering teeth, and an electric doorbell ringing nonstop.

To Popov’s machine, Tesla added a visual element: a small spark gap that arced whenever lightning stuck. To get a sense of the strength of the current passing between the ground and the terminal, Tesla held his hands across the gap to feel the shock that came with each lightning stroke because…of course he did.

“But [a]s the storm receded,” Tesla later recorded, “the most interesting and valuable observation was made.”

As the storm moved away east, Tesla re-tuned his coherer “to be more sensitive and to respond readily to every discharge which was seen or heard.”

Tesla then goes on:

“It [responded] for a while, when it stopped. It was thought that the lightning was now too far and it may have been about 50 miles away. All of a sudden the instrument began again to play, continuously increasing in strength, although the storm was moving away rapidly. After some time the indications again ceased but half an hour later the instrument began to record again. When it once more ceased the adjustment was rendered more delicate, in fact very considerably so, still the instrument failed to respond, but half an hour or so it again began to play and now the spring was tightened on the relay very much and still it indicated the discharges. By this time the storm had moved away far out of sight. By readjusting the instrument and setting it again so as to be very sensitive, after some time it again began to play periodically. The storm was now at a distance of greater than 200 miles at least. Later in the evening repeatedly the instrument played and ceased to play in intervals of nearly half an hour although most of the horizon was clear by that time.”

From this, Tesla concluded that he was observing stationary electromagnetic waves. He reasoned that the lightning strikes set off an electromagnetic wave in the earth’s crust that then reflected back on itself every 30mins to create the stationary wave. Tesla was not certain where the waves were reflected.

“It would be difficult to believe that they were reflected from the opposite point of the Earth’s surface, though it may be possible,” he observed. “But I rather think that they are reflected from the point of the cloud where the conducting path began; in this case, the point where the lightning struck the ground would be a nodal point.”

Since this nodal point would change as the storm continued to move while Tesla’s receiver stayed in one place, Tesla reasoned that the receiver would respond during those intervals in which a peak of the stationary wave passed through the ground underneath the receiver.

And later experimental results by, of all things, the U.S. Navy, suggest that Tesla had, in fact, detected stationary waves produced by lightning storms. The Navy’s findings confirmed that Tesla’s observations were based on actual physical phenomena.

By using extremely low-frequency waves (ELF), the U.S. Navy discovered that it is possible to set up stationary electromagnetic waves, not necessarily in the earth’s crust but between the ionosphere and the earth’s surface in what is called the Schumann cavity. They also found that stationary waves can penetrate deep into the ocean, which is how from the 1980s through 2004, the US Navy maintained radio contact with its nuclear submarines. To transmit the ELF signals, the Navy used an underground antenna twenty-eight miles long.          

An ELF signal is considered anything under 30Hz…and unfortunately, these frequencies are also the ones that were later discovered to screw up the behaviour of whales, leading to collisions with boats and ships and with whales becoming disoriented and beaching themselves. So the US Navy brought in regulations about when and where such frequencies could be used for communication. I think the jury is still out on the success of those rules.

In any case, Tesla regarded the discovery of stationary electromagnetic waves to be of immense importance.

“It was on the 3rd of July [1899]-the date I shall never forget-” Tesla later wrote, “when I obtained the First decisive experimental evidence of a truth of overwhelming importance for the advancement of humanity.”

Never one to be subtle, was he?

In his notebook for that day, Tesla wrote: “It is now certain that they can be produced with an oscillator,” and then added in brackets, [This is of immense importance.]34

Tesla also wrote to George Scherff, who was holding down the fort back in New York. “We have just about finished all [the] details,” Tesla told him. “[M]y work is really to begin in earnest right now.”

For Tesla, this discovery meant that the Earth was dynamically, electrically charged, not the vast, calm reservoir of energy he’d previously believed it to be.

In the reservoir model, electromagnetic waves–such as those produced by lightning–would behave much in the same way as waves created by a stone dropped in a body of water: strong where the rock hit the water, and then dissipating in concentric circles. Power wouldn’t travel very far in that case.

But the existence of stationary waves suggested to Tesla that, instead, the Earth behaved like a “conductor of limited dimensions,” and that much in the same way stationary waves could be set up by lightning, Tesla now believed he could produce low-frequency waves using his oscillator.

For Tesla, this discovery meant his system would have far greater reach than the upstart Marconi’s little apparatus. Marconi might have sent messages across the English Channel, but Tesla was convinced he could send them around the world, and power, too.

“Not only was it practicable to send telegraphic messages to any distance without wires,” Tesla later wrote, “but also to impress upon the entire globe the faint modulations of the human voice, [and] far more still, to transmit power, in unlimited amounts, to any terrestrial distance and almost without loss.”

I’m struck here by the parallels Tesla must have seen between his worldwide system and Marconi’s limited wireless telegraph and the advantages that Tesla’s AC system had in sending power greater distances than Edison’s DC system. Did Tesla expect a second “War of the Currents” to break out over wireless? If he did, based on how the first one had played out and what he now believed the possibilities for his world wireless system to be, he must surely have thought he’d be victorious in this war, too.

Tesla spent the next few months tracking lightning storms to determine how far his transmitter should reach.

“This I did,” he explained,

            “by comparison with lightning discharges which occurred almost every day and which permitted me to determine the effect of my transmitter and to ascertain experimentally the energy which it was capable of transmitting, as compared with that energy which was transmitted from a certain great distance by a lightning discharge. These I could follow up to distances of many hundreds of miles, and I could at any time tell precisely how much of a fraction of a watt I would obtain with my transmitter in a circuit situated at any point of the globe. The energy ascertained by measurement agreed exactly with that determined by calculation.”

Tesla assumed that if a storm could transmit so much power over such-and-such a distance, there should be no problem in using his transmitter to send power over the same distance.

“With these stupendous possibilities in sight,” wrote Tesla, “I attacked vigorously the development of my magnifying transmitter, now, however, not so much with the original intention of producing one of great power, as with the object of learning how to construct the best one.”

But before he could do that, his instruments detected another interesting set of signals.

And those signals…will have to wait until next time.

Because while in Colorado, Tesla was at his peak as a creative experimenter. But it was his overconfidence in the ideal system that he had built in his imagination that got in the way of him rigorously testing his ideas and collecting the hard evidence he would need to prove his system worked.

Convinced beforehand of the correctness of his ideal system, Tesla pounced on the first hints of success–which turned out to be illusions–rather than confront the actual problems and challenges that come from taking an idea from the imagination to the real world.

So next time, we’ll learn about the signals Tesla thought he was receiving and we’ll hear how one of the most famous photos of Tesla turns out to have been one of history’s first deep fakes.

032 – The Earthquake Machine (1896 – 1898)

Tesla realizes he’s reached the limits of experiments he can do on wireless transmission from his Manhattan laboratory when he almost lays waste to his entire neighborhood with an earthquake machine.

My visit to Nikola Tesla Park in Buffalo, NY!


While we talked around the Spanish-American War last episode, we need to take a closer look at the war and how it influenced Tesla and his work now that we’ve arrived in 1898.

You might recall that we first talked about the Spanish-American War way back in Episode 8 on the Gilded Age.

While the war comes smacked dab in the middle of the Gilded Age, its roots go back as far as the 1880s, when imperialists and anti-imperialists in Congress clashed over what role the United States was to play on the world stage.

While the thought of expanding trade opportunities for domestic products fuelled the desire for a strengthened US presence worldwide, the appeal of increasing the territorial advantage of the United States was equally important to imperialists.

Eventually, the imperialists would win the argument — but only after leading the nation into war with Spain in 1898 over the issue of (of all things) Cuban independence.

Revolts against Spanish rule had been occurring in Cuba for years, but in the late 1890s, U.S. public opinion was agitated by anti-Spanish propaganda and calls for war led by newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

You may recall that both Pulitzer and Hearst were pioneers of “yellow journalism”–a type of journalism that presented little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead used eye-catching headlines (including some printed in garish yellow ink–hence the name ‘yellow journalism’) to sell more newspapers. They would engage in exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, and sensationalism.

In this case, they thought there would be a lot of benefit to a war between the United States and Spain and they were determined to make it happen.

While Pulitzer and Hearst were banging the drums for war, the business community across the United States–which was just recovering from the deep depression caused by the Panic of 1893 and which feared that a war would reverse the gains–lobbied hard against conflict.

But–and you knew there had to be a ‘but’–on February 15, 1898, at 9:40 pm, the US Navy armoured cruiser, the USS Maine, exploded and sank while at anchor in Havana Harbor.

US President McKinley had sent the USS Maine to Havana to ensure the safety of American citizens and interests in Cuba, and to underscore the urgent need for reform. But with the ship’s destruction under mysterious circumstances, well, I bet you can guess what happens next.

Most American leaders took the position that the cause of the explosion was unknown, but public attention was riveted by the deaths of 250 out of 355 sailors aboard the Maine, and speculation ran wild. McKinley asked Congress to appropriate $50 million for defence, and Congress unanimously obliged.

The U.S. Navy’s investigation, made public six weeks after the explosion, concluded that the ship’s powder magazines were ignited when an external explosion was set off under the ship’s hull.

Spain’s investigation came to the opposite conclusion: the explosion originated within the ship.

To this day, the cause of the explosion isn’t definitively known and other investigations over the last hundred years have come to similarly contradictory conclusions: one in 1974 run by a US Navy admiral concluded that there was an internal explosion; another commissioned in 1999 by National Geographic found that the explosion could have been caused by a mine, but wasn’t definitive.

Whatever the cause, it didn’t matter. Popular opinion in the U.S., fanned by the yellow press, blamed Spain. The phrase, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a rallying cry for action and, as is so often the case with a rhyming slogan in American history (“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”; “I like Ike”; “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” etc etc.), its power became irresistible.

War started in April, was fought in both the Caribbean and the Pacific, and lasted ten weeks. As the American agitators for war expected, U.S. naval power proved decisive. The war ended later that year with the Treaty of Paris, negotiated on terms favourable to the U.S., giving it temporary control of Cuba (though the US would essentially have its thumb on the scale of Cuban affairs until Castro’s revolution in the 1950s), and ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine islands to the United States.

With the loss of these possessions, the Spanish Empire–the very empire that had discovered the New World–came to an end.

Fun fact: The main mast of the USS Maine is now a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery honouring those who died aboard.

Tesla had been meeting with John Jacob Astor throughout the run up to war in his ongoing attempts to woo the financier to invest in his work. Astor, however, seemed more intent on war than scientific advancement.

He had his yacht, Nourmahal, equipped with four machine guns, for instance.

When told by Tesla of his plans for a teleautomaton torpedo, Astor said: “Come to Cuba with me where you can demonstrate your work upon the insufferable scoundrels.” Tesla (who had already avoided military service for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in his youth) declined. Astor’s potential interest as in investor would have to wait.

Astor, who got himself appointed a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Volunteers (and who would later receive a temporary promotion to colonel in recognition of his services) donated $75,0000–just about $2.3 million dollars today–to the U.S. Army to equip an artillery division for use in the Philippines theatre of the war.

The colonel–and after the war, everyone always called Astor “Colonel”–lent the Nourmahal to the navy for use in battle. The hundred-yard long steam-driven three-masted schooner made a formidable warship and was able to feed sixty-five crew at one sitting.

Colonel Astor sailed his battalion down to Cuba and watched Teddy Roosevelt in the Battle of San Juan Hill through a pair of field glasses.

With only scientific journals able to adequately explain the complexity of his torpedo with any clarity, as we touched on last time, Tesla’s boasts about the power of his teleautomaton torpedo got a rough ride in the press, particularly in the pages of the Electrical Engineer, run by former bestie T. C. Martin:

“Like all inventors of destructive machines,” read one editorial, “[Tesla] claims that his [devil automata] will make the governments which are inclined to create international conflagrations hesitate. On this account Nikola Tesla claims a right to be called a benefactor of humanity. The genius of destruction would seem to have, then, two aims. It creates evil but mostly good. Through its help the abolition of wars may no longer be a utopia of generous dreamers. A blessed era will open up to the people, whose quarrels will be settled in view of the terror of the cataclysms promised by science. What contradictions of conception is the human mind subject to?”

Another such scathing review appeared in both The Scientific American and the more popular Public Opinion.

“That the author of the multiphase system of transmission should, at this late date, be flooding the press with rhetorical bombast that recalls the wildest days of the Keely Motor mania is inconsistent and inexplicable to the last degree. The facts of Mr. Tesla’s invention are few and simple as the fancies which have been woven around it are many and extravagant. The principles of the invention are not new, nor was Tesla the original discoverer.”

We talked last episode about how angry such accusations that he was not the original discoverer made Tesla.

Despite the trash talk in the press, Tesla continued to promote his telautomaton for use as a naval weapon.

He had offered his wireless transmitters to aid in the organizing of ship and troop movements but was turned down by the secretary of the navy for fear, as Tesla reported a year later, that “I might cause a calamity, as sparks are apt to fly anywhere in the neighborhood of such apparatus when it is at work.”

Tesla guaranteed he had overcome these defects, and even invited military personnel to his laboratory, such as U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Francis J. Higginson, chairman of the Light House Board, to demonstrate the use of his wireless transmitters.

But it was no use. Tesla was, perhaps, a victim of his own PR if the Navy was worried about electrical discharges–given that all Tesla’s public demonstrations and photographs of his lab focused heavily on lightning bolts shooting from various of his inventions.

Instead of Tesla’s wireless transmitters, during the war the Navy used hot-air balloons connected to ships by telegraph lines to provide communication. Needless to say, such balloons made easy targets for the Spanish…

Tesla also reached out to shipbuilders and even submarine builder John P. Holland to see if there was a way to piggyback his system on to their designs in hopes of selling them to the US government. While Holland would later sell the navy its first submersible in 1900, in 1898 he still faced difficulty negotiating a deal. The Navy was obliged to decline [Holland’s offer] to go into Santiago Harbor and destroy the Spanish warships as it smacked of privateering and was in violation of international law.

Despite getting turned down by the Navy, wireless transmission was never far from Tesla’s mind.

By early 1895 Tesla had already arrived at a basic scheme for transmitting power around the world without wires. Since electromagnetic waves traveled in straight lines and only a small amount of power carried by them was likely to reach the receiver, Tesla had decided to minimize the waves generated by his apparatus and maximize the ground current that passed between his transmitter and receiver.

Tesla hypothesized that if he could generate a ground current at the resonant frequency of the earth, then the power produced by his transmitter might easily travel to receivers located around the world.

To help determine how currents propagate through the earth and the atmosphere, Tesla began carrying a small receiver around Manhattan and connecting it to buildings (steel-framed buildings under construction that allowed for direct access to girders were best). He hoped to detect currents being broadcast from a transmitter in his House-ton Street lab.

“These local tests,” he reported, “enable[d] me to reduce the determination of the effects produced at a distance to simple formulae or rules of electrodynamics. Having found these laws to be rigorously true in certain respects, further trials of this kind became unnecessary, and the dominating idea became to perfect a powerful transmitter.”

Though he felt he’d cracked the code on the earth, Tesla was still puzzled by what happened in the atmosphere. If one rejected electromagnetic waves as the means by which the circuit was completed in the atmosphere, then what made the system work?

Tesla was stuck.

As he said in an August 1896 interview, “Finally, after a long study, mostly experimental, of all the means and conditions, I have arrived at a few precise facts, enough elements involved in a practical demonstration, and–here I am sticking, sticking since three years.”

And while Tesla may have been talking up the positives of his experiments in the press, he was more cagey about their dangers.

In a rare admission of his experiments’ lethal potential, Tesla recounted how in June 1896, he made a mistake that almost cost him his life.

“I got a shock of about three and half million volts from one of my machines,” he told a reporter. “The spark jumped three feet through the air and struck me . . . on the right shoulder. If my assistant had not turned off the current instantly, it might have been the end of me. As it was, I have to show for it a queer mark on my right breast where the current struck and a burned heel in one of my socks where it left my body.”

Tesla was, of course, incredibly lucky here. But he also has a habit of long-standing to thank for his survival: he would routinely place one hand in his pocket whenever possible while conducting experiments just in case he was to be accidentally electrocuted.

Electricity wants to find the shortest path through an object on its way to the ground, so by only ever having one hand out Tesla ensured that the shortest path was always across one arm and down his body to his feet and never across his chest from arm to arm where the electricity might cross paths with the heart–which is, after all, its own delicate electrical machine–and risk killing him.

Throughout 1896, rather than developing a system employing ground currents, Tesla concentrated on improving his oscillator so that it could be used for wireless lighting and powering X-ray tubes. He also experimented with a host of circuit interrupters in order to adjust the frequency by which he could charge and discharge the capacitors in his system.

We begin to see here Tesla’s Achilles heel–his nature as an ‘idealist inventor’ that W. Bernard Carlson talks about in his Tesla biography, and which we’ve discussed before.

If Tesla couldn’t have a whole, perfect system he would rather have no system at all. Why develop your system and roll it out in parts or stages when the whole thing–the ideal–sat perfect and tantalizing in your imagination?

And it was as part of his work on his oscillators that we get one of the best-known legends about Tesla’s inventions: the earthquake machine.

This story was recounted most famously–where else?–in O’Neill’s biography, Prodigal Genius. O’Neill places the incident in 1896 though the first time the story was ever shared publicly was by Tesla in the February 1912 issue of The World Today–some 16 years after the fact and edging into the era of Tesla’s tall tales about himself and his accomplishment in his glory days.

O’Neill recounts the event at some length, so if you’ll indulge me, I’ll read an extended section from this passage, edited down slightly for length, so you can have the full account as well as some insight into how O’Neill writes about Tesla. And I quote:

“In 1896 while his fame was still on the ascendant [Tesla] planned a nice quiet little vibration experiment in his Houston Street laboratory. Since he had moved into these quarters in 1895, the place had established a reputation for itself because of the peculiar noises and lights that emanated from it at all hours of the day and night…

“The quiet little vibration experiment produced an earthquake, a real earthquake in which people and buildings and everything in them got a more tremendous shaking than they did in any of the natural earthquakes that have visited the metropolis.

“In an area of a dozen square city blocks, occupied by hundreds of buildings housing tens of thousands of persons, there was a sudden roaring and shaking, shattering of panes of glass, breaking of steam, gas and water pipes.

“Pandemonium reigned as small objects danced around rooms, plaster descended from walls and ceilings, and pieces of machinery weighing tons were moved from their bolted anchorages and shifted to awkward spots in factory lofts.

“It was all caused, quite unexpectedly, by a little piece of apparatus you could slip in your pocket,” said Tesla.

“This engine may have had industrial possibilities but Tesla was not interested in them. To him it was just a convenient way of producing a high-frequency alternating current constant in frequency and voltage, or mechanical vibrations, if used without the electrical parts. He operated the engine on compressed air and also by steam at 320 pounds and also at 80 pounds pressure…

“It was in this highly variegated neighborhood that Tesla unexpectedly staged a spectacular demonstration of the properties of sustained powerful vibrations. The surrounding population knew about Tesla’s laboratory, knew that it was a place where strange, magical, mysterious events took place and where an equally strange man was doing fearful and wonderful things with that tremendously dangerous secret agent known as electricity. Tesla, they knew, was a man who was to be both venerated and feared, and they did a much better job of fearing than of venerating him…

“…Just what experiment [Telsa] had in mind on this particular morning will never be known. He busied himself with preparations for it while his oscillator on the supporting iron pillar of the structure kept building up an ever higher frequency of vibrations. He noted that every now and then some heavy piece of apparatus would vibrate sharply, the floor under him would rumble for a second or two-that a window pane would sing audibly, and other similar transient events would happen-all of which was quite familiar to him. These observations told him that his oscillator was tuning up nicely, and he probably wondered why he had not tried it firmly attached to a solid building support before.

“Things were not going so well in the neighborhood, however. Down in Police Headquarters in Mulberry Street the “cops” were quite familiar with strange sounds and lights coming from the Tesla laboratory. They could hear clearly the sharp snapping of the lightnings created by his coils. If anything queer was happening in the neighborhood, they knew that Tesla was in back of it in some way or other.

“On this particular morning the cops were surprised to feel the building rumbling under their feet. Chairs moved across floors with no one near them. Objects on the officers’ desks danced about and the desks themselves moved. It must be an earthquake! It grew stronger. Chunks of plaster fell from the ceilings. A flood of water ran down one of the stairs from a broken pipe. The windows started to vibrate with a shrill note that grew more intense. Some of the windows shattered.

“That isn’t an earthquake,” shouted one of the officers, “it’s that blankety-blank Tesla. Get up there quickly,” he called to a squad of men, “and stop him. Use force if you have to, but stop him. He’ll wreck the city.”

The officers started on a run for the building around the corner. Pouring into the streets were many scores of people excitedly leaving near-by tenement and factory buildings, believing an earthquake had caused the smashing of windows, breaking of pipes, moving of furniture and the strange vibrations.

Without waiting for the slow-pokey elevator, the cops rushed up the stairs-and as they did so they felt the building vibrate even more strongly than did police headquarters.

There was a sense of impending doom-that the whole building would disintegrate-and their fears were not relieved by the sound of smashing glass and the queer roars and screams that came from the walls and floors.

Could they reach Tesla’s laboratory in time to stop him? Or would the building tumble down on their heads and everyone in it be buried in the ruins, and probably every building in the neighborhood? Maybe he was making the whole earth shake in this way! Would this madman be destroying the world? It was destroyed once before by water. Maybe this time it would be destroyed by that agent of the devil that they call electricity!

Just as the cops rushed into Tesla’s laboratory to tackle-they knew not what-the vibrations stopped and they beheld a strange sight. They arrived just in time to see the tall gaunt figure of the inventor swing a heavy sledgehammer and shatter a small iron contraption mounted on the post in the middle of the room. Pandemonium gave way to a deep, heavy silence.

Tesla was the First to break the silence. Resting his sledgehammer against the pillar, he turned his tall, lean, coatless figure to the cops. He was always self-possessed, always a commanding presence-an effect that could in no way be attributed to his slender build, but seemed more to emanate from his eyes. Bowing from the waist in his courtly manner, he addressed the policemen, who were too out of breath to speak, and probably overawed into silence by their fantastic experience.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I am sorry, but you are just a trifle too late to witness my experiment. I found it necessary to stop it suddenly and unexpectedly and in an unusual way just as you entered. If you will come around this evening I will have another oscillator attached to this platform and each of you can stand on it. You will, I am sure, find it a most interesting and pleasurable experience. Now you must leave, for I have many things to do. Good day, gentlemen.”

George Scherff, Tesla’s secretary, was standing nearby when Tesla so dramatically smashed his earthquake maker. Tesla never told the story beyond this point, and Mr. Scherff declares he does not recall what the response of the cops was. Imagination must finish the finale to the story.

Imagination. Indeed.

Now, as I say, O’Neill’s is the best-known account we have of this earthquake machine. But, as with the rest of his book, O’Neill cites no sources.

In her book, TESLA: MAN OUT OF TIME, Cheney (as she so often does) cribs her version from the O’Neill recollection but adds a source–a 1912 interview in The World Today.

Unfortunately, this source doesn’t have anything to do with an experiment conducted at Tesla’s lab.

In this interview (some 16 years after O’Neill says Tesla rocked House-ton Street), Tesla recounted other experiments he had made with “an oscillator no larger than an alarm clock.”

First, Tesla says he attached the oscillator to “a steel link two feet long and two inches thick.”

“For a long time nothing happened,” he says, “But at last… the great steel link began to tremble, increased its trembling until it dilated and contracted like a beating heart–and finally broke!”

After this, Tesla says he sought out “a half-built steel building,” which he found being built in the Wall Street district. He clamped his oscillator to the ten story-tall bare steel framework of the building.

“In a few minutes,” he told the reporter, “I could feel the beam trembling. Gradually the trembling increased in intensity and extended throughout the whole great mass of steel. Finally, the structure began to creak and weave, and the steelworkers came to the ground panic-stricken, believing that there had been an earthquake. Rumors spread that the building was about to fall, and the police reserves were called out. Before anything serious happened, I took off the [oscillator], put it in my pocket, and went away. But if I had kept on ten minutes more, I could have laid that building flat in the street. And, with the same [oscillator], I could drop Brooklyn Bridge into the East River in less than an hour.”

So, he says he shook A building but not HIS building.

Seifer, describes the incident at the lab this way:

“With George Scherff present, Tesla placed one of his mechanical oscillators on the center support beam in the basement of the Houston Street building where his laboratory was located and adjusted the frequency to the point where the beam began to hum. While he was attending to something else for a few moments, it attained such a crescendo of rhythm that it started to shake the building, then it began shaking the earth nearabout [and other buildings with support beams in resonant frequencies]The Fire Department responded to an alarm frantically turned in; four tons of machinery flew across the basement and the only thing which saved the building from utter collapse was the quick action of Dr. Tesla in seizing a hammer and destroying his machine.”

However, Seifer cites as his source an interview with Tesla that appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper on July 11, 1935–39 years after the fact.

W. Bernard Carlson also references the earthquake machine in his biography.

“I was experimenting with vibrations,” he quote Tesla as saying, “and I had one of my machines going and I wanted to see if I could get it in tune with the vibration of the building. I put it up notch after notch. There was a peculiar cracking sound.

I asked my assistants where did the sound come from. They did not know. I put the machine up a few more notches. There was a louder cracking sound. I knew I was approaching the vibration of the steel building. I pushed the machine a little higher.

Suddenly all the heavy machinery in the place was flying around. I grabbed a hammer and broke the machine. The building would have been down about our ears in another few minutes. Outside in the street there was pandemonium. The police and ambulances arrived. I told my assistants to say nothing. We told the police it must have been an earthquake. That’s all they ever knew about it.”

However, Carlson cites as his source an article from the New York World-Telegram, which was also dated 11 July 1935, just like the article from the Brooklyn Eagle cited by Cyfer. The identical dates for the two articles from different papers and by different reporters is probably evidence that Tesla was holding one of his press scrums, with reporters from multiple papers looking for some sensation copy from the old inventor–remember, in 1935, Tesla would have been 79 years old and his notoriety had fallen off his heyday of the late 1890s.

Beyond these interviews, there is nowhere I can find Tesla describing causing an earthquake that is more contemporaneous to events than a decade-and-a-half later.

Even in his own 1919 autobiography published in the Electrical Experimenter magazine, Tesla makes no mention of such an event. In fact, in that article he goes from his lab fire in 1895 to packing up and head to Colorado Springs in 1899 in under 250 words…

So, where does that leave us on whether to believe that Tesla’s earthquake machine was a thing or not.

Well, first–I hope after reading that passage from O’Neill, I’m not the only one who thinks he was exaggerating.

What are some indications that he was exaggerating? Well, the biggest one to my mind, is “Where are the contemporary newspaper reports of an earthquake in lower Manhattan?” That is definitely news.

There were a lot of small and medium-sized newspapers in New York during this era–if the kind of pandemonium described by O’Neill had actually happened, surely one of them would have covered it.

Now, I’m not discounting that Tesla conducted some kind of experiment or experiments with an oscillator that caused a disturbance in the neighbourhood. And if, as O’Neill suggests, Tesla’s lab was known by those living in the area for all kinds of strange goings on, I don’t doubt that if someone living a few buildings over felt a vibration of some kind that bothered them, then they would know who to blame.

One of the cable companies has been doing work in our neighbourhood off and on for the last 6 weeks and every time they’re down the block I can hear the noise of their work and feel a low rumble or vibration from various areas of my house.

And if this vibration was bothersome or concerning to some of his neighbours, I could definitely see someone calling the cops and the police showing up at Tesla’s lab. Whether they arrived out of breath or witnessed Tesla smash the device with a sledgehammer…

So it’s not the experiment that I doubt: it’s a lot of the theatricality described by O’Neill (and by Tesla, to a lesser degree) surrounding the event.

“Okay,” you’re saying by now, “but Steve–what about an earthquake machine? Did Tesla have a doomsday weapon like that?”

No. And yes.

Let me explain: do I think he had a small device that nearly destroyed a building in a matter of minutes?

I do not.

Do I think he had a small device that could cause large structures to vibrate noticeable? Yes, I think he probably did. Could that device, if given sufficient time, bring down a building?

That I don’t know…but I’m open to the possibility. Here’s why:

Resonance is a real thing. It is a well know, well documented feature of all matter. Everything, to some degree or another, vibrates, or has the potential to vibrate. And when acted upon by outside forces–such as sound, or wind, or mechanical oscillation–objects can be made to vibrate at different frequencies.

And sometime, if the right conditions are met, those vibrations can be destructive.

You’ve all heard of singers shattering wine glasses when they hit just the right note. That is the result of a destructive sympathetic vibration caused by sound–the note makes the glass or crystal of the wine goblet vibrate in such a way that the stress on the materials cause it to fail–shatter, in this case.

So, if Tesla’s oscillator could be tuned in such a way that it found just the right frequency to interplay with a building’s natural resonant frequency, even with relatively low power, if given enough time, I am open to the idea that it could do actual serious damage to something like a building. Or perhaps a bridge.

Well, two bridges actually.

Because there is one very famous example of resonant vibrations destroying a major structure that its worth talking about.

In 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State–which was, at the time, the world’s 3rd largest suspension bridge–was destroyed by resonant vibrations mere months after having been completed.

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Now, resonance and vibration are factored into the construction of things like bridges–again, this kind of stress is a well known physical phenomenon.

For bridges, major sources of vibration include foot or vehicle traffic, and especially wind. Generally, such vibrations are more or less in harmony with the bridge’s natural vibrations and it’s no big deal.

Unchecked, however, and vibration can increase drastically, sending destructive, resonant vibrations traveling through a bridge in the form of torsional waves.

And this is exactly what happened to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

What was so crazy about this incident, however, is how harmless the conditions seemed that led to the bridge’s collapse.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was designed to withstand winds of up to 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers)–the wind speeds you find in a Category 3 hurricane. Yet the bridge collapsed after being buffeted by a mere 40-mile per hour (64-kilometer) wind.

Why? Well, small, periodic stimulus input into a mechanical system, if it’s of just the right frequency and period, can lead to the build-up of resonant vibrations.

As it turned out, the wind that day was at just the right speed and hit the bridge at just the right angle to set off a chain reaction of resonant vibrations.

Think of it this way: maybe you’ve seen–or even participated–in a double bounce on a trampoline. This is someone bouncing on a trampoline who is then joined by a second person who also begins bouncing on that trampoline.

With one jumper, the trampoline can handle the impacts of the person as they bounce up and down. That’s what it was designed for. And with the input of one person jumping, there’s really only so high a jumper can bounce. The stretch and recoil of the trampoline surface can only provide so much energy from a single jumper’s mass.

Think of this single jumper scenario as the normal vibrational input the bridge was designed to handle. Day in, day out. No problem.

If this first jumper is joined by a second jumper, however, well–all bets are off.

Because if that second person times their jumps just right, they can amplify the bounce the first jumper gets every time they return to the surface of the trampoline. Do this over a few cycles and that first jumper can get bounced dangerously high.

Think of this second jumper as just the right conditions–like a 40-mile-and-hour wind hitting at just the right angle for just the right amount of time.

And think of the second jumper’s carefully timed bouncing as resonant vibrations–magnifying the bounce of the first jumper, growing more and more powerful with each cycle of jumps.

Now imagine this second jumper bouncing our first jumper enough times that the first jumper gets bounced so high and out of control that they get bounced clear into the neighbour’s yard

Well, that’s what happened to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It was those resonant vibrations, bouncing back and forth off one another and amplifying in just the right way, that eventually grew so large and violent that they tore the bridge apart. 

There are lots of YouTube videos that show the actual newsreel footage of the bridge swinging in the wind and I encourage you to go take a look.

Tacoma Bridge Collapse: The Wobbliest Bridge in the World? (1940) | British Pathé

Was Tacoma Narrows Bridge the wobbliest bridge in the world? Check out this amazing footage of the collapse of the world’s third largest suspension bridge (at the time), Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington, in 1940. The only casualty was a dog who had been left in a stalled car by its owner.

You will not believe how bonkers this thing looks or how steel and concrete can wave in the wind like sheets hung to dry on a clothesline.

Once you watch this, I think you will agree with me that the potential destructive power of a small input into a large structure cannot, if the conditions are right, be dismissed as mere fantasy from an over-eager biographer.

Which brings me to the second bridge I wanted to talk about:

One of my all-time favourite shows is Mythbusters and one of my maker-geek heroes is Adam Savage. Also a big fan of one of his co-hosts, Kari Byron…for different reasons.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the show, you might remember a 2006 episode in which Jaime and Adam put this very myth of Tesla’s earthquake machine to the test.

MASSIVE FAIL; Mythbusters try debunk Teslas’ Earth Quake Machine ON BRIDGE!

They initially laugh at the idea, didn’t last long! = tried to debunk the Tesla earthquake machine.

They tested a device very similar to Tesla’s mechanical oscillator (in fact, if anything, it was a far more efficient mechanical oscillator than what Tesla had) and attached it to a bridge built in 1927.

Now, they didn’t really think it would work…until they began to feel the effects of mechanical resonance. Their oscillator, with a 6-pound weight attached, moving 25 times per second, was able to cause vibrations that Jaime and Adam felt 100 feet away down the deck of the bridge.

Now, they ultimately called this myth busted…but I’m not so sure. The constraints of production mean they couldn’t let this experiment run for more than one day. I’d like to see what would happen if they left this device to run for an extended period of time.

So, I’m not saying I don’t think Tesla shook a building with his oscillator, I’m just saying I don’t think it happened in such a dramatic way as described by O’Neill (or later by Tesla). But I’m open to the possibility that such a small device could compromise a large structure like a building or a bridge, given optimal conditions.

Once again, here, Tesla didn’t do himself or his device any favours in later years by making outlandish claims in the press.

In that 1912 interview from The World Today that I mentioned earlier, Tesla boasted that just as he’d supposedly rattled a building he could, in the same way could split the Earth in two–“split it as a boy would split an apple–and forever end the career of man,” is the direct quote.

Quote from Tesla or threat made by a James Bond villain? You decide.

In the interview, Tesla claimed Earth’s vibrations have a periodicity of about one hour and forty-nine minutes.

“That is to say,” Tesla explained, “if I strike the earth this instant, a wave of contraction goes through it that will come back in one hour and forty-nine minutes in the form of expansion. As a matter of fact, the earth, like everything else, is in a constant state of vibration. It is constantly contracting and expanding.

“Now, suppose that at the precise moment when it begins to contract, I explode a ton of dynamite. That accelerates the contraction and, in one hour and forty-nine minutes, there comes an equally accelerated wave of expansion. When the wave of expansion ebbs, suppose I explode another ton of dynamite, thus further increasing the wave of contraction. And, suppose this performance be repeated, time after time. Is there any doubt as to what would happen? There is no doubt in my mind. The earth would be split in two. For the first time in man’s history, he has the knowledge with which he may interfere with cosmic processes!”

When asked how long it might take to split the Earth, he said months or even years might be required. But in only a few weeks, he said, “I could set the earth’s crust into such a state of vibration that it would rise and fall hundreds of feet, throwing rivers out of their beds, wrecking buildings, and practically destroying civilization.”

He later tried to assuage any fears based on such claims, saying that the principle was certain but that it would be impossible to obtain perfect mechanical resonance of the Earth.

Whatever the actual status of the earthquake machine, in the later years of the 1890s, as part of his work in this field, Tesla applied for and received eight patents on different types of oscillators, most of which generated electromagnetic currents of high frequency and high potential as part of his wireless system.

His first application in the field of radio communication was made in 1897; his second, remote control, in 1898. Between 1896 and 1900, Tesla’s stock of fundamental patents grew to thirty-three, covering all essential areas of transmitting electrical energy wirelessly.

As part of his overall scheme for a world wireless system that could transmit not just power but information, Tesla also began working on perfecting a system of telephotography.

His interest began in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, where Elisha Gray displayed his teleautographic machine. But competition peaked in the summer of 1896, when Edison announced his plans to market an autographic telegraph.

“All you will have to do is hand your copy to the operator say in New York,” said Edison, “the cover will be shut down and presto! the wires will transmit it letter for letter to the machine at the other end in Buffalo. The wires will transmit 20 square inches of copy a minute and will carry sketches and pictures as well.”

So what Edison and Tesla were after was a kind of scanner fax machine, though Edison envisioned the data sent over wires, while Tesla planned on sending it through the air.

A May 1899 article states that Tesla was working on a visual telegraphy system using the light-sensitive element selenium, which puts Tesla four years ahead of the work done by Dr. Arthur Korn, an electrical engineer from the University of Munich. In 1904, Korn successfully transmitted over wires photographs from Munich to Nuremburg.

Korn was one of the pioneers not only of the fax machine but of amplification tube technology later used in televisions. He used high-frequency current supplied from a Tesla transformer to power the tubes and produce flashes many thousand of times per second, giving the illusion of a moving television image.

While Tesla only dabbled in telephotography, by 1897, he had amassed all of the essential patents for generating, modulating, storing, transmitting, and receiving wireless impulses.

In a letter to his lawyer, Tesla wrote: “I forward herewith M. Marconi’s patent which was just allowed. I notice that the signals have been described as being due to Hertzian waves, which is not the case. In other words, the patent describes something entirely different than what actually takes place. How far does this affect the validity of the patent?”

Clearly, Tesla already suspected that Marconi was pirating his equipment.

Tesla–ever the idealist inventor, as we’ve discussed before–even made a veiled criticism of Marconi’s use of the more primitive Hertzian apparatus in the text of his first patent specifically for wireless transmission, no. 649,621, filed on September 2, 1897.

“It is to be noted,” wrote Tesla, “that the phenomenon here involved in the transmission of electrical energy is one of true conduction and is not to be confounded with the phenomena of electrical radiation which have heretofore been observed and which from the very nature and mode of propagation would render practically impossible the transmission of any appreciable amount of energy to such distance as are of practical importance.”

And speaking of Marconi…

The young man was over in England, working with Lloyds of London on ship-to-shore experiments, using a trial-and-error method that Tesla would have disapproved of, just as he disapproved of the trial-and-error methods employed in Edison’s labs.

In July 1896, in experiments conducted alongside Welsh electrical pioneer and inventor William Preece, Marconi successfully transmitted messages through walls and over distances of seven or eight miles. In December, Marconi applied for a patent, which Preece felt was very strong, although he knew Marconi had been anticipated by Lodge and Tesla.

The patent was not original, and it didn’t put forth any new principles; nevertheless, Marconi was definitely making real-world progress, while Tesla’s work was largely theoretical and limited mainly to refining apparatus in his laboratory.

It was Preece’s own work in his study of earth currents and induction effects generating from normal telegraphic lines in the 1880s and 1890s that led him to realize the strength of Tesla’s system. Marconi at that stage had no such understanding, but rather borrowed elements of Hertz’s apparatus, elements of Oliver Lodge’s system (with whom, it’s important to note, Marconi was already involved in a patent dispute), and Telsa’s advances because he simply knew they worked.

Again, William Preece understood all this but he could also see that Marconi was making real-world advances while Hertz, Lodge, and Tesla basically stood still.

But it was after Marconi rejected Preece’s suggestion that they request formal permission to use Tesla’s apparatus, that the Englishman faced a conflict. Was he okay aiding and abetting patent theft in Marconi’s drive to develop wireless communication?

By August 1897, Preece made his decision, mailing off this terse note to Marconi. “I regret to say that I must stop all experiments and all action until I learn the conditions that are to determine the relations between your company and the [British] Government Departments who have encouraged and helped you so much.”

During this same time, Marconi was also being aided by H. M. Hozier, director of Lloyds of London, who actually did approach Tesla about rigging up a wireless ship-shore messaging system in 1896 to report the international yacht race, [but] Tesla refused the offer, claiming that any public demonstration of his system on less than a world-wide basis would be confused with the amateurish effort being made by other experimenters.

Once again, Tesla’s nature as an idealist inventor let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Perhaps, had he set up such a wireless system for the yacht race, Tesla’s pre-eminence in the field would have gotten more notice.

Instead, by waiting for some unknown date in the future when he would have a entire perfected global system to unveil, all he managed to do was let Marconi steal much of the credit.

By 1897, Tesla had turned his mind back to the puzzle of the return circuit. How could he eliminate the wire connecting the transmitter and the receiver to create a true wireless power system? To solve this puzzle, Tesla went back to thinking about why Crookes and Geissler tubes produce light when connected to an electrical source.

While at atmospheric pressure, most gases oppose the passage of electricity and function as an insulator; however, to make his tubes light up, Crookes had evacuated most of the gas from the glass tubes. At low pressures, the gas glows when it is traversed by a high-voltage current.

For Tesla, the secret to wireless transmission lay not with electromagnetic waves (i.e., radiation) passing through the atmosphere but that an oscillating current could be conducted through a gas at low pressure, as Crookes and Geissler had done with their vacuum tubes.

In his Houston Street laboratory, he erected a fifty-foot glass pipe between his transmitter and receiver. Using a vacuum pump, Tesla lowered the pressure to 120–150 mm of mercury (the pressure of the atmosphere at an altitude of five miles) and discovered that he could create a return circuit from the receiver back to the transmitter.

“[T]he transmission of electrical energy,” declared Tesla in October 1898, “is one of true conduction, and is not to be confounded with the phenomena of induction or of electrical radiation which have heretofore been observed and experimented with.

If he could set up a return circuit in a nearly evacuated tube, Tesla now reasoned that he could then do the same at high altitudes where the air was thinner.

In claiming electrical oscillations moved through the atmosphere via conduction rather than electromagnetic radiation, Tesla was again distancing himself from most other inventors and scientists who felt that Hertzian waves were a form of radiation moving through the ether.

What really excited Tesla about this experiment showing how oscillating currents could move through gases at low pressures was that the process was so efficient; if the voltage and frequency were high enough and the atmospheric pressure low enough, a great deal of power could be transmitted.

For Tesla, the discovery of these new properties of the atmosphere not only opened up the possibility of transmitting, without wires, energy in large amounts, but assured that it could be done economically. Distance almost becomes a non-factor. Send energy a few miles or a few thousand miles–in Tesla’s mind it was all the same thing.

As we’ll see in upcoming episodes, Tesla’s belief that distance was irrelevant factored heavily into how he interpreted the results of subsequent tests and the promises he made about the capabilities of his system.

His initial idea was to have spiral coil transmitters aimed at receiver balloons with a large metallic surface area. These balloons could be placed high in the atmosphere and allow a current to pass from the receiver back to the transmitter.

That seemed inelegant (and probably pretty fragile as a system) so Tesla soon pivoted to a new idea: crank up the power.

Tesla came to believe that if he could generate millions of volts and locate his transmitters and receivers on mountaintops, he could do away with the need for balloons.

Within the confines of his House-ton Street laboratory, Tesla was able to push the voltage of his transmitter up to 2.5 million volts and generate sixteen-foot sparks.

Rather than do major demonstrations, Tesla chose this moment to conduct secret experiments that he would not reveal for nearly 20 years–not until 1915 when he was testifying in court about (of all things) whether or not Marconi was the pioneer of radio or whether he’d infringed Tesla wireless patents as part of his achievements.

According to Tesla–and we have only his word for this–in 1896 or early 1897, the inventor turned on his laboratory generator to produce continuous oscillations in this millions-of-volts range and took a cab to the Hudson River. There he caught a boat and ferried up the Hudson River to West Point, New York, with a battery-operated receiver suitable for transportation.

“I did this two or three times,” he told the courts in 1915. “[But] there were no signals actually given. I simply got the note, but that was for me just the same.” In other words, Tesla turned on his receiver and tuned it until it began picking up the oscillations emanating from his laboratory back at East House-ton Street. “That is, I think, a distance of about thirty miles,” Tesla said.

Checking on Google Maps, that actually looks to be more like 60 miles.

Again, we have only Tesla’s word that these experiments were conducted how and when he says they were.

But perhaps because of such experiments, Tesla finally had his complete vision for a world telegraphy system. His plan was to disturb the electrical capacity of the earth with gigantic Tesla oscillators and thereby use these earth currents themselves as carrier waves for his transmitter.

In an 1897 article in Scribners, Tesla explained precisely how his world telegraphy system would operate:

“Suppose the whole earth to be like a hollow rubber ball filled with water, and at one place I have a tube attached with a plunger. If I press upon the plunger the water in the tube will be driven into the rubber ball, and as the water is practically incompressible, every part of the surface of the ball will be expanded. If I withdraw the plunger, the water follows it and every part of the ball will contract. Now, if I pierce the surface of the ball several times and set tubes and plungers at each place, the plungers in these will vibrate up and down in answer to every movement which I may produce in the plunger of the first tube.”

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Then the author of the article steps in to explain: “The inventor thinks it possible that his machine when perfected may be set up, one in each great centre of civilization, to flash the news of the day’s or hour’s history immediately to all other cities of the world; and stepping for a sentence out of the realms of the workaday world, he offers a prophecy that any communication we may have with other stars will certainly be by such a method.”

Consider that Tesla claimed all this when no one besides Marconi had yet to publicly demonstrate that wireless messages could be transmitted more than a few hundred feet. And those were only simple Morse code.

With the fundamental patents on wireless communication and remote control now in hand, Tesla had all the pieces he needed for his wireless system.

It was time to experiment with the system on a bigger scale.

Because while his experiments so far had been illuminating (pun very much intended) they had not revealed where best to locate his transmitter; or what voltages and what altitudes would affect the system. How could he create a transmitter that could broadcast power over the greatest distances?

These were no longer questions he could answer in New York.

The House-ton Street lab was no longer big enough for Tesla’s ambitions–it was too cramped, to vulnerable to fires and to potential spies. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Tesla had already scouted a site for a full-sized Experimental Station.

George Scherff, Tesla’s loyal personal secretary, tried to dissuade his boss from leaving New York, urging him to work on making any one of his recent inventions into a practical, marketable device that would yield an immediate return.

But there was no talking Tesla out of his plan.

“Go West, young man,” was the famous refrain, and Tesla intended to do just that.

There was one problem, however: money. As usual.

Tesla’s new plans would require enormous investment and Tesla was beginning to struggle in putting together a bank roll.

In June 1897, it was reported that Westinghouse had paid $216,000 for Tesla’s patents, or $7.7 million in today’s dollars. As Tesla and his partners, Brown and Peck, were receiving yearly checks of $15,000 (about $538,000 today), split between the three of them, plus an initial down payment of $70,000 (or $2.5 million today). This works out to about a quarter of a million dollars for a ten-year period, or just under $9 million today.

Which is a lot, even divided three ways, but still not enough to get Tesla’s proposed system off the ground.

For his part, George Westinghouse made it clear that his company would not be a source of funds beyond their former signed agreement.

But because Tesla had altered his deal with Westinghouse and gave up so much of his royalties a few years earlier to keep the Westinghouse Company afloat, even the seemingly impressive sums Tesla was receiving annually were still millions of dollars less than what Tesla would otherwise have been owed.

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And, with the armistice that ended the War of the Currents–which was talked about last episode–now that GE was able to use Tesla’s patents via their deal with Westinghouse, it meant that GE’s numerous subsidiaries would be benefiting from Tesla’s invention without the inventor seeing an extra dime.

If he was to get his Experimental Station off the ground, what Tesla needed was a backer

And, as it happened, John Jacob Astor–the Colonel—was now back from the war. So Tesla thought, toward the end of 1898, that he ought to drop by and pay the Colonel a little Christmas visit…


Next time, we’ll watch Tesla woo John Jacob Astor to get the money he needs for his Experimental Station. And then we’ll follow Tesla west to Colorado Springs where he would spend much of 1899 working out just what his system of wireless power was really capable of…

Thanks for listening to Tesla: The Life and Times. If you’re enjoying the show please spread the word: tell a friend who you think might enjoy it, too, or share a link to the show via your social media.

Past episodes, as well as the show notes for this episode can be found on our website, www.teslapodcast.com

You can keep up to date about the show on our Facebook page. And you can also always contact me directly via email at tesla@kotowych.com

Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.

SHOW NOTES: 029 – Towering Inferno (1895)

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

SHOW NOTES: 028 – War of the Currents: Part 8 – Victory Niagara (1893-1897)

Two items of business before we resolve the cliffhanger that was last episode. I wanted to—not offer a correction, exactly, but to correct a couple of oversights.

First, I had mentioned at the start of the last episode, when I was talking about the statues of Tesla on the Canadian and American sides of the falls, that the statue of Tesla at Bridal Veil Falls has moved in the last few years to a new location on a tourist lookout spot right at the falls and is no longer in the place where you see it located in basically all the photos you can find online—away from the falls, over by the parking lot.

Well, Mrs. The Life and Times pointed out that when we were there last (in the Beforetimes of 2017) I had actually taken a load of pictures of the statue in its new location! As the episode had already gone live, I uploaded these to the show’s Facebook group page where you can still see them. I will also include them in this episode’s show notes at teslapodcast.com. And while I’ve never uploaded anything to Wikipedia or Wikimedia, I think I might post a few of these to the public domain so that a more current batch of photos of the statue exists for people’s reference (not to mention more cheery photos—the ones taken at the old location by the parking lot were taken on a grey Fall day from the look of them. Mine were taken on a sunny summer afternoon with a bright blue sky and everything in bloom. Much nicer way to think of Tesla. Anyway, go check them out at the website!)

Portrait of the podcaster as a somewhat younger man.

And a second oversight to address:

Last episode, I talked about life being cheap at the Falls and about the exotic ways that people tempted death there by, say, doing their laundry whilst suspended hundreds of feet above the Falls on a tightrope.

So, I had finished the episode and posted it but still felt like there was something I was forgetting. It nagged at me and nagged at me for days—what was I forgetting?

And then, one night, just as I was drifting off to sleep I sat bolt upright in bed and shouted: “Barrels!” like that mom from HOME ALONE.

How on earth did I forget going over the falls in a barrel as one of the exotic ways people choose to die at Niagara Falls? I guess in all the zaniness of the exploits of those funambulists I somehow forgot to mention people going over the Falls in barrels as a famously well-known thing that happens there.

Since 1850, more than 5,000 people have gone over Niagara Falls, either intentionally (as stunts or, more tragically, suicides) or by falling in accidentally. On average, between 20 and 30 people die each year by going over the falls—like I said last episode, you can get perilously close to the Falls. Literally just a metal railing between you and oblivion. Most of these deaths take place from the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and are generally not publicized by officials.

The first person known to survive going over the falls was school teacher Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 successfully completed a plunge over the falls inside an oak barrel. Before going over the Falls, the airtight barrel was pressurized to 30 p.s.i. with a bicycle pump.

How or why this seemed like a good idea at any point in history is a genuine curiosity.

Though battered and bruised, Annie survived. Her whole plan was for the stunt to bring her fame and fortune…but she later died in poverty.

Over the following 120 years, few have been as lucky as Annie Edson Taylor when they tried their fate at the falls. In all, only sixteen other thrill seekers who have attempted the plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel have survived to tell the tale.

Following the death of one daredevil in 1951, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost issued an order to the Niagara Parks Commission to arrest anyone found to be performing or attempting stunts at the falls. Both Canadian and American authorities began to issue fines to discourage daredevils at the falls. Current fines are $10,000 CAD (approximately $7,700 USD) on the Canadian side, or $25,000 USD (approximately $32,800 CAD) from the American side.

When we left off last time, Edward Dean Adams and the Cataract Construction Company had managed to infuriate just about everyone in the electrical engineering profession by doing a deep dive into the trade secrets of multiple bidders on the Niagara Falls project…only to announce at the end that, having carefully examined everyone’s technology, they had commissioned Professor George Forbes to build his own AC system using ideas stolen from all of them, thank you very much.

Not a great way to win friends or influence people.

Tesla, for his part, was unfailingly polite but nevertheless firm in his reply to Adams:

He wrote to Adams that he “could not help seeing difficulty ahead” for Professor Forbes in attempting to design an AC system that didn’t infringe on either Tesla’s patents, the Westinghouse Company’s numerous improvements to those original designs, or to the “long continued experience and items on the subject not found in any treatise on engineering” that the Cataract Company had been shown “in good faith” when Westinghouse believed it had a legitimate shot at the Niagara contract.

What amounted to a veiled threat of litigation, this letter from Tesla alarmed Adams enough that he passed it along to Coleman Sellers, who we mentioned last time was one of America’s preeminent mechanical engineers of the day, as well as Adams’ chief engineer on the Niagara project. After looking over the letter, Sellers advised Adams to tell Tesla, essentially, to get stuffed. The Cataract Construction Company intended to proceed with Forbes’ redesign of the generators, patent infringement be damned.

During the summer of 1893, Professor George Forbes led something of a charmed existence, living at Niagara and working on his dynamo design for the Cataract Construction Company, seemingly unconcerned that he was working on essentially pilfered technology.

“I had a lovely house in parklike grounds … on the banks of the placid river above the upper rapids,” he later wrote. “I went to bed early and rose at five or six in the morning, and I shall never forget the delights of those glorious summer mornings at one of the most beautiful sites in the whole neighborhood.”

From time to time that summer, Forbes hosted various electrical engineers who were en route to or from the World’s Fair and who made a side trip to see how progress was being made on the Niagara power project. They would be shown the massive wheel pits being dug at Power House No. 1, where the giant turbines would soon live. And they would get a walk through the completed, but still unflooded mile-and-a-quarter tailrace tunnel that ran below the powerhouse down to the bottom of the Falls and outlet at the frothing Niagara River.

But outside this kind of preening for dignitaries, Professor Forbes, a Scotsman, disliked America and Americans, including most of his Cataract engineering colleagues. He was quick to take sole credit for work that had been the result of collaboration, or that had been others’ work entirely. Perhaps not surprising for a man untroubled by designing dynamos based on stolen technology and infringed patents.

And he seems to have been generally pretty disagreeable.

Forbes preferred to live on the Canadian side of the falls but didn’t like the town of Niagara Falls, ON, describing it as “dirty … [and full of] cheap restaurants, merry-go-rounds, itinerant photographers, and museums of Indians and other curiosities.” Which…okay, that’s fair.

He complained incessantly about the “politics” surround the project, which he described as “intriguing, underhand dealing and jobbery” that slowed down his work on the dynamos.

Forbes also appeared unconcerned by the growing Panic of 1893, which we’ve talked about before, and which was in full meltdown during that summer. News of bank failures, farmers who couldn’t get credit, and railroads falling into receivership, rolled in from across the country. While Forbes was unperturbed, the same couldn’t be said of the larger Cataract Company. 

Cataract investors had already ponied up $4 million (north of $113 million today), and the success of their investment all hinged on the success of Forbes’ AC generator. When even the millionaires are feeling the pinch you know things are bad.

William Rankine, the millionaire Manhattan attorney we talked about in Episode 27, who had been the original driving force behind the harnessing of Niagara Falls, would every morning during the summer of 1893 have submitted to him “a statement showing the exact balance in the bank of the Cataract Construction Company, Niagara Falls Power Company, Niagara Falls Water Works Company, Niagara Development Company, and the Niagara Junction Railway Company. When he is here at the Falls,” relayed one associate, “this statement is mailed to him.”

J. P. Morgan was likewise down in the mouth over the expense of the Niagara project and the progress being made. “Everything here continues blue as indigo,” he wrote. “Hope we shall soon have some change for the better, for it is very depressing and very exhausting.”

Pity the 1 percent, eh?

On August 10, 1893, Coleman Sellers wrote to both GE and Westinghouse announcing that Forbes had succeeded in designing a suitable dynamo and transformers and that the Cataract Construction Company would, once again, be looking for bids from firms to manufacture and install its generating equipment.

George Westinghouse waited a full week to reply, but was still too angry by then to respond with anything but fury…or at least what passed for fury in the ultra-mannered late 19th Century.

“We have given several years time to the development of power transmission, and have spent an immense sum of money working out various plans, and we believe we are fully entitled to all the commercial advantages that can accrue to us,” wrote Westinghouse, “[W]e do not feel that your company can ask us to put that knowledge at your disposal so that you may in any manner use it to our disadvantage.”

Oh, snap!

After another week or so, Westinghouse was finally calmed down and able to look at the situation dispassionately. And the sad fact was, in the middle of a national economic collapse, Westinghouse needed to look at any way he could find to guarantee work for his men at a time when contracts were drying up and orders were shrinking to nothing. Coupled with the prestige that still attached itself to the idea of harassing Niagara Falls for power, Westinghouse grudgingly relented. On August 21, he dispatched two of his top engineers to Niagara Falls to see just what Forbes had come up with.

The results were…not great.

The Westinghouse engineers quickly concluded that Forbes’ design was “so hopelessly flawed” that they wanted no part in trying to build it. “[M]echanically the proposed generators embodied good ideas,” the engineers told Sellers, “[but] electrically it was defective and if built as designed … would not operate.”

The primary flaws they noted?

  1. Operation at such a low frequency—16 2⁄3 cycles per second—that it would cause noticeable flickering in lights
  2. That this frequency would be “too low for satisfactory operation of most polyphase power equipment [especially in industrial settings, and notably the all-important rotary converter to change AC to DC].”
  3. Given the high-generating voltage [an unheard-of 22,000 volts], the insulation problems would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to solve.

So, it would seem that while he had a lovely summer by the Falls, and even with all the ideas of Westinghouse and GE to steal from, Forbes didn’t really have much to show for it.

A few weeks later, after having made their negative report to Westinghouse, the engineers returned to Niagara Falls for additional meetings. On September 15, they met with Sellers and other members of the Cataract Company to go over the shortcomings of the Forbes dynamo.

Then they met with Forbes in his office, where, as Sellers later recounted, “Professor Forbes discussed some of the questions raised and declined to take up others, stating that he had fully considered the subject and was sure he was right.”

Facing an intransigent Forbes, Sellers and Adams now realized they couldn’t move ahead without Westinghouse and the patents he controlled. (While GE was still in the mix, Adams seemed to view GE’s bid mostly as a means to keep the overall price of an eventual Westinghouse contract down.)

Adams, who as an attorney made his name by bringing angry and competing railroads and railroad investors together to strike deals, knew it was time to attempt the same thing with the aggrieved Westinghouse.

In early October, Adams brought together Westinghouse and the Cataract Company investors for a lavish dinner in a private dining room at the swanky Union League Club, one of Manhattan’s most exclusive men’s clubs and one that dated back to the Civil War.

Dressed in their evening finest, over a dozen courses, cigars, and brandy, the Cataract Company investors went over every contentious aspect of the proposed contract with Westinghouse.

The final sticking point was, as it had once been between the Westinghouse Company and Tesla himself, the issue of the best choice of frequency.

The Cataract Company clung stubbornly to Forbes’s too-low frequency of 16 2⁄3rd cycles, with Westinghouse insisting he couldn’t guarantee any dynamo that operated at less than 30 cycles. As one of Westinghouse’s engineers would write decades later: “[We] did not wish to build such a machine [at 16 2/3rd cycles] due to the great probability of complete failure from the operative standpoint.”

As the dinner broke up, apparently at an impasse, Adams pulled aside the chief Westinghouse engineer and proposed a compromise: could both sides live with 25 cycles? The answer, after some calculating, was yes.

On October 27, 1893, three days before the Chicago World’s Fair—another triumph for Westinghouse—came to its end, George Westinghouse had a signed contract in hand to harness Niagara Falls. Now he and Tesla would show the world the true promise of AC power.

To keep his options open and ensure that he could draw on both major electrical manufacturers in the future, Adams awarded a separate contract to GE for building the twenty-mile transmission line from Niagara to Buffalo.

And with the signed contract in hand, it wasn’t lost on Westinghouse executives how Tesla’s inventions and personal relationship with Adams had helped them close the business. As one Westinghouse manager wrote to Tesla in November 1893, “It must certainly be gratifying to you to think the largest water power in the world is to be utilized by a system which your ingenuity originated. Your successes are gradually pushing to the front. Let the good work go on.”

Little more than a year later, the New York Times concurred, writing: “To Tesla belongs the undisputed honor of being the man whose work made this Niagara enterprise possible…There could be no better evidence of the practical qualities of his inventive genius.”

The first order of business, now that they were formally on the job, was for the Westinghouse people too see just what Forbes had been up to. Once Forbes’s plans arrived at Westinghouse, the in-house dislike and distrust of the man only grew.

Looking over his plans, the Westinghouse engineers found his dynamo design misguided. Forbes’ dynamo design had been widely mocked when he presented it at various engineering forums, and Charles E. L. Brown, who headed a Swiss design firm that had bid on the Niagara job before Adams handed the whole thing over to Forbes, formally accused Forbes of stealing the unique umbrella-style dynamo that Brown had submitted as part of his bid to the Cataract Company in late 1892.

Despite his achievement and notoriety as a leading man of electrical science in America, the Westinghouse people came to doubt Forbes’ electrical competence, and viewed him as an overall impediment to them getting the job done.

Forbes’ plans were substantially revised by Westinghouse’s in-house engineers. For his part, George Westinghouse went so far as to inform Coleman Sellers directly that he and his men simply refused to work with Professor Forbes at all. Westinghouse saw Forbes as “a possible rival in dynamo design” after a lecture Forbes had delivered, and wasn’t about to help the man become a more formidable rival.

Sellers, knowing he was stuck, wrote a private memo to Adams about this “very delicate matter” and to make him understand the “absolute unwillingness” of Westinghouse to work with Forbes.

In the same memo, Sellers also blasted Forbes for being away “when the most important measures are to be decided.” Forbes had popped over to England for a Christmastime holiday, and made something of a habit of being away when all the big decisions were being taken. You’ll recall from last episode that Forbes had likewise been in England and unavailable to the Cataract Company in early January 1893—less than a year earlier—when tours of the Westinghouse and GE plants were being done and their final sales pitches were being made.

After a final effort was made in February 1894 to sway Westinghouse failed, Forbes was effectively cut out by the Cataract Company, and Sellers himself largely avoided dealing with Forbes from then on.

Forbes did not take this well.

Increasingly edged out of anything to do with Niagara, in 1895 Forbes wrote a stinging profile of the Niagara project for English magazine, Blackwood’s. In it, he portrayed himself as the jilted genius behind the great power project and the Americans he worked with as a bunch of annoying knuckle-draggers. “I had at times great difficulty in keeping the president and vice presidents [of the Cataract Construction Company] in hand,” Forbes wrote. “Most of them began to think they knew something about the subject…. All this was generally amusing enough, but became almost tragic at times when I found them endangering the whole work. On such occasions I would write to my millionaires and tell them that if they did not do what I told them they would be personally answerable to the directors and shareholders for any disaster that might occur.”

I’m beginning to see why people found Forbes so insufferable.

Westinghouse engineers spent 1894 fine-tuning the designs and starting to build the first two (of a planned 10) 5,000-horsepower generators for the Niagara power station. Having just moved heaven and earth to complete the biggest-ever dynamos for the World’s Fair (which rated at 1,000 horsepower each), the boys at Westinghouse now just had to scale everything up to get to 5,000-horsepower, right?

Hmm. Not quite.

Westinghouse himself emphasized the novelty of virtually every element of the new 5,000-horsepower generators. “The switching devices, indicating and measuring instruments, bus-bars and other auxiliary apparatus, have been designed and constructed on lines departing radically from our usual practice,” he wrote in a report on the progress of the contract. “The conditions of the problem presented, especially as regards the amount of power to be dealt with, have been so far beyond all precedent that it has been necessary to devise a considerable amount of new apparatus…. Nearly every device used differs from what has hitherto been our standard practice.”

In fact, the original designs that the Westinghouse people came up with had to be changed part way through the process. The size and scale of the generators had to be reduced to a mere eighty-five-ton to ensure that they could be hoisted onto a railroad flatcar and transported safely to Niagara—and as any electrical engineer will tell you, the smaller things have to be, the more challenging they are to build.

From 1893 to 1896 (and despite the on-going economic effects of the Panic of 1893), Adams, Rankine, and the Cataract Company were focused on the construction of Powerhouse No. 1 that sat atop the massive turbines and which would ultimately hold five of those 5,000 horsepower Westinghouse generators.

To design the building for the powerhouse as well as several dozen houses for employees, Adams hired renowned New York architect Stanford White. We’ve mentioned him before, in Episode 26, as someone from New York high society that Tesla was palling around with, and we’ll meet him again in a few episodes when he helps design Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower.

Adams and White wanted Power House No. 1 to be a “cathedral of power.” Built from limestone quarried in nearby Queenston, ON, the powerhouse was two hundred feet long, sixty-four feet wide, and forty feet high, topped by a slate-and-iron roof. Tall windows flooded the powerhouse with natural light. As at the World’s Fair, the switchboard was huge, all brass rails and marble.

As the first of the massive dynamos was being installed in Power House No. 1, Edward Dean Adams and the Cataract Company were greeted with a pleasant surprise: it turns out selling all the power they were about to be generating was going to be a lot easier than they originally thought.

At the outset of the Niagara project, everyone—Adams included—assumed that transmission to the relatively near-by industrial centre of Buffalo, NY—go Bills—was going to be the key to making Niagara power a moneymaker.

In the late 19th Century, Buffalo NY was the world’s sixth largest commercial center. Fifty-two grain elevators stored countless tones of grains and cereals from the American mid-west on its way to sale around the world. Almost six thousand vessels docked at Buffalo’s port each year—many of them involved in shipping that grain to hungry mouths overseas. Five million head of livestock passed through Buffalo each year. The city laid claim to the world’s largest coal trestle. Buffalo had twenty-six railroads, with seven hundred miles of track and depots, and 250 passenger trains arriving and departing each day.

Hence the need for long distance transmission to get the power the 20-or-so miles to Buffalo.

What no one—Adams included—guessed was that entire new industries were prepared to uproot themselves and set up shop on the Cataract Company’s industrial acrerage to take advantage of large amounts of cheap Niagara power.

In 1893, before a single watt of power had been generated there, industrialist Chester Martin Hall—founder of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later renamed Alcoa—announced that his company would be moving to the falls. A decade earlier, Hall had pioneered a technique to extract aluminum from the clay where it was most abundant using fluorides and plenty of electricity. Once the current was passed through the clay-and-flouride slurry, Hall ended up with pure aluminum. He singlehandedly brought the price of aluminium down from $15 dollars a pound to $1 dollar a pound (in today’s dollars, that would be bringing aluminium down from about $400 dollars a pound to $25 dollars a pound) and made himself rich in the process. Hall thought he could reduce the price of aluminum even further, but to do so he needed cheap, abundant electricity—and Niagara fit the bill perfectly.

Likewise, Edward Goodrich Acheson, a chemical genius who had trained at Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, moved his factory from just outside Pittsburgh to the Cataract Company’s industrial acreage at Niagara Falls.

Acheson had devised an electrochemical process that created what he called Carborundum, a substance hard enough to cut glass, which was meant to replace the prohibitively expensive diamond dust used as an industrial abrasive. A pound of diamond dust went for $1,000 or more (so $29,000+ in today’s dollars) while Acheson’s Carborundum went for $576 a pound (or about $17,000 a pound today).

His factory near Pittsburgh could make twenty pounds a day, and Acheson thought he could sell twice that much if he could bring the price down. Like Hall, Acheson needed massive amounts of cheap electricity to make a go of his plan. He signed a deal with the Cataract Company’s subsidiary Niagara Falls Power Company for 1,000 horsepower a day (with an option for 10,000 more) to power massive arc furnaces capable of reaching unheard-of temperatures and produce the Carborundum more cheaply. When his corporate board learned of this deal—a deal with a power company that had yet to generate any actual power—they resigned en masse.

But the last laugh was Acheson’s. Because along with he and Hall, numerous other electrochemical and electrometallurgical firms producing “acetylene, alkalis, sodium, bleaches, caustic soda, and chlorine” would all move to the Falls to take advantage of the cheap, abundant electricity.

So many firms set up shop and struck deals with the Niagara Falls Power Company that Edward Dean Adams and William Rankine discovered they could sell all of the first 15,000 horsepower of electricity from Power House No. 1 locally, without any need for Buffalo at all.

And, irony of ironies, the firms that moved to the Falls were actually so close to the generating station that they would have sat within the radius of an Edison-style DC central station with limited range, and since the power they needed to work their machines was DC anyway (and had to be converted from AC to DC before it reached the motor) there technically wouldn’t have been a need for an AC system at all.

Despite this, however, AC transmission was still necessary, since Adams and the Cataract Construction Company had bigger ambitions for Niagara power…

Since Power House No. 1 would deliver four times the amount of electricity available from any previous power station, Adams and Rankine began looking further afield that just Buffalo as potential markets for Niagara power…

As Rankine put it: “If it be practicable to transmit power at a commercial profit in these moderate quantities to Albany, the courage of the practical man will not halt there, but inclined to following the daring promise of Nikola Tesla, would be disposed to place 100,000 horsepower on a wire and send it 450 miles to New York in one direction, and 500 miles in the other to Chicago—and supply the wants of these great communities.”

As we will see in an upcoming episode, Adams and Rankine were sufficiently impressed with Tesla’s technical prowess that they later helped him set up a company for the promotion of his wireless-power inventions.

At last came the big day.

On August 26, 1895—almost a year late—the first power from Niagara Falls was harnessed for full-time commercial use. At 7:30 A.M. that morning, the inlet gates at the diversion canal opened, the waters of the Niagara River rushed into the powerhouse. They poured down eight-foot-wide pipes, gathered tremendous speed as they plunged 140 feet straight down, rush around a crooked “elbow” in the pipe and shoot out at 20 miles an hour into the waiting fan blades of gigantic twenty-nine-ton turbines—the largest on Earth. The energy of the turbine powered Dynamo No. 2 far above in the powerhouse, and the first alternating current generated by Niagara Falls flashed off to power the Pittsburgh Reduction Plant.

The water, having done its job, raced its three-minute trip back to the river through the 6,800-foot long sloping tailrace tunnel and complete its journey.

That the dynamos were a success came as a great relief to all involved. For nine months, the Westinghouse engineers had been testing and calibrating and retesting them. Lead engineer B. J. Lamme described a near catastrophe during one early dynamo test in Pittsburgh.

Numerous temporary steel bolts on one of the giant dynamos had “loosened up under vibration, and finally shook into contact with each other, thus forming a short circuit…. In a moment there was one tremendous [electric] arc around the end of the windings of the entire machine…. It looked, at first glance, as though the whole infernal regions had broken loose. Everybody jumped for cover.” One man managed to shut down the machine, and as the huge flaming electrical arc dissipated the engineers started poking their heads out to survey the damage. Suddenly they realized that one mad who had been inside the dynamo making observations during the test was unaccounted for. They rushed over and “someone climbed underneath to see what had become of our man inside … expecting him to be badly scorched…. He said the fire came in all around him but did not touch him.”

One lucky engineer, indeed.

So, after the Pittsburgh Reduction Plant got its power, where was the second place Niagara Power was transmitted?

Well, it wasn’t Buffalo, that’s for sure.

Though it was the original intended market for Niagara power, and though it had already preemptively declared itself the City of Light, the Buffalo city council and its Board of Public Works had dithered for months about what sort of franchise they should grant for power operations coming from Niagara Falls. Should the city itself manage the electrical power? Or should private interests be granted a franchise to run power in the city?

William Rankine had first approached Buffalo in October 1894 about securing a commitment from the city for 10,000 horsepower before the Cataract Company began excavating additional wheel pits, ordering more dynamos, and installing twenty-six miles of transmission lines. More than a year later, and with power up and flowing from Powerhouse No. 1, the city still had not made up its mind. There were serious hurdles to overcome, such as the city’s insistence on a clause on the contract which gave it the right to revoke any franchise on ten days’ notice, or another which stipulated that the city could order all electrical wires to be buried underground at any time.

Luckily, the Niagara Falls Power Company had the Pittsburgh Reduction Plant as a client, because it wouldn’t be until December 16, 1895—after more than 14 months of negotiation—that Rankine and the City of Buffalo finally struck a deal that would send Niagara Falls electricity to Buffalo.

The newly incorporate Cataract Power and Conduit Company—under the leadership of William B. Rankine, George Urban, Jr. and Charles R. Huntley—would have Buffalo’s electrical franchise. The objectives of the company as outlined in their incorporation documents were “… the use and distribution of electricity for light, heat or power within the city of Buffalo, the construction of conduits, poles, pipes or other fixtures in, on, over and under the streets, alleys, avenues, public parks, and places within the city of Buffalo for the conduct of wires and pipes and for conducting and distributing electricity.” Cataract Power and Conduit Company built the Buffalo Terminal House, located at 2280 Niagara Street, alongside the Erie Canal, as the central hub in Buffalo from which to flow power out to local customers.

The Niagara Falls Power Company was contracted to deliver 10,000 horsepower of electricity to the Cataract Power and Conduit Company on or before June 1, 1897. The first customer would be the Buffalo Street Railway Company, which contracted for 1,000 horsepower of electricity to power streetcars.

In the meantime, Edward Dean Adams felt that enough success had already been had for the Cataract Construction Company to offer a formal tour of Power House No. 1 and hold a small celebration for investors.

On September 30, 1895, Adams assembled his board of directors at Power House No. 1—they were, to a man, well-known Manhattan millionaires.

John Jacob Astor, heir to a New York real estate fortune, was there. So too was Darius Ogden Mills, who’d made his first millions in the California gold rush, followed by subsequent millions on the stock market. Also in attendance were representatives of the Vanderbilt family, and of J. P. Morgan, amongst others.

While we have no record from any of these Gilded Age 1-percenters about what they thought of Power House No. 1, we do have the recollection of an Englishman who while not a member of the Cataract Construction Company board someone managed to get an invite on the tour—one Mister Herbert George Wells, better remembered today by his initials—H.G. Wells.

One of the earliest science fiction writers and later turned social observer, Wells (unlike the millionaires all around him) was at no loss for word about the mechanical wonders he beheld:

“These dynamos and turbines of the Niagara Falls Power Company impressed me far more profoundly than the Cave of the Winds; are indeed, to my mind, greater and more beautiful than accidental eddying of air beside a downpour. They are will made visible, thought translated into easy and commanding things. They are clean, noiseless, starkly powerful. All the clatter and tumult of the early age of machinery is past and gone here; there is no smoke, no coal grit, no dirt at all. The wheel pit into which one descends has an almost cloistered quiet about its softly humming turbines. These are altogether noble masses of machinery, huge black slumbering monsters, great sleeping tops that engineer irresistible forces in their sleep…. A man goes to and fro quietly in the long, clean hall of the dynamos. There is no clangor, no racket…. All these great things are as silent, as wonderfully made, as the heart in a living body, and stouter and stronger than that…. I fell into a daydream of the coming power of men, and how that power may be used by them.”

Other notables would soon visit.

Two months later, steelmaker tycoon and robber baron par excellence Andrew Carnegie came to see the marvel of Power House No. 1. “No visitor can have been more deeply impressed nor more certain of the triumphant success of this sublime undertaking,” Carnegie wrote in the official guest book.

J. P. Morgan finally showed up in person later that fall, along with his wife. He left no comment in the guest book.

And, eventually, Tesla came to.

For someone who claimed he’d dreamt since he was a boy of harassing Niagara Falls to produce electricity, Tesla took his sweet time actually coming to visit the falls, or to see what his AC system and induction motor had made possible.

For four years, Tesla had turned down repeated invitations to visit the site as it was under construction. It was not until the summer of 1896 that Tesla finally decided to make the pilgrimage.

The trip began in Pittsburgh with George Westinghouse and a tour of his company’s new twenty-acre electrical works out in Turtle Valley, east of Pittsburgh. That evening, Edward Dean Adams and several others joined for an overnight journey to the Falls aboard the Glen Eyre, Westinghouse’s “sumptuous private railcar.”

The next morning, at 9:00 A.M. on Sunday, July 19, 1896—the height of tourist season—Tesla and his party (made up of Westinghouse and his son, thirteen-year-old George Jr., Westinghouse’s attorney Paul Cravath, Edward Dean Adams, and William Rankine) arrived at Niagara Falls, NY.

When they were ready to set out for the power station, the group took an electric trolley along Erie Avenue toward the edge of town, and toward Stanford White’s “many-windowed cathedral of power.” Power House No. 1, fronted by a broad lawn, sat on one side of the inlet canal where diverted river water flowed steadily into the powerhouse.

And lest you feel left out of the grand tour, please check out the show notes for this episode at teslapodcast.com, where I will post images of Power House No. 1, the turbines, and lots more.

Only one dynamo was operating—it being a Sunday, after all—but Tesla was no less enthused. He and his party eagerly inspected the giant dynamo, climbing up and around it via the special walkways built around each machine. He would also have seen there the great bronze plaque that decorated the 5000 horsepower dynamos that his work made possible.

“Manufactured for the Niagara Falls Power Co by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co, Pittsburgh, PA, USA,” reads the plaque on the dynamo—followed by the year and a list of 13 patents used in its construction, nine of which bear the name of Tesla next to them. I’m sure the plaque would have been pointed out to Tesla, who must have felt a great swell of pride at seeing his dream having become a concrete reality.

“Stopped in New York,” Tesla inscribed in the power house’s guest book, “but heart is at Niagara.”

The tour group took the ornate elevator down to the wheel pits, where they heard the river water rushing through the penstocks, and heard and saw the great blades of the turbines whirling.

Back above ground, they took a short walk across a limestone bridge over the inlet canal to visit the transformer building, also in limestone and also by Stanford White—a much smaller, but faithful echo of Power House No. 1.

The transformer building at that point still wanted for any actual transformers. The machines, being built by GE as part of their piece of the contract, were still under construction. The limestone bridge they had crossed stood ready to carry electrical conduits from the powerhouse to the transformer building…whenever they were ready, that is.

When their morning was done, Rankine led the party back to his dining spot, the Cataract Hotel overlooking American Falls, where they had lunch.

After lunch, Tesla answered a few questions from some reporters:

“I came to Niagara Falls,” he said, “to inspect the great power plant and because I thought the change would bring me needed rest. I have been for some time in poor health, almost worn out…It is all and more than I anticipated it would be. It is fully all that was promised. It is one of the wonders of the century … a marvel in its completeness and in its superiority of construction…. In its entirety, in connection with the possibilities of the future, the plant and the prospect of future development in electrical science, and the more ordinary uses of electricity, are my ideals. They are what I have long anticipated and have labored, in an insignificant way, to contribute toward bringing about…But and it is a curious thing about me. I cannot stay about big machinery a great while. It affects me very much. The jar of the machinery curiously affects my spine and I cannot stand the strain.”

Asked about the prospects of power finally being transmitted to Buffalo, Tesla gave an assured answer:

“Its success is certain. The transmission of electricity is one of the simplest of propositions. It is but the application of pronounced and accepted rules which are as firmly established as the air itself…The result of this great development of electric power will be that the falls and Buffalo will reach out their arms and will join each other and become one great city. United, they will form the greatest city in the world.”

Reporters also wanted to hear from George Westinghouse. They asked him whether he really believed that the Niagara Falls Power Company could really sell 100,000 horsepower of electricity, as the plans ultimately called for. Would there really ever be that much demand?

“This talk is ridiculous,” replied Westinghouse, characteristically not suffering fools gladly. “When you think that a single ocean steamship like the Campania uses 25,000 horse power, it is easy to be seen that there will be no surplus here. All the power here can and will be used.” He emphasized that there would be 1,500 acres of the Niagara Falls Power Company that would soon be filled with industries hungry for power that would use up a great deal of the 100,000 horsepower.

“But Buffalo’s possibilities are to be made marvellous as well,” he added.

For his part, William Rankine told the reporters that the Niagara Falls Power Company was already contracting with a company to erect all the wooden transmission poles—modeled on those of the telegraph companies—that were needed to support the wires sending power from the Falls to Buffalo. Yup, it would be any day now…

And having been so long in planning to flash Niagara’s power to Buffalo, the Cataract Power and Conduit Company delivered early on its June 1, 1897 contractual deadline.

In early November 1896 the long-awaited GE transformers were finally installed in the transformer house. Curiously, even though GE’s original bid for three-phase AC was rejected in favour of two-phase AC (the better understood, more reliable technology at the time), the GE dynamos’ two-phase AC power was to be stepped up to three-phase AC for transmission, as it was judged more efficient. Now, it had been a couple of years by then from the initial bids to the installation of the GE transformer, so perhaps by then the state-of-the-art had advanced to where three-phase AC was, in fact, more efficient.

On Sunday, November 15, William Rankine and several engineers tested the delivery of 1,000 horsepower to the transformer from the dynamos at Power House No. 1. All seemed ready to send electricity to the Cataract Power and Conduit Company…but Rankine had promised his father, an Episcopal minister, that the actual transmission of power would not begin on the Sabbath.

So, late that Sunday night Rankine returned to the powerhouse, accompanied by one Westinghouse engineer, and one GE engineer who had been with him supervising and testing all day.

Though he was a lawyer, and not an engineer, it was all together fitting that it was Rankine—the man who had first become enamoured of the Falls as a law clerk, and who in 1889 had been the one to start the ball rolling on harnessing the Falls by approaching J. P. Morgan—it was all together fitting that it was he who at precisely 12:01am on Monday morning threw three switches in Power House No. 1 and, in effect, fired the final shot of the War of the Currents.

As the switches closed, the power generated by Niagara’s waters spinning the giant turbines and powering the 5000 hp Westinghouse AC dynamos in Power House No. 1 raced to the GE transformer at a pressure of 2,200 volts, was instantly stepped by the transformer to 10,700 volts, and flashed over twenty-six miles of cable to the Cataract Power and Conduit Company’s transformer at the Buffalo Terminal House, located at 2280 Niagara Street in Buffalo, stepping it down to 440 volts.

At the same moment—precisely 12:01am—the small group who had assembled in the southwest corner of the Buffalo Railway Company powerhouse pulled down three knife-blade switches on their two rotary transformers—delivered and tested just that day. Power from the Buffalo Terminal House surged into the Railway Company’s rotary transformers, where it was converted to DC power and brought up to 550 volts.

“Perhaps two seconds elapsed,” reported the Buffalo Enquirer the next day about the total time it took for the whole operation. The full article was headlined (in all caps) “YOKED TO THE CATARACT!” with the subheads “Niagara’s Energy Ready to Stir the Wheels of Buffalo’s Great Industries—Power Transmitted Successfully at Midnight Last Night” and “Now for Prosperity for Greater Buffalo.”

“Electrical experts say the time was incapable of computation,” the article continued. “It was the journey of God’s own lightning bound over to the employ of man.”

The next morning, Buffalo streetcars ran for the first time on Niagara Falls hydroelectric power.

With power finally flowing to Buffalo, and their mission accomplished, Adams and the men running the new Cataract Power and Conduit Company decided a celebration was in order.

That is how, for the second time in six months, Tesla found himself heading up to Niagara—this time to be the guest of honour at a banquet to celebrate the completion of the Niagara Falls project.

Tesla traveled overnight in a private railcar from New York City with Edward Dean Adams and not a few of New York’s finest 1-percenters and millionaire directors of the Niagara endeavour.

Amongst them were Francis Lynde Stetson, one of the most powerful attorneys in America. From a distinguished New York legal and political family, Stetson was a confidant of President Grover Cleveland (who was also a partner in his law firm). He had represented the railroad interests of the Vanderbilts since 1887, and J. P. Morgan had Stetson’s firm on retainer.

Edward Wickes was also in the party. Likewise a lawyer, and likewise on retainer to the Vanderbilts and their interests in the New York Central railroad, Wickes and Stetson were both vice presidents of the Cataract Construction Company.

One of the non-millionaires who journeyed with them was Lewis B. Stillwell, Westinghouse’s chief engineer who was standing in for the great man, and whom we first met back in Episode 12 when Tesla went to Pittsburgh to work with the Westinghouse people to develop his motor and dynamo for commercial use. As you’ll recall from that episode, Stillwell was one of the many Westinghouse men to give Tesla the cold shoulder during that sojourn, and was one of the major reasons that Tesla headed back to New York disappointed.

Stillwell was one of the engineers that refused to listen to Tesla when he said the system would work best at 60-cycles per second, and who insisted on 133 cycles per second because the Gaulard-Gibbs system that Westinghouse also had patents for operated at that frequency and they wanted to mesh the two. Stillwell was also one of the engineers who would later declare a “breakthrough” when they realized that, hey, this Tesla stuff works better at 60-cycles per second. Who knew?

Professionally jealous of Telsa (Stillwell had invented something called the Stillwell booster, which operated somewhat like the Tesla coil except that Tesla had beat him to it), Stillwell would later do his part in a corporate history of the Westinghouse Company to downplay the role of Tesla’s innovations and try and give credit for Tesla’s accomplishments to himself and others at the company.

Sooo, that must have been fun train ride…

The group arrived in Niagara Falls, NY at 9am on Tuesday, January 12, 1897. Not surprisingly for northern New York State in January, it was bitterly cold and snowing.

Horse-drawn carriages took the group to the elegant Prospect House Hotel where they met William Rankine for breakfast.

After breakfast it was off to Power House No. 1, where Tesla could see all the transformers at work this time, as well as tour several of the new factories powered by Niagara. In the afternoon, they visited the falls.

We don’t 100% where they stood to observe the grandeur of the falls. But I wonder what the odds might be that Tesla himself stood anywhere near where the giant statue of him now rests overlooking Bridal Veil Falls… I hope he did.

That evening, dressed in top hats and tuxedos, Tesla and his party took the short train ride to Buffalo to attend the Cataract Power and Conduit Company’s lavish electrical banquet at the new Ellicott Square Building. Designed by Daniel H. Burnham—who you may recall as the architect and mastermind of the Chicago World’s Fair—the ten-story neo-Renaissance Ellicott Square Building was said to be the world’s largest office building, with six hundred suites.

The banquet was held on the top floor in the Ellicott Club. The 400 guests from amongst Buffalo’s leading citizens were each handed a souvenir menu and seating list bound in engraved aluminum covers made with aluminum from the Pittsburgh Reduction Company that had been rendered with Niagara power.

Beyond Buffalo’s great and good, some fifty eminent scientists and electrical engineers were also in attendance and their names will be familiar to you from past episodes: GE’s chairman Charles Coffin, Elihu Thomson, Charles Brush of arc light fame, and T. Commerford Martin, editor of the Electrical Engineer.

Eight long banquet tables of guests were served a a 10-course meal of oysters, deviled lobster, terrapin (which is a kind fo turtle), and filet of beef, paired with sherry, German riesling, champagne, and a palate cleanser of “sorbet electrique.”

“Such a company never sat down in Buffalo before,” accurately observed the Buffalo Morning Express, before overselling it in that particular late 19th Century way by saying “such an event had never previously been celebrated in the history of the world.”

At 10:00 P.M., the dessert plates of petit fours were cleared and Francis Lynde Stetson rose, the first of six toastmasters that evening, to toast “the Company.”

Unfortunately, Stetson misunderstood the date and apparently believed it to be Festivus, because he began with an airing of grievances.

He complained that since 1889, the New York investors had put up more than $6 million (more than $169 million dollars today) to build the Niagara power plant and transmission infrastructure “without thus far receiving one penny of profit or dividends or interest.” The audience was suddenly shocked (no pun intended) into silence. Stetson said that while the most profitable way to use the Niagara power would be to sell all of it to the firms in their own industrial park, nevertheless, the Niagara Falls Power Company intended to honor its far less profitable arrangement to supply Buffalo with electricity…

Gee, thanks.

But Stetson didn’t agree to honor it on time. The additional 9,000 horsepower of electricity that was contractually owed to the City of Buffalo by June 1897 would not be made available by then, Stetson announced. The city would get it at some unspecified future date.

Needless to say, this sociopathic toast to “the Company” was…poorly received.

The rest of the night’s toastmasters, including the mayor and the state comptroller, had to follow this performance and did so to more or less success.

Finally, as guest of honour, it was Tesla’s turn to toast the crowd. When he stood to make his remarks he was greeted with thunderous applause, the clanging of wineglasses with silverware, and the waving of linen napkins in the air.

Saying with his characteristic modesty that he “scarcely had courage enough to address them,” Tesla began his speech.

“… I wish to congratulate you Buffalonians, I will say friends,” Tesla said, “on the wonderful expectations and possibilities open to you. At some time not distant your city will be a worthy neighbor of the great cataract, which is one of the wonders of the Nation.”

Tesla honoured the “spirit which makes men in all stages and position work, not as much for any material benefit or compensation, although reason may dictate this also, but for the sake of success, for the pleasure there is in achieving it and for the good they might do thereby to their fellow men.” In contract to Stetson, Tesla spoke of a “type of man … inspired with deep love for their study, men whose chief aim and enjoyment is the acquisition and spread of knowledge, men who look far above earthly things, whose banner is Excelsior!”

Stan Lee, eat your heart out.

Unmoved by the applause Tesla was receiving, Stetson stood up and whispered loudly in Tesla’s ear to wrap up his remarks or else he and the other New York millionaires would miss their soon-to-depart train.

And with that, the Buffalo Courier noted the next day in its article about the event, Tesla’s words were received with great applause, and Tesla “fell back relieved and made a rush for the door to catch his train.”

And, with that, the War of the Currents was over. AC and Westinghouse and Tesla had won, DC and General Electric and Edison had lost.

But, as a coda to our discussion of the war, there is an interesting debate amongst historians and within the various Tesla biographies about why it was that GE lost out so spectacularly in the Niagara project.

Recall from last episode that Adams had given GE the contract for transformers, the transmission lines, and the equipment for the electrical substation in Buffalo—but did so mainly to help keep down the cost of the contract Adams knew he would eventually award Westinghouse, as well as to hedge his bets and keep open the possibility of working with GE in the future.

But the question for historians remains: why didn’t JP Morgan and the moneyed interests behind GE exert more pressure on the Cataract Company and flex more muscle to win the dynamo contract?

Historian Harold Passer, in his book The Electrical Manufacturers, 1875-1900, concludes that the stakes were simply too high for GE’s investors, with “the financiers…afraid to go against the judgment of their engineering advisers,” who claimed it couldn’t be done.

Another possibility—which I like to term “the honor amongst thieves” theory—is that because JP Morgan was a close friend of August Belmont, one of Westinghouse’s financial backers, he essentially backed off and let his buddy Belmont have the contract through his investment in Westinghouse.

A similar theory is that Morgan didn’t fight tooth-and-nail because of his respect for the International Niagara Commission, and advice from his lawyer William Rankine and Francis Stetson who told Morgan of Tesla’s “daring promise [as far back as 1890] to place 100,000 hp on a wire and send it 450 miles in one direction to New York City, the metropolis of the East, and 500 miles in the other direction to Chicago, the metropolis of the West, [to] serve the purpose of these great urban communities.” I suppose the thinking here is that Morgan believed Tesla could do it, and since Westinghouse had all the patents Morgan assumed there wasn’t much hope of ultimate victory.

Whatever the reason, the awarding of the contract turned out how it turned out. But that was not the end for Morgan or GE.

Oh no. Because having lost two major contracts to Westinghouse, and in yet another Gilded Age parallel with our own Silicon Valley-driven age of mergers and acquisitions, Morgan and GE did what any mega corporation would do: they decided to acquire Westinghouse. The “if you can’t beat them, launch a hostile takeover” strategy.

A successful acquisition of Westinghouse would mean huge savings for GE—and Westinghouse as well. The two companies were (by 1893) waging three hundred patent lawsuits against each other, many over AC designs. A “merger” would save each company $1 million a year in legal fees—that’s about $28 million today, for each side.

And, if GE was successful it would leave the company in control not just of the Niagara project, but—with Westinghouse’s Tesla patents in hand—GE would vault to a monopoly position in electricity in the United States, dominating as they would 90 percent of the market. A perfect strategy for the age of robber barons.

“General Electric was most anxious to bolster its jerry-built structure with the solid Westinghouse concern,” wrote Thomas Lawson in his muckraking Gilded Age classic, Frenzied Finance, which examined how Wall Street’s robber barons made easy and unscrupulous millions through watered stock, market manipulation, and monopolies. “Suddenly the financial sky became overcast. The stock market grew panicky … Wall and State streets [were] full of talk about General Electric’s probable absorption of Westinghouse…. This was the signal. From all the stock-market sub-cellars and rat-holes of State, Broad, and Wall streets crept those wriggling, slimy snakes of bastard rumors which, seemingly fatherless and motherless, have in reality multi-parents who beget them with a deviltry of intention…. [Rumors] … seeped through the financial haunts of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and kept hot the wires into every financial centre in America and Europe, where aid might be sought to relieve the crisis. There came a crash in Westinghouse stocks and their value melted.”

By this point, I think we’ve all gotten to know George Westinghouse well enough to know that this was not the kind of thing he would let slide. If it was dirty tricks he could expect from GE, then Westinghouse was going to give as good as he got.

The Gilded Age predates the Wall Street regulatory bodies we’re familiar with today, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, so this left Westinghouse a pretty free hand to retaliate as he saw fit and there really wasn’t anything illegal about what he was doing.

To even the score with GE, Westinghouse hired Thomas Lawson—the same guy I mentioned a minute ago who would later literally write the book on how to artificially manipulate stock—to be the mastermind of his realiatory strike against GE.

Thomas W. Lawson was a Boston stock manipulator who had a huge public following that followed his advice on what stocks to buy and sell. His wheelhouse was mainly mining—especially copper—and on brand for the Gilded Age, his suggested stock picks were really just about manipulating the stocks and ended up making him rich and wiping out the people who did what he told them.

Ironically, after a lawsuit from a disgruntled investor and the subsequent falling out Lawson had with John D. Rockefeller and Henry Rogers over at Standard Oil, this master stock manipulator came to be seen somehow as some kind of reformer.

The attack that Lawson launched against GE on Westinghouse’s behalf was so devastating in this unregulated, Wild West environment that GE and JP Morgan retreated from the idea of taking over Westinghouse…at least for now.

As we’ll see in our final episode about the aftermath of the War of the Currents (which will be a few episodes from now) the spectre of some kind of takeover continued to loom over Westinghouse for years until, finally, a solution was reached. But we’ll talk about that some other time…

Within a decade of the harnessing of Niagara Falls, the availability of cheap, abundant electricity spurred industrial development throughout western New York.

Niagara power spawned an entirely new industry, the electrochemical business, which used massive amounts of electricity to produce caustic chemical compounds such as chlorine. The Union Carbide Company—which manufactured everything from calcium carbide, to ethylene glycol, to zinc chloride, to liquid oxygen—was for many years one of the Niagara plant’s biggest customers.

Buoyed by the success of the Niagara project, Rankine launched a second company to build a similar power plant on the Canadian side of the falls.

Before long, as Tesla had predicted, Niagara’s power was being sent to New York City, more than 450 miles away. Electricity from the falls would help transform Detroit, powering the city’s assembly lines and steel furnaces and turning it into the Motor City.

More than this, however, the enduring legacy of the harnessing of Niagara Falls is that it became the model for how electrical power would be generated and consumed in the twentieth century and beyond. Electricity would be produced wherever there was a source of reliable power, transmitted hundreds or even thousands of miles, and consumed where it was most needed. And not just in the United States or Canada. As a result of the success of the Niagara Falls power plant, European utilities, too, shifted to polyphase AC and it was from that moment that polyphase AC truly became a global standard for current distribution, as it remains today.

The war was truly over, and the victory was complete.

Niagara removed the last serious doubt about the efficiency of the AC system and it spawned even more ambitious hydroelectric dreams. The Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams in the American West were only possible thanks to the success of Niagara. And it’s worth noting that both power stations generated their electricity using Westinghouse equipment.

Quite understandably people came to think that Tesla, working with the Westinghouse Company, had designed this new system. This, of course, isn’t accurate.

But though Tesla didn’t design the system used at Niagara, he did play a profound, if subtle, role in making sure that a system based on his original patents did win the day.

Calling the harnessing of Niagara Falls “the unrivalled engineering triumph of the nineteenth century,” the New York Times wrote in July 1895 that:

“[p]erhaps the most romantic part of the story of this great enterprise would be the history of the career of the man above all men who made it possible—a man of humble birth, who has risen almost before he reached the fullness of manhood to a place in the first rank of the world’s great scientists and discoverers—Nikola Tesla.

“Even now the world is more apt to think of him as a producer of weird experimental effects than as a practical and useful inventor. Not so the scientific public or the businessmen. By the latter classes Tesla is properly appreciated, honored, perhaps even envied. For he has given to the world a complete solution of the problem        which has taxed the brains and occupied the time of the greatest electro-scientists of the last two decades—namely, the successful adaption of electrical power transmitted over long distances.”


Niagara Falls today has been forever transformed by its role as a power generating station.

If you think back to last episode, and to the Indigenous peoples who lived in the region, and to the missionary Father Louis Hennepin who first wrote of the Falls, the Falls as they would have seen it was far different than the Falls as we have it today, and that’s due to the needs of hydroelectric power.

60 to 75 percent of the river’s flow is siphoned off above the falls to feed the power stations on the American and Canadian sides. So the Falls that Father Hennepin wrote about would have been more than twice as powerful as the Falls we see today.

In 1950, Canada and the United States actually signed a treaty to ensure that Niagara Falls will never run dry due to water being diverted for hydroelectric use.

The treaty states that water flow over Niagara Falls is to take precedence over use for hydroelectric generation. During daylight hours in the peak season, tourists must see one million gallons of water per second cascading over the falls. During the off season, power stations can turn the flow down to half that.

The International Control Dam—which at 2000 feet long is 600 feet longer than the Hover Dam—operated by the International Niagara Control Works, manages the flow of the Niagara river. 18 control gates, each of which is wider than the Titanic, and each of which weighs 85 tons, span the dam. Massive hydraulics allow the gates to be fully raised or lowered within 10 minutes, taming the river and allowing water to flow either to the falls or be diverted to the power stations.

Though the original power plant has long been decommissioned and replaced, and though the size of hydroelectric operation is now much larger and the technology more advanced, much of how power is generated at Niagara today would be familiar to Tesla, or Westinghouse, or Adams were they to see it now.

Power generation is still gravity driven, as it was in their day. Water, diverted from the Niagara River, falls from a great height behind the dam, gaining tremendous speed before hitting the fan blades of a giant turbine, which turns electromagnets to generate electricity.

The drive shafts from the turbines power 26 huge electromagnetic generators, each of which weighs almost 2 million pounds. They spin at over 150 revolutions per minute, generating enough power to light up Toronto thanks to the staggering half a million gallons of water that move through the power plants per second.

At half a million gallons per second, you could fill an Olympic size swimming pool in less time than it takes to jump from the diving board and hit the water.

Something that would have been new to Tesla, or Westinghouse, or Adams if they saw it today, is the 740-acre reservoir (that’s a reservoir 6 km long 3 km wide) that sits behind the power stations, and which holds 260 million gallons of water. This water is for use during times when demand outstrips the amount of water available during daylight hours. It is often tapped into during peak season (ie: the summer), which usually coincides with peak demand (thanks to things like air conditioning). When its needed, water is diverted from this reservoir into the power station to generate hydroelectricity. Operators then refill the reservoir at night when they are able to draw more off of the falls so that they always have enough water on hand when they need it during the day.

And, in a nice little 21st Century bow on our story of Niagara Falls, it was announced in October 2020 that beginning in the 2021 tourist season, the Maid of the Mist—the ferry tour of the Niagara River that will take you right into the mouth of the falls and its plunge basin, and which has been in operation since 1846—the Maid of the Mist will operate for the first time ever with two brand-new, all-electric ferry boats. These catamaran-style electric ferries—the first passenger vessels of their kind in the United States—operate nearly silently with little to no vibration and produce zero emissions, promising a smoother, quieter, and greener ride.

It means the boats’ lithium-ion batteries that take you right up to the Falls will themselves be charged by the power of the Falls. It’s a nice circle of life moment.

But best of all, while one of the boats will be named the James V. Glynn, in honor of the longtime Maid of the Mist Chairman and CEO James V. Glynn, who has been with the company for 70 years, the other boat will be named the Nikola Tesla.


The victory at Niagara, coming as it did on the heels of the World’s Fair triumph, firmly established Tesla’s reputation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as one of America’s leading inventors. And now, building on that fame, Tesla intended to introduce an even more remarkable power distribution system to the world—the wireless transmission of electricity.

While we will have one final episode on the aftermath of the War of the Currents, next time we jump around again in time a bit and step back to 1895. With Tesla at the height of his powers, with fame and fortune and business opportunities his for the taking, we will witness perhaps the greatest tragedy of Tesla’s professional life, and all his hopes and dreams go up in smoke…

SHOW NOTES: War of the Currents Part 7 – Hail Hydro (1889-1893)

The Tesla statue overlooking Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, ON (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
The Tesla statue on Goat Island in its new location at a tourist lookout above Bridal Veil Falls (photo by Stephen Kotowych, June 19, 2017)
Commemorative plaque at the Tesla statue on Goat Island (photo by Stephen Kotowych, June 19, 2017)
The Tesla statue on Goat Island, Niagara Falls, NY in its old location near the parking lot (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en)

As I’ve mentioned previously, the War of the Currents all leads ultimately to the battle over Niagara Falls, and to the final titanic struggle to decide whether it would be DC or AC that would win the great prize and harness the falls for power generation.

This battle which, spoiler alert, AC and the Westinghouse-Tesla system ultimately won, was really the decisive battle in the War of the Currents. After the AC system was installed at Niagara Falls—and worked better than anyone imagined it would—there was no longer any argument that DC champions could make about AC being dangerous or inefficient or impractical.

Niagara Falls has been part of my life for almost as long as I can recall. Though I didn’t grow up around it, every summer when we’d come to visit family in Toronto, we would usually take a day and make the hour-and-a-half drive to the Falls and hang out. It was impressive, sure. But in that way that youth is wasted on the young, I don’t think I really appreciated its true awesomeness—in the original, non Bill-and-Ted meaning of the word as ‘extremely impressive and daunting, inspiring admiration, apprehension, and fear’—or the opportunity to see it so frequently until much later in life.

Once I moved to Toronto and was so close all the time, when the weather was nice I would visit the Falls just as something to get me out of the house on a Saturday. I would often bring friends visiting from elsewhere to see them. I remember when I had visitors coming from Australia, a girlfriend and I were trying to decide what to show them. I suggested Niagara Falls. She scoffed. Too touristy, she said. When the Aussies arrived, what did they want to see?

Niagara Falls.

Because of course you do! It is touristy, but it’s touristy for a reason. It’s awesome. It’s a natural wonder of the world, and people long to see it their whole lives. I’m sure people react to seeing Niagara Falls for the first time the way I did when I drove through the Rocky Mountains for the first time, or fulfilled a lifelong dream and set foot in Kakadu National Park in Australia for the first time. I’ve just lived so close to Niagara Falls for so long, and visited so many times, that it’s somehow become mundane to me, as it had to my then-girlfriend.

How is it that humans do that, anyway? Become so blasé about things that are legitimately incredible?

And because of that blaséness, I never appreciated until I started researching Tesla’s life and accomplishments just what an achievement harnessing Niagara Falls was, nor how hard it is to overstate just what an impact the Niagara Falls project had on both sides of the Canada-US border. Electricity lit up Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, NY, but it also lit up Buffalo, NY—20 miles from the Falls, and Hamilton, ON—more than 55 miles away. And power from Niagara Falls didn’t stop there.

In fact, the idea that electricity came from Niagara Falls was so pervasive for so long in the region of the world where I live that we don’t call it the “power company” or the “electric company”—

—We call it the “hydro company,” as in hydroelectric power. We don’t get an “electric bill” we get a “hydro bill.”

The largest electricity transmission and distribution service provider in Ontario—covering about 26% of all the customers in this, Canada’s most populous province—is called Hydro One. The largest electric utility in Toronto—Canada’s largest city—is called Toronto Hydro. There are at least 28 other electric utilities companies in Ontario alone that use the word ‘hydro’ in their name. And that’s despite the fact that these days the largest share of Ontario’s energy (34%) comes from nuclear power and not hydroelectricity (which today makes up just 23% of our energy mix).

All this is the legacy of a time when the bulk of the electrical power in this province came from the harnessing of Niagara Falls and the end of the War of the Currents.

No one had been an anticipating the harnessing of Niagara Falls longer than Nikola Tesla himself. You’ll recall that Tesla claimed in his youth he’d planned to generate electricity using Niagara Falls.

“I was fascinated by a description of Niagara Falls I had perused,” Telsa wrote in 1919 in his autobiography, “and pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the Falls. I told my uncle that I would go to America and carry out this scheme. Thirty years later I saw my ideas carried out at Niagara and marvelled at the unfathomable mystery of the mind.”

You hear Niagara Falls long before you see it.

It starts as a distant hum, a kind of white noise that just barely registers in your consciousness. As you get closer, the sound grows louder and though you still haven’t seen them, your mind finally registers: “Oh, that’s the Falls that I’m hearing.” You are surprised at just how far away you can hear the Falls—how long you’re actually been hearing them without realizing—and the sense of awe at their immensity begins to come over you.

When you finally reach the Falls—when you’re in sight of them, and especially when you’re right next to them (and you can get perilously close to them)—the sound is all-encompassing. If you take a trip on the Maid of Mist boat and drive right into the mouth of the Horseshoe Falls, there is no other sound. Shouts and yells can find no purchase on the air there, saturated with the sound of Niagara.

The water of the Niagara River is all around you, inescapable. It’s pouring over the Falls above, hanging all around you as mist and spray. The little garbage bag poncho they give you when you get on the boat is basically useless. You’re soaked from head to toe almost right away. The water mats your hair, the spray blurs your vision, the taste of the river (which tastes terrible, by the way) is in your mouth no matter what you do.

It’s a cliche to describe as a “roar” the sound of that unfathomable volume of rushing water plunging 160 feet straight down over the Falls. It’s a cliche and it’s inaccurate. Because it’s more than a simple roar.

Roars end. Niagara is forever.

You marvel at just how much water is coming downriver to the Falls, before it plunges over and then moves on its course down the Niagara River. It seems like all the water in the world. You wait for it to finish rushing past you, draining from wherever its coming from, but it doesn’t. It just keeps going.

It looks like footage you’ve seen of roiling flood waters sweeping across fields and plains, breaching riverbanks and levies, swamping towns and washing out bridges. But then you realize that those floods (even if they’re seasonal) are exceptions. Most of the time, those places aren’t like that. The waters there are calmer, and they hold to their course.

But, you understand, this place isn’t like that. Every day here, every minute, is a hundred-year flood of water throwing itself over the Falls. The churn of the blue-green water, the white froth of the waves, the mist that hangs all around, the permanent rainbow suspended across the Horseshoe Falls—this is what this place is, all the time.

The cascade of its flow never stops, never slackens. The sound of the water never varies in tone or volume. Day or night, rain or shine, no matter the time or season, it does not slow. Niagara simply is.

And there, standing sentinel over the Falls, is Nikola Tesla. Well, a statue of him. Two, actually. One statue is on the Canadian side—in which he’s standing atop a dynamo of his own design. In one hand he holds a top hat, and in the other a walking stick which is meant to evoke that moment in the City Park in Budapest when Tesla first envisioned his AC motors by drawing with his cane in the dirt. We describe that moment in Episode 5.

With the sculpt of his long overcoat flared back as if being blown by a dramatic wind, the hat and the cane make Tesla look like a magician, come to tame the Falls and pull electricity out of his hat. Which, in a way, is what happened.

This statue of Tesla is in a green space across the street from Horseshoe Falls, the most impressive part of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls. Horseshoe Falls is what everybody thinks of when they think of what Niagara Falls looks like (sorry, my American friends, the view from the Canadian side just is the better view). And because this statue of Telsa looks out at the Horseshoe Falls, it’s kind of ignored most of the time. As you drive by it on your way to the parking lot, you are mere feet from the Falls and I’m sure most people are craning their necks to get a first glimpse of the natural wonder they’ve come to see. They’re not looking for a statue.

Once they return to the pedestrian walkway that snakes alongside the Horseshoe, people are facing away from the statue, looking at the grandeur of the Falls with their backs to Tesla. It’s something of an apt metaphor, actually, for Tesla’s impact on and legacy in the modern world. I’d venture that few who do notice the statue have any idea who it’s of, or why he should be commemorated at that place in particular.

The other statue of Tesla is on the American side, on Goat Island, which over looks Bridal Veil Falls (part two of the three part Falls, with the American Falls—also on the US side, obviously—rounding out our trio). While it was once fairly removed from the Falls, in recent years the statue has been given a prominent position on a tourist lookout point above Bridal Veil Falls. Most of the pictures of this statue that you find online are now out of date, still showing the statue in its old location—right near the parking lot…

To get to the statue’s new home, that lookout, you have to approach from behind the statue and pass around it. You definitely see the statue and take notice of it—you can’t miss it.

This statue is a much simpler design—a giant Tesla, seated, look down and reading…something. It’s hard to say what exactly, but it looks like an unrolled scroll or a newspaper. While, as with the other statue, many (if not most) visitors probably couldn’t tell you who the statue depicts or why its placed there, this statue of Tesla definitely attracts more attention. It’s climbable (though I’m sure that wasn’t the original intent) and kids in particular (including my two oldest, in particular) enjoy sitting on the scroll in Tesla’s lap and having their picture taken. The knees and scroll of the bronze statue are worn shiny with use from countless tourists.

I will include photos of both statues in this episode’s show notes at teslapodcast.com.

About eight million tourists a year visit the American side of Niagara Falls.  About 20 million tourists a year visit the Canadian side (like I said—better view). But it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Niagara Falls has always drawn crowds.

The falls at Niagara Falls are around 11,000 years old, and were created toward the end of the last ice age, when the massive glaciers blanketing much of North America started to melt.

Glacial melt waters flowed into the Niagara River, increasing the flow of water and steadily eroding the rock there. Eventually, the rock in a portion of the river eroded enough to create waterfalls – which are the three we know today as Niagara Falls.

Connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, the Niagara River carries the full flow of water from the upper Great Lakes as the water makes its journey to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. The falls occur where the bedrock beneath the river suddenly changes from hard to soft, and the river drops dramatically 160 feet.

It’s interesting to note that the location of the falls is not static. Due to erosion, the falls are constantly in retreat. 11,000 years ago, the falls were further down river from where they are today, positioned between present-day Queenston, Ontario and Lewiston, New York. Over the course of 11 millennia, however, the falls have retreated southward due to erosion, landing them where they are today.

Historically, the rate of erosion has averaged about 1 meter, or just over 3 feet per year, meaning that in 11,000 years the falls has moved just over 11 km, or roughly 7 miles. Over the last 200 years, erosion has been more like 1.5 meters or about 5 feet a year, but recent conservation and remediation efforts have slowed that rate to just a third of a meter, or 1 foot, a year. Ironically, for our discussion this episode, part of why the erosion of the falls has slowed is due to the diversion of water flow along the Niagara River for the purposes of hydroelectric power generation!

And that’s your fun fact for today!

Currently, (no pun intended) the falls are flowing over limestone cap rock, which is more resistant to erosion than other types of rock. We could see erosion at the Falls go as low as 1 foot each decade…until, of course, eventually that limestone is washed away, softer layers of rock are exposed, and erosion rates speed up.

Estimates are that the American Falls could dry up in 2000 years, while the whole falls may run dry in a mere 50,000 years. So, you know, go see it while you still can…

It’s hard to know exactly when people first discovered and started living near the falls. Indigenous peoples in the region were aware of the falls, but its not known for how long given that they left no written records of their interaction. The name Niagara comes from the Oni-au-ga-rah peoples who lived in what we would today call the southern Niagara Peninsula. Their name— Oni-au-ga-rah —meant either “Near the big waters” or “The Strait” or possibly ‘The Neck,’ depending on who you talk to. The Oni-au-ga-rah people were essentially eradicated by the Iroquois in 1651 during the Beaver Wars (also known as the French and Iroquois Wars), so the exact meaning of their name was lost to history with them.

French explorer Samuel de Champlain reported about the Falls in his journal after his arrival in the Niagara region in 1604. Champlain wrote about “a fall about a league wide” that fell into a “sea so large” witnesses “have never seen the end of it” but gave no further details, and it is thought that he never saw the Falls for himself, instead relying on the reports of some of his party who saw them.

Decades later on December 8, 1678—342 years and 7 days from the premiere of this episode, as it happens—a missionary, Father Louis Hennepin, was shown the Falls by his indigenous guides (see what I mean? Always popular with tourists!) It was Father Hennepin who made the first detailed written description of the Falls and circulated it to a wider audience, bringing the Falls global fame.

Father Hennepin described his impression of the Falls in his book, Description de la Louisiane, published in Paris in 1683. It was translated into English in 1698 as A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America:

Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford it’s parallel.

Tis true, Italy and Suedland boast some such Things; but we may well say they are but sorry Patterns, when compar’d to this of which we now speak. At the foot of this horrible Precipice, we meet with the River Niagara, which is not above a quarter of a League broad, but is wonderfully deep in some places. It is so rapid above this Descent, that it violently hurries down the wild Beasts while endeavouring to pass it to feed on the other side, they not being able to withstand the force of its Current, which inevitably casts them above Six hundred foot high…

The Waters which fall from this horrible Precipice, do foam and boyl after the most hideous manner imaginable, making an outrageous Noise, more terrible than that of Thunder; for when the Wind blows out of the South, their dismal roaring may be heard more than Fifteen Leagues off. . . .

The River Niagara having thrown itself down this incredible Precipice, continues its impetuous course for two Leagues together … with an inexpressible rapidity: But having past that, its impetuosity relents, gliding along more gently for two other Leagues, till it arrive at Lake Frontenac [what we today would call Lake Ontario].  

With the advent of widespread rail travel in the 1800s, it finally became possible for Niagara Falls—celebrated in print as one of the world’s natural wonders—to become a genuine tourist destination.

Charles Dickens arrived on a train from nearby Buffalo, NY in April 1842. Of the experience, he wrote that he was “stunned and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene…. Great Heaven, on what a Fall of bright-green water! … Then I felt how near to my Creator I was standing…. Peace of Mind, tranquility, calm recollections of the Dead, great thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness … Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty.”

He stayed ten days, glorying in the natural splendour.

Fifteen years later, American landscape artist Frederic Church painted the Falls from the perspective of someone perched perilously close to the edge of the falls from the Canadian side. It was a sensation amongst critics and the public alike. When Church’s Niagara went on display in New York City in May of 1857, in just two weeks one hundred thousand people had viewed it.

With the arrival of the railroads, the sense of serene, spiritual beauty of the place was quickly subsumed by “hotels, museums, stables, icehouses, bathhouses, laundries, and curiosity shops catering to the tourist dollar. A tawdry and aggressive commercialism engulfed both sides of the falls—tacky tea gardens, curiosity shops, huge and unlovely hostels, taverns, and viewing towers. The venal Niagara hackmen, vying loutishly for fares, quickly dispelled any pilgrim’s spiritual frame of mind.”

And that’s…a pretty accurate description of the situation as it remains today.

I think I’ve mentioned before that Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario is, by square-footage, possibly the tackiest place on Earth. Even though that quote I just read is more than 150 years old, it could have been written today and wouldn’t seem out of place.

Niagara Falls also became a place for feats of derring-do. Tightrope walkers—who are technically known by the Latin name of “funambulists”—made repeated attempts to cross the mouth of Falls. Most impressive of these might have been the Great Blondin, who, in the summer of 1859 before a crowd of 25,000 made multiple crossings of the Falls via tightrope, each time adding levels of difficulty. He carried his manager across on his back. He carried out a small stove on which he cooked two omelets while balanced above the chasm. He brought out a table and feasted on champagne and cake while keeping his balance.

The next summer the Great Blondin got into something of a daredevil war with another funambulists, called Monsieur Farini. Each man tried to outdo the other with increasingly crazy stunts—headstands, hanging by your toes, lowering a bucket down into the plunge pool of the falls, hauling the water back up, and then washing your laundry—all while balancing on a tightrope.

One gets the sense that life was cheap in the 19th Century…

The Great Blondin eventually won this daredevil war, when he tried a stunt that not even Monsieur Farini dared to trump: Blondin walked his tightrope on stilts. His audience of thousands included the Prince of Wales (the future Edward 7th) who was on a goodwill tour of Canada and the United States.

“Thank God it’s over!” exclaimed the prince when the Great Blondin was safely back on dry ground.

Along with tacky tourist traps and people determined to kill themselves in exotic ways, it also wasn’t long before the power of Niagara Falls itself—the power of all that falling water—occurred to a number of enterprising industrialists and businesspeople.

After all, about one-fifth of the U.S. population lived within four hundred miles of Niagara, and Buffalo (a city of 250,000 and an industrial powerhouse of the day) was only twenty miles away. To the north, across the Niagara River, lay much of the population and industry of Ontario, Canada’s most populace province.

The flow of water over the falls was steady and reliable, making it ideal for spinning a turbine smoothly to produce a continuous flow of electricity. Power from the falls could efficiently drive local mills, and even provide some power to the town of Niagara Falls.

If only there was a way to use the Falls properly…

While people had lamented the lack of a way to harness the Falls since at least 1857, it wasn’t until either 1882 or 1885 (sources differ) that enterprising local industrialists on the American side took it upon themselves to dig a canal to divert Niagara water. Using the diverted water to power water wheels, they quickly had customers in seven local industries, including pulp and paper, flour mills, a silver-plating factory in Oneida, NY.

Because this canal and the diversion of water was done entirely without any permission from the state (mainly because there were no laws or regulations saying that you couldn’t dig a canal and divert the Niagara River), the result was that in 1885 the Niagara Reservation was created to protect the natural beauty of the Falls. This was a New York State government preserve that forbade all development on four hundred acres of state land (three-quarters of it submerged) around Niagara Falls.

Denied land immediately around the Falls to build a major industrial district, a more creative solution was needed by those who wished to harness the Falls.

The answer can in 1886, when Erie Canal engineer Thomas Evershed—who had worked as a surveyor at Niagara in his youth in the 1840s—proposed a plan using canals, shafts, and a tunnel to divert water around the reservation. The intakes for the water wheel system he proposed would be more than a mile above the falls, well out of sight of tourists. This canal would bring water to a series of branch canals that would power 238 separate waterwheels. After passing through a waterwheel, the water would then plunge down a 150-foot shaft to a 2 1/2-mile-long tunnel that would run under the town of Niagara Falls, NY and carry the water back to the lower part of the river just below the Falls.

By June 1886, a dozen influential businessmen from upstate New York promised to subscribe to $200,000 in stock in the Niagara River Hydraulic Tunnel, Power, and Sewer Company, and had secured necessary state charters. In early September, the village of Niagara Falls gave permission for discharge tunnel to be dug far below its streets.

But despite this initial enthusiasm, Evershed’s idea foundered. None of the influential businessmen actually ponied up the cash they’d promised and entreaties to other potential investors never went anywhere.

It wasn’t until 1889, when Manhattan attorney William Rankine, who had clerked for a lawyer in Niagara Falls and become fascinated with the possibility of harnessing the cataract, got wind of the idea that things started to happen.

Understanding that Evershed’s plan would cost millions—estimates were around $10 million, or roughly $283 million US dollars today—Rankine used his Manhattan connections to get a meeting with financier J. P. Morgan, and pitched the idea directly to the investment titan. After some hemming and hawing, Morgan agreed to invest on one condition: the program need a better manager, and Morgan had just the man in mind.


Edward Dean Adams was Morgan’s handpicked leader for the project. From a prominent Boston family and a descendant of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Edward Dean Adams was Wall Street banker by trade. But Morgan knew that Adams had also studied engineering at Norwich University and MIT, making him the perfect man to lead a project that would deal with both finance and engineering on vast scales.

More than this, Morgan trusted Adams implicitly to get things done. And though we’re still in 1889, the best example of the trust that Morgan had in Adams actually comes from a few years in the future, in 1893.

Remember back in Episode 23 when we talked about the Panic of 1893 and how President Grover Cleveland turned to J.P. Morgan and the Rothschilds of England for loans of somewhere between $65 million and $100 million in gold (between $1.8 and $2.9 billion US dollars today) so that the US Treasury didn’t go broke and the American dollar collapse? Well, when that time comes, it be Adams—in his capacity as the American representative of Deutsche Bank—that convinces his bosses to underwrite a quarter of the millions that Morgan will loan to the U.S. Treasury.

Adams had been a major stockholder in the Edison Electric Light Company since 1878. Eventually, as the company’s second largest stockholder, Adams even sat on the board of directors. But now, as president of what came to be called the Cataract Construction Company, Adams sold his Edison shares so that he could be impartial in his investigations

So while he was interested in Rankine’s proposal for a water wheel system at Niagara, Adams’ familiarity with electricity meant he also wondered whether the new technology might be suited to exploiting the Falls.

Rather than utilize the power generated in new factories in the small town of Niagara Falls, NY, Adams thought the real opportunity lay in transmitting power to factories in Buffalo and other cities. At that time, Buffalo factories were using coal-fired steam engines to generate 50,000 horsepower daily, so there was clearly a ready demand for power.

Plus, shipping power away from Niagara Falls meant Adams would avoid expensive branch canals and numerous vertical shafts needed to connect the individual waterwheels with the tailrace tunnel. The drawback, however, was that  Adams needed to find a way to transmit large amounts of power over the twenty miles between Niagara and Buffalo.

Adams consulted with one of America’s most renowned mechanical engineers, Coleman Sellers of Philadelphia. In September 1889, Adams sent Sellers the Evershed prospectus, asking if it indeed warranted “the investment of a large amount of money.” Feeling that the plan for water wheels was financially feasible, but uncertain whether the vast amounts of electricity anticipated—up to 100,000 horsepower’s worth of power—would be feasible given that at the time no effective long distance transmission of power was possible, Sellers set out to examine the Falls for himself.

Meanwhile, in November 1889, while our old friend Harold Brown was conducting his gruesome animal experiments at Edison’s lab, Edison himself submitted a plan to Adams for building a DC power station and distribution system at the falls. Power could, Edison claimed, be transmitted the nearly 20 miles to Buffalo. Nevermind that Edison had never managed to get DC power more than a one or two miles. Nevermind that the power Edison did managed to send was really just enough to power some lightbulbs and not the 100,000 horsepower of energy that would come from the Falls. Nevermind that the record-shattering Lauffen-Frankfurt transmission in Europe was still two years away. Nevermind all that, because Edison was sure he could do it—despite the skepticism of most other engineers, including some senior people on his own payroll.

George Westinghouse was one of these skeptical engineers. Only just recently in possession of the Tesla patents, Westinghouse was skeptical about the possibilities of sending power that far. He had succeeded at Telluride, Colorado, with Stillwell, Shallenberger, and Scott, in transmitting 60,000 volts of AC for a distance of four miles to run a 100 horsepower Tesla motor. But 20 miles would remain just a dream for several more years until the Lauffen-Frankfurt demonstration. As a result, Westinghouse doubted whether electrical power—AC or DC—could be transmitted to Buffalo cheaply enough to compete with the steam power then widely in use. He suggested, instead, a sophisticated system of cables and compressed air tubes to transfer the power to Buffalo, but didn’t put in a formal bid at this point.

Upon his return from sizing up the Falls, on December 17, 1889, Coleman Sellers sent Adams a seventeen-page report concluding that the project was indeed feasible. He noted it had been “one of the most interesting engineering problems ever given me to consider.”

With Adams now sold and the backing of JP Morgan, it wasn’t hard to find New York financiers who wanted a piece of the action. A syndicate of 103 men, “one of the most powerful combinations of New York capitalists … ever … formed,” invested a total of $2,630,000 (the equivalent of $74.3 million today) in the newly formed Cataract Construction Company, which would take Niagara’s rush water and turn it into usable power.

One of the Cataract Construction Company’s first acts was, in early 1890, to found the International Niagara Commission, with headquarters in London, to act as their scientific and engineering advisory arm. The International Niagara Commission was a five-man board made up of a Who’s Who of continental engineering, led by one of the bright lights of physicists of the day, Sir William Thomson, soon to be Lord Kelvin (he of the temperature scale and the ill-considered JJ Abrams alternate timeline in Star Trek).

At this point, Thomas Edison must have been quite pleased about his chances at harassing Niagara Falls, because Lord Kelvin was well-known to be a DC man through and through, believing AC an unproven and unnecessary alternative.

With Edison’s proposal in hand, the International Niagara Commission decided to invite other firms to submit proposals to harness the falls. The commission offered $20,000 in prizes as incentives, with the top award being $3,000—about $85,000 US dollars today. And so, in the fall of 1890, 28 firms in the United States and Europe were invited to submit plans.

But they didn’t all submit. While sources differ, as few as 14 proposals and at most 20 proposals were received.

Of the twenty proposals submitted, most involved compressed air and hydraulic equipment. “Of the six electrical plans, four used direct current…[one] proposed single phase [AC], but ‘details were not fully described.’ The remaining plan by Prof. George Forbes advocated polyphase installation.”

Forbes, who was a professor from Glasgow who wrote to the commission: “It will be somewhat startling to many, as I confess it was at first to myself, to find as the result of a thorough and impartial examination of the problem that the only practical solution lies in the adoption of alternating current generators and motors…The only [workable one] is the Tesla motor manufactured by the Westinghouse Electric Company and which I have myself put through various tests at their works at Pittsburgh.”

We first bumped into George Forbes back in Episode 24, although chronologically that episode covers events in the future from where we are right now.

Forbes was in attendance at Tesla’s St. Louis lecture in February 1893. By that time, Forbes was a consultant for the Niagara Power Commission, and though Tesla couldn’t have known it then, in just a few short months—just as the final preparations for Tesla’s exhibit at the World’s Fair were underway—Forbes and the Niagara Power Commission were going to throw one heck of a curve ball at Tesla and Westinghouse in their quest to harness Niagara Falls.

More on that later.

Because despite Forbes’ laudatory words about Westinghouse and the Tesla motor, the most notable holdout from amongst the proposal invitees was…Westinghouse.

While Westinghouse’s engineers were encouraging the old man to submit to the contest, Westinghouse himself wasn’t having it. His spidey-senses were tingling.

Westinghouse wasn’t willing to reveal the company’s trade secrets for AC transmission with no guarantee of a deal. “These people are trying to get $100,000 worth of information for a prize of $3,000,” Westinghouse declared. “When they are ready to do business, we will show them how to do it.”

As already hinted at, and as you’ll see a couple of times by the end of this episode, Westinghouse was right to be concerned about shenanigans on the part of the International Niagara Commission…

Because, after looking over the submissions that they did receive, and while they did distribute some prize money, the Commission decided that none of the entries offered a complete plan for both power production and distribution at Niagara, and so the top prize of $3000 went unawarded. Instead the commission mined the proposals for technical information and forwarded a series of recommendations to Adams.

In fact, under Lord Kelvin’s guidance, the Commission went so far as to issue a kind of warning or guideline for future such submissions, saying that they “were not convinced of the advisability of departing from the older and better understood methods of continuous currents in favor of the adoption of methods of alternating currents.”

Having struck out at home, Adams hired Sellers as his main engineer and the two men decamped for Europe, to see what they could learn there about advances in hydroelectric power.

Meanwhile, the Cataract Construction Company pressed on with its plans to begin excavating the great tailrace tunnel that marked the true beginning of the Niagara Falls power project.

On October 4, 1890, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the edge of the New York Central rail yards at Falls Street and Erie Avenue in Niagara Falls, NY. After that, more than 1300 men began round the clock work to excavate the tailrace tunnel, using dynamite, steam shovels, and sledgehammers to remove what ultimately amounted to six hundred thousand tons of rock…one mule cart-load at a time.

But the tunnel these men began digging didn’t finish up with the same design they started with. Midway through excavation, Adams and Sellers (freshly returned from Europe, their heads full of new ideas—including some stolen from the rejected contest entries) boldly cast aside the original plan for a tunnel suited to generating steam-power.

Instead, by the summer of 1891, Adams and Sellers had reworked their plan to generate all the hydroelectric power from the site—all 100,000 horsepower of it—from two massive central stations on each side of a long intake canal right off the river. The water was still drawn off above the falls and still returned to the river via the tailrace tunnel deep under the town. But now it was just a mile long, a third the length of Evershed’s scheme.

Adams chose to go with electricity because of the efficiencies he’d witnessed in AC hydroelectric generation in Europe. In Tivoli, Italy, for example, where the 334-foot high falls of the Aniene river issue from the Sabine hills, Ganz & Company of Budapest (a company linked to Westinghouse) was constructing an AC hydroelectric plant to transmit electricity to Rome, which was eighteen miles away.

Adams and Sellers were also deeply influenced in their redesign by the work of a Swiss-born English engineer, Charles E. L. Brown. On February 9, 1891, Brown delivered a seminal lecture in Frankfurt entitled, “High Tension Currents,” describing a successful experiment in which he transmitted 100 horsepower of electricity several miles using 30,000 volts. “The transmission of electrical energy by means of current tensions of, for example, 30,000 volts is possible,” said Brown in his lecture, “the distribution of energy to great distances by electrical methods is a fact.”

Although Kelvin had sided with Edison and DC power, after his trip to Europe, Adams—remember, once a chief stockholder of Edison’s—now understood that the future belonged to AC, to Westinghouse, and to the Tesla patents.

While it was a massive departure from the original plan, Adams and Sellers’ new design for the Niagara system had the virtue of being far simpler. Instead of a series of 238 waterwheels generating steam-power to turn a system of shafts and pulleys, the new plan was for ten 5,000-horsepower turbines in each of two central stations, with each water-powered turbine running an electrical generator. The staggering 100,000 horsepower generated would equal the output of all the power-generating central stations then operating in the United States. This was electrification on an unprecedented scale.

Initially, only one powerhouse would be built and only the first three turbines and three generators installed. As the demand for electricity rose beyond 15,000 horsepower, the system would be extended, with more turbines and generators added.

The waters of Niagara would be diverted into the powerhouse, funneled into eight-foot-wide pipes, gather tremendous speed as they plunged 140 feet straight down, rush around a crooked “elbow” in the pipe and shoot out at 20 miles an hour into the waiting fan blades of gigantic twenty-nine-ton turbines—the largest on Earth—that would be connected to electrical generators in the powerhouse 150 feet above. Having powered the turbines, the water would then take a three-minute trip back to the river through the 6,800-foot long sloping tailrace tunnel and complete its journey. Relying on little more than gravity and turbine shafts to power the generators, the new plan was a model of simplicity, especially compared with the previous design.

The revised tailrace tunnel itself wouldn’t be completed until December 1892, but it, too was a marvel. It was twenty-one feet high, and eighteen feet across, with a gently curved roof.

Despite initial projections, after water visibly squirting and seeping through the cut rock and two fatal cave-ins (ultimately 28 workers would die in the tunnel’s construction), it was decided that the tunnel walls did, in fact, need to be reinforced. At first shored up with pine and oak, the tunnel would eventually be lined with cement and four layers of brick—sixteen million of them in all. For the last two hundred feet, as the tunnel approached its outlet near the American Falls, the tunnel was lined with cast iron. Like the turbines above it, the Niagara tunnel was (at the time) the largest in the world.

For all the work that went into it, it’s kind of a shame that no one would ever see it. Once the system was started up, the tunnel would be completely filled at all times with the Niagara water as it rated back to the river.

While the tunnel was being tunnelled, above ground the War of the Currents continued raging, and that included battles fought within the Cataract Construction Company.

Lord Kelvin remained opposed to AC throughout 1891, and so too did the majority of the experts on the International Niagara Commission. Remember, the debut of the electric chair (and all the attendant bad press for AC that came with it) was just months earlier, in August 1890. Critics remarked that “a commercial AC motor … is a thing unknown to the practical engineer,” and if the Niagara project was to power factories it would need to power motors, not just electric lights.

Even Adams himself was forced to admit that at that time “the Tesla motor was still a prophecy rather than a completely demonstrated reality.”

Yet, slowly, as they watched the War of the Currents play out (and who besides the combatants themselves would have watched the war closer than Adams, Sellers, and the Niagara Commission who had millions of dollars and ever-mounting expenses riding on the outcome?) even this panel of experts—scientists and engineers all—had to give way to the math.

The February 1891 issue of Electrical World counted 202 Edison DC central stations…but nearly 1000 AC central stations installed by Westinghouse and the Thomson-Houston company. Whatever their personal opinions, these experts could all see that alternating current was winning in the lighting marketplace.

Coleman Sellers, like Adams, retained an open mind about AC. In a July 1891 lecture at the Franklin Institute, Sellers told the audience, “the progress of invention is going on so rapidly that we are at a loss to know what particular line should be pursued.”

And don’t forget what a momentous year 1891 turned out to be for alternating current.

Recall in Episode 21 how we discussed the successful deployment of the Westinghouse system on June 19, 1891 as the first ever long-distance transmission of alternating current was made by the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, sending power 2.6 miles (just over 4 km) to power the Gold King Mine near Telluride, Colorado. And recall that it was just two months later that this record was shattered by the incredibly successful Lauffen-Frankfurt transmission in which AC power was sent 112 miles (just over 180 km)—or more than 40 times the distance of the Telluride transmission. These were powerful demonstrations to AC’s detractors that the system could work and be incredibly affordable.

If Westinghouse could send AC power over a remote section of the Rockies, and do so reliably and on lines that cost 1% of the DC lines, the feat could surely be replicated almost anywhere. And if AC power could travel 112 miles, and if Buffalo was a mere 20 miles from Niagara Falls… Hmm.

So sure was Adams of the way forward, that even as the tailrace tunnel was being redesigned, in December 1891 Adams moved ahead with a request for proposals from six electrical companies—Westinghouse, Thomson-Houston, Edison GE, and three Swiss firms—to provide estimates on the electrical equipment needed at Niagara.

In April 1892, to help assess the proposals that would soon be submitted, Adams and Sellers hired George Forbes as a consultant to the Commission. You’ll recall that—tellingly—his was the only entry in the original International Niagara Commission competition that proposed using alternating current.

Professor Forbes’s first official act was to dismiss the two DC design proposals submitted by Edison GE and Thomson-Houston. As Forbes wrote to Adams, “I do not consider that these designs have sufficient merit to induce you to accept any delay in the hopes of getting something more perfect in this direction.”

More good news for AC came in June of 1892, when Charles Scott, the young Westinghouse engineer who had assisted Tesla when he’d first come to Pittsburgh back in Episode 12, published an article in the Electrical Engineer which outlined the success of the Gold King installation over the course of nearly a full year. The full system, including the Tesla induction motor, had experienced less than 48 hours of total downtime over three-fourths of a year. Another system was about to be installed at a mill a few miles from the Gold King site. Scott also revealed that for two years a forty-foot waterfall on the Willamette River had powered a Tesla AC generator, sending electricity thirteen miles to their electric lighting central station in Portland, Oregon.

With these new victories under his belt, Westinghouse at last got excited about the prospects of electrifying Niagara Falls. He decided late in 1892, while he was (of course) preparing for the World’s Fair, to enter a bid for the power equipment contract to harness Niagara Falls.

In December 1892, Westinghouse submitted its two-phase AC plan for Niagara to the Cataract Construction Company.

What gave George Westinghouse confidence about winning this bid, too, after having just won the World’s Fair contract, were the refinements to the Tesla motor being made by his engineers. As I’ve mentioned before, we get caught up in the lone inventor superhero kind of idea, but its almost never the case. While Tesla was the original visionary and devised the first working model of AC motor, it was the staff at Westinghouse who took the device, refined it, and made it a commercially viable product.

Westinghouse’s engineers had come up with new arrangements for the coils in the stator so that Tesla’s designs now worked as well as Dolivo-Dobrolowsky motors. Further testing suggested a more efficient way of winding the rotor, leading to what came to be the standard rotor design: nicknamed ‘the squirrel cage.’

The Westinghouse team also designed a new rotary converter that could turn polyphase AC into either single-phase AC or DC power. This had hugely positive implications for the utility of polyphase AC, since it meant a power company could now use polyphase AC to transmit power over long distances and then convert the power so that customers could use it with their existing single-phase AC or DC equipment without the need to replace all their existing machinery. The rotary converter meant power companies could find customers for all the power that they could generate and transmit, regardless of what systems the end-user might be operating.

Not to be outdone, within weeks, GE’s revised non-DC power entry was submitted. Their design was substantially similar to the Westinghouse one, except that it proposed using three-phase AC power.

A particularly cold January in 1893 resulted in “the most ample and substantial” ice bridge at Niagara Falls since the winter of 1855. “The steady zero weather of the past week has filled the upper river with ice which is pouring over the falls in vast quantities and adding each hour to the jam which is called the ‘bridge,’” reported The New York Times.

Again, life being for some reason cheap at Niagara Falls, hundreds of tourists took the opportunity to walk out on to the unstable ice bridge and stand in the basin of the falls…as giant icy chunks came falling down just feet from them while they balanced on an ice field that was constant shifting and grinding—and threatening to give way—underfoot.

It was at this point, with the tailrace tunnel now complete, that the Niagara Commission understood for the first time that keeping river ice out of power plant machinery would, some winters, prove a brutal struggle.

Meanwhile, Cataract consultants visited the Westinghouse plant to assess their bid. For five days in early January 1893, Coleman Sellers and Henry Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins, made tests and observations of the new Westinghouse AC generators and transformers.

Sellers came away impressed. “A careful examination of the work done in this establishment showed excellent workmanship and correct engineering design in all the machinery examined,” he wrote in his report. “The workmanship is beyond criticism in quality.” Rowland concurred in his report, say that Westinghouse had “the greatest experience in the practical use of the alternating system and they seem to control the most important patents.”

In February, the two men made a similar pilgrimage to the General Electric works in Lynn, Massachusetts. Sellers noted that the GE equipment was similar but ultimately inferior to the Westinghouse equipment. “Very considerable change would have to be made to make it mechanically the equal,” he observed in his report. He was also wary of GE’s proposed use of three-phase AC. “I should incline to the biphase on account of its greater simplicity and its adaptability to a broader field of usefulness,” he wrote.

Sellers also knew that Professor Forbes—who was away in England during the visits to Westinghouse and GE—favoured the design from one of the Swiss entrants. Since Sellers had misgivings about how well a foreign firm could or would service their machinery in a timely fashion once it was installed at Niagara, he made a point to end his 25-page report with a “Buy American” appeal: “I do most earnestly protest,” he wrote, “against the purchase of the foreign plant if as good electrical results can be anticipated from the home made machine, even if the first cost is seemingly greater.”

As it turned out, the Swiss proposal was easily rejected since American tariffs of 40% on imported machinery made their equipment prohibitively expensive. In addition, as Tesla pointed out to Westinghouse, foreign firms couldn’t bring polyphase equipment into the United States without infringing on his patents.

Game, set, and match—Telsa.

The Westinghouse company had begun to take a more aggressive stance regarding their ownership of the Tesla patents, issuing in January 1893 a pamphlet that included the twenty-nine Tesla patents it owned, and which warned customers not to buy polyphase equipment from other manufacturers since they could be sued by Westinghouse for infringement.

This issue of AC patent ownership loomed larger and larger for the Cataract Construction Company. Again pressing his case against foreign bids, Sellers wrote to Adams, saying: “Until the contrary is proved by the courts, [Westinghouse] claims control of what is most important for our purpose at the present time in America. I am not aware of any claim to ownership in this country of what can stop the owners of the Tesla patents from commanding the market…. My present opinion is that no foreign company can secure the Cataract Construction Co. against all losses from patent litigation.”

What Sellers didn’t know, however, was that in February 1893, Adams had begun a private correspondence with Nikola Tesla. He sought Tesla’s opinion on various electrical and technical matters. Tesla, as eager that Westinghouse should win the Niagara power contract as George Westinghouse himself, used this correspondence with Adams to not only talk up his motors, but to emphasize that the only way other companies could provide a multiphase AC generator and AC motor for Niagara would be by infringing on the Tesla-Westinghouse patents.

“I have not heard from Germany yet,” Tesla wrote to Adams, “but I have not the slightest doubt that all companies except Helios,—who have acquired the rights from my Company,—will have to stop manufacture of phase motors. Proceedings against the infringers have been taken in the most energetic way by the Helios Co. It is for this reason that our enemies are driven to the single phase system and rapid changes of opinion.”

Frederick H. Betts, the chief patent attorney for the Cataract Company, watched with alarm as GE snapped up AC patents or licensed the right to use them and he warned Adams in March 1893 that if he used the Tesla patents, Adams might find himself embroiled in patent litigation with GE. When Adams inquired of Tesla whether one of the Thomson-Houston patent GE had got hold of might be comparable to Tesla’s, the inventor replied angrily that the patent in question had “absolutely nothing to do with my discovery of the rotating magnetic field and the radically novel features of my system of transmission of power disclosed in my foundation patents of 1888. All the elements shown in the Thomson patent were well known and had been used long before.”

Swayed by the strength of Tesla’s arguments, on May 6, 1893, Adams and the Niagara Falls Power Company declared that two-phase alternating current would be their choice for harnessing the falls.

Perhaps sensing a disturbance in the Force, a few days earlier, Lord Kelvin had cabled from London the message: “Trust you avoid gigantic mistake of adoption of alternate current.”

In Adams’ own two-volume history of the Niagara Falls Power Company, he noted how much the decision was based on the “faith and hope that electrical engineers could produce apparatus much larger in size than ever had been built and that new types which were then hardly beyond the stage of experiment would prove successful.”

And although he had concluded that Westinghouse was better prepared to build the large-scale equipment needed, Adams threw everyone a curve ball and announced that while they were very pleased with the plans, he was rejecting the proposals submitted by both GE and Westinghouse.

Yes, you heard that right. After all that, neither GE nor Westinghouse would win the bid.

And why not, you ask?

Well, a case could be made that it was due to some unseemly skullduggery between GE and Westinghouse.

You see, for some time, George Westinghouse had harboured suspicions that GE was stealing his company’s hard-won, highly valuable mechanical and electrical knowledge. The incredible similarity between the Westinghouse and GE  Niagara proposals couldn’t have been simple coincidence.

In early May 1893, just as Adams was getting ready to make his announcement, a Westinghouse engineer learned that the Westinghouse Company’s blueprints and other privileged information were to be found at GE’s Lynn plant. Westinghouse immediately sought a search warrant, and GE was caught red-handed with proprietary information they should not have had access to.

Westinghouse had one of his draftsmen arrested for secretly selling blueprints of the Westinghouse Niagara proposal and their World’s Fair designs for thousands of dollars to two GE men. When caught, GE said “Well, yes—we did have the blue prints…but we only had them so we could check if Westinghouse was infringing on our patents!”

The Pittsburgh district attorney sought grand jury indictments of not just the parties directly involved, but also of Charles Coffin, GE’s president and top executive.

Coffin wrote a letter to his investors, including members of the Vanderbilt family, saying essentially “It’s not my fault.”

“While it is altogether probable that some of their blue prints may have been in our possession,” Coffin wrote, “it was absolutely without my knowledge or sanction…. If there be any similarity between their [Niagara] plans and ours … it is purely accidental. Be that as it may, there is an implied charge against the Niagara Co. of very bad faith [in not keeping each submission confidential] in the statements of the Westinghouse Co…. It is part of the bitter and vituperative work of the Westinghouse people…. [They] will distinctly lose prestige and business as the result of their ridiculous behavior in connection with this matter.”

(When the case went to trial that fall, Coffin was no longer a defendant and the Pittsburgh jury deadlocked.)

So, that’s one reason Adams might have turned down the GE and Westinghouse bids.

But it wouldn’t be the real reason.

Because the real reason they turned down all the bids is that the International Niagara Commission were a bunch of liars and cheats.

And I say that because in his letter of May 11, in which he explains to everyone that their services are no longer required, Adams quietly dropped this little bombshell: that Professor George Forbes, our old friend, had been designing his own generators, and the Cataract Construction Company would follow his plan instead.

In fact, Adams said that Forbes’ designs were “well advanced,” which meant that even as Westinghouse, GE, and the other entrants were giving the Cataract team an all-access under-the-hood look at the nitty gritty technical elements of their proprietary electrical systems, even as they were answering every question about performance and manufacturing, even as Adams had been picking Tesla’s brain about technical specs—it meant that all that time the commission knew that Professor Forbes was at work on a generator that they were going to go with. They’d just been doing research for their own dynamo the whole time.

But the real cherry on this turd sundae was Adams informing the unsuccessful bidders not to worry—because once Forbes’ turbines were designed (likely using technology stolen from some or all of them) that the Cataract Company would once again send out request for proposals to these same companies they’d just mistreated so that Westinghouse, and GE, and the rest could bid on the right to build the very turbines that had been stolen out from under them. Adams wrote to Tesla that he expected the competitors would “find it to their advantage to aid us in the development.”

“Please accept our sincere thanks for the response you have made to our invitations for proposals,” Adams concluded.

Wow. You gotta have some pretty big dynamos on you to have that kind of nerve.

Needless to say, uh, this didn’t go over well.

One of the world’s preeminent electricians, Silvanus Thompson, speaking as if for the whole electrical profession, decried the Cataract Company’s “blatant and “ungenerous picking of the brains of others.” He said it was “contemptible collaring of rival plans … the one discreditable episode the savour of which will ever cling about the undertaking.”

Clearly, George Westinghouse’s spidey sense about the Niagara Commission had been correct.

Next time—

Ah, yes, next time—the dreaded cliffhanger! Always leave them wanting more!

In truth, I had so much material about the Niagara Falls contract that even though the script for this episode is about 10,000 word long, we’ve still cover only about half the process of harassing Niagara Falls. So I’ve had to break this episode in two, and we’ll cover the rest of the Battle of Niagara Falls next time.

And, at this point, “next time” means “next year”—January 2021. As this episode is being recorded at the end of the plague year that was 2020, and with an end to this global pandemic in sight if still far off, I hope you all stay safe and healthy—and stay away from people—this holiday season. So long, 2020. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. May next year be a damned sight better than the last one.

For our part, my family and I will be staying home for the first time ever, and not seeing anybody at all over Christmas or New Years. That should be fun with three small kids… At least after the big move this year we have more room now, so we won’t be on top of each other for weeks the way we would have been back in our old two-bedroom bungalow…

Anyway, next time, in the new year, since we know that eventually Westinghouse and the Tesla system prevail, we’ll find out how we get from George Forbes coming up with his own AC system to watching the International Niagara Commission come crawling back to Westinghouse to save the project. We’ll see the installation of the dynamos and the transmissions lines. We’ll see Buffalo, NY lit up with Niagara’s power. And, at last, we’ll see Tesla himself finally make the pilgrimage to the site of where, as a young man, he had already envisioned his greatest triumph.

SHOW NOTES: Episode 026 – In Tesla’s Laboratory

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…

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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…

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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.”

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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…

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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.