My alternate history murder mystery “Under the Shield,” featuring Tesla and his technologies as major plot points is now available to read for free in the archives of Intergalactic Medicine Show. Check it out now!
Now then, to begin this episode, we need to get in the WABAC Machine and do a little time travelling. Or at least a little time sorting, because as I mentioned a few minutes ago the chronology here is weird.
One of the challenges in trying to present the life and times of Tesla is to do so in a way and in an order that makes sense to us, now, looking back on the man’s life and work. Doing any kind of history necessarily involves sorting and ordering information in a narrative, telling it as a story that helps us make sense of event in the broader context of the man’s life in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to as he lived it. His life, just like yours and mine, was messy and a jumble of varied and competing tasks that all overlapped. Trying to narrate them that way as they happened would just be impossible to follow.
So, I’ve been jumping around a bit and, frankly, ignoring a few things temporarily as I sought to outline the War of the Currents (which still isn’t quite over, by the way) and get us through the Chicago World’s Fair. But what I’ve been ignoring is important to cover and that’s what we’re going to do today.
But as we talk today try to keep in mind that everything from this point on in the episode is happening in 1893 after Tesla returned from his European lectures in Episode 20, and while he’s helping Westinghouse prepare for the World’s Fair and then giving his show-stopping presentations in Chicago.
The events in this episode are also happening alongside Tesla’s participation in the Westinghouse bid to win the contract to harness Niagara Falls to produce electricity, which was also happening alongside World’s Fair business, and which we haven’t even mentioned yet and which will likely be Episode 26 or 27.
Basically, as you listen this time, just keep in mind that while it may seem like Tesla was just doing some leisurely experiments in his lab and giving the occasional lecture, he was actually insanely busy and trying to keep a lot of balls in the air with all these competing priorities, just like your life and mine.
So then, if you’ll cast your mind back to Tesla’s return from Europe in Episode 20, you’ll recall that he reopened his lab on South Fifth Avenue, hired some workers and a secretary, and got back to work.
So what was Tesla working on between World’s Fair business and the Niagara Falls contract bidding?
Well, he spent the winter of 1892–93 working on his high-frequency apparatus. This all came out of his recent European trip (which we covered in Episode 20). Remember that Lord Rayleigh had told him that he was destined to discover great things, and Sir William Crookes (in attendance at Tesla’s lecture) had suggested the possibility of using electromagnetic waves to transmit messages.
And there was one other element that had inspired Tesla’s new direction, which we touched on briefly at the end of Episode 20, that bears mentioning in more depth—as it shows Tesla’s grand vision for what would occupy much of the rest of his career (for good and for ill).
While Tesla was still back in Europe recovering from his breakdown after the death of his mother, he went hiking in mountains and got caught in a thunderstorm. , finding shelter just in time. As he described in his autobiography:
“[S]omehow the rain was delayed until all of a sudden, there was a lightning flash and a few moments after a deluge. This observation set me thinking. It was manifest that the two phenomena were closely related, as cause and effect, and a little reflection led me to the conclusion that the electrical energy involved in the precipitation was inconsiderable, the function of the lightning being much like that of a sensitive trigger. Here was a stupendous possibility of achievement. If we could produce electric effects of the required quality, this whole planet and the conditions of existence on it could be transformed.…The sun raises the water of the oceans and the winds drive it to distant regions where it remains in a state of most delicate balance. If it were in our power to upset it when and wherever desired, this mighty life-sustaining stream could be at will controlled. We could irrigate arid deserts, create lakes and rivers and provide motive power in unlimited amounts… The consummation [of this idea] depended on our ability to develop electric forces of the order of those in nature. It seemed a hopeless undertaking, but I made up my mind to try it and immediately on my return to the United States in the summer of 1892, work was begun which was to me all the more attractive, because a means of the same kind was necessary for the successful transmission of energy without wires.”
Thinking back to his experiments of Fall 1892 in which he grounded his oscillating transformer, Tesla now believed that if he could scale up that transformer he might be able to harness the Earth itself. And so Tesla set himself to discovering a way of using the Earth to transmit both messages and power. More on that in a minute.
Because first—and because he apparently didn’t have enough on his plate already—that winter Tesla also agreed to do more lectures: one before the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on 25 February 1893 and another a week later at the National Electric Light Association in St. Louis.
While he was still months away from the true national fame that would come his was after the World’s Fair, Tesla was already attracting the attention of both reports and the public. He could not deny that in addition to technical achievement, on some level he also craved recognition for his genius and accomplishments. So while interacting with his peers was an inducement to taking on these lectures, they were also a means for Tesla to establish himself as one of the era’s preeminent men of electrical science—on par with Edison—both for his colleagues, the press, and a wider public. As we’ll see next episode, for a time Tesla would spend almost as much energy building and polishing his reputation in the press and high society as he did on actual invention.
At least as a time saver, the lectures Tesla gave were similar to what he had done in Europe, and acted as a kind of dry-run for the presentations he would give later in the year during his triumphant displays at the Chicago World’s Fair. Each offered “philosophical musings on the relationship between electricity and light along with sensational demonstrations.”
And Tesla—ever the showman—did not disappoint.
In Philadelphia, he started strong: passing 200,000 volts through his body. As he described in the published version of the lecture:
“My arm is now traversed by a powerful electric current, vibrating at about the rate of one million times a second. All around me the electrostatic force makes itself felt, and the air molecules and particles of dust flying about are acted upon and are hammering violently against my body. So great is this agitation of particles, that when the lights are turned out you may see streams of feeble light appear on some parts of my body. When such a streamer breaks out on any part of the body, it produces a sensation like the pricking of a needle. Were the potentials sufficiently high and the frequency of the vibration rather low, the skin would probably be ruptured under the tremendous strain, and the blood would rush out with great force in the form of fine spray… [T]he air is more violently agitated, and you see streams of light now break forth from my fingertips and from the whole hand. The streamers offer no particular inconvenience, except that in the ends of the finger tips a burning sensation is felt.”
Ruptured skin? Exploding blood? Burning finger tips? Oh, is that all? Its a wonder more people weren’t doing these kind of demonstrations…
The published text of the Philadelphia lecture runs a hundred typeset pages and covers a lot of ground, so we won’t cover it all here. Tesla reviewed different means by which electricity could produce light using electrostatics, impedance, resonance, and high frequencies. He once again pulled his lightsaber trick, spinning glowing tubes around the darkened theatre like (as one account put it) “the white spokes of a wheel of glowing moonbeams.”
Perhaps most notably in these lectures, Tesla—before anyone else—outlined in broad strokes the possibilities of wireless communication and explained (at least in rudimentary form) all the major components such systems would need.
More than a quarter century later in his autobiography, Tesla claimed that he encountered such opposition to his discussion of what he termed “wireless telegraphy” at that time that “only a small part of what I had intended to say was embodied [in the speech].”
Now, some in the more conspiratorial corners of Tesla fandom online will suggest that this opposition is yet another sign that Big Business interests and the power companies were trying to keep Tesla’s ideas down and torpedo Tesla’s plans for worldwide free energy.
In actuality, this opposition came from friends and supporters, primarily, and had far more to do with the underlying physics that Tesla was using to make his claims.
Tesla, as we’ve discussed before, was a believer in the nineteenth-century theory of the ether: an all-pervasive medium between the planets and stars.
More than a decade early, in 1881, a famous experiment by Michelson and Morely attempted unsuccessfully to measure the luminiferous ether. At the dawn of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein used the failure of the Michelson-Morley experiment as part of his argument for overthrowing the idea of the ether when his Special Theory of Relativity introduced the concept of space-time and proved that the idea of the ether was unnecessary for explaining how light and energy can travel through space. And, as mentioned, Tesla never ever, to his dying day, accepted the arguments for relativity, even after experimental proof has begun to be offered (such as, for example, gravitational lensing, not to mention the splitting of the atom which seems kind of definitive proof if you ask me…but I digress).
Anyway, in 1893 belief in the ether wouldn’t have been unusual or been anything that would get any one out of joint. Instead, what really got Tesla into hot water with his fellow engineers and scientists was his adherence to a theory that was marginal (and considered a bit crackpot) even in the 1890s. That theory was known as “Mach’s Principle,” after its originator Ernst Mach, who we met in Prague back in Episode XX, and who remained there, continuing his work.
Mach’s Principle shaped how Tesla understood the nature of the ether and how energy and electricity propagated through it. Mach’s Principle would also greatly influence Tesla’s theory about wireless transmission of power and how energy might be harnessed from and transmitted through the earth.
So what was Mach’s Principle? Well, while Mach argued for its scientific-ness, we can really only understand his principle as some kind of quasi-mystical worldview. Mach hypothesized that all things in the universe were radically interrelated. The mass of the earth, according to this theory, was dependent on a supergravitational force from all stars in the universe. There were no separations between things. Mach himself acknowledged this view’s correspondence to Buddhist thinking. I myself am reminded of that old joke: What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one, with everything.
It is all the more interesting that Tesla bought in to a theory with such clearly mystical implications given his professed materialism. It’s not, however, the first or last time we’ll see this tension displayed by Tesla. We’ll see much later in life Tesla adopt terminology straight out of Hinduism to explain his thinking about certain phenomenon. As I think I’ve said before, despite his professed unbelief, I think Tesla’s upbringing in the intensely religious household of an Orthodox priest—from a family of Orthodox priests, no less—shaped him in ways that were lasting, even if he was never a traditionally religious believer.
What got Tesla into trouble with his scientific peers (and what his friend said would scare away potential investors) were claims he made based on beliefs he derived from the Mach Principle that were too “out there” for scientists of his day to accept. The biggest one (and I don’t claim to understand the difference here) was Tesla’s claim that he could create electromagnetic oscillations that displayed transverse wave as well as longitudinal wave characteristics. The specific difference between the two isn’t important for our purposes (thankfully) other than to say that while transverse waves were well understood, the claims that Tesla made for longitudinal waves (that they carried much more energy than transverse waves) was based on the Mach Principle and was a bridge too far for his contemporaries.
In fact, as Tesla’s writing more than 25 years later demonstrated, he clung stubbornly to this belief for the rest of his life, despite all opposition to these claims (which came from just about everyone in the field).
Tesla wrote: “There is no thing endowed with life—from man, who is enslaving the elements, to the nimblest creature—in all this world that does not sway in its turn. Whenever action is born from force, though it be infinitesimal, the cosmic balance is upset and universal motion results.”
Now, to some degree this does play in to Tesla’s belief about humans as “meat machines” who generate none of their own thoughts or ideas, but instead are just responding to external stimuli. Thanks to Mach, however, Tesla now began to believe that these stimuli came from everywhere in the universe.
Tesla biographer Marc Seifer, who appears to himself be a modern-day defender of ether theory based on some of his other writings, spends a lot of time connecting Tesla’s work to the concept of the ether in WIZARD, his biography of the inventor. But I’m going to skip over all that content since I think the science is pretty solidly on the side of the ether not actually being a thing.
So, getting back to the lectures, we do see some of Tesla’s vision and prognostication come to the fore in these presentations, particularly regarding the finite resources of the planet.
Back in the late 19th Century (and well into the 20th, actually) virtually no one was thinking about or worried about whether we might run out of natural resources. This is understandable, given that humanity had only recently begun to industrialize, there weren’t nearly as many of us back then (there were only about 1.6 billion people on the planet in the 1890s), and most of those people didn’t live the kind of resource intensive Western lifestyle that so many of us are lucky enough to enjoy today. Heck, the American western frontier had only just finished being settled by American homesteaders. If anyone stopped to think about it at all, the world and its resources must surely have seemed inexhaustible.
Tesla, however, could take the longview in a way that many contemporaries couldn’t. And realizing that the world actually was a finite place and that the natural resources we depend on as fuel to produce electricity and power our lives and industry would eventually run out, he spoke out about it.
“What will man do when the forests disappear,” he asked his Philadelphia audience, “or when the coal deposits are exhausted? Only one thing, according to our present knowledge, will remain; that is to transmit power at great distances. Man will go to the waterfalls, [and] to the tides.” Tesla was an early proponent of harnessing renewable sources of energy.
And while tidal power and hydroelectric generators were all well and good (stay tuned for the next War of the Currents episode where we hear all about the harnessing of Niagara Falls!), Tesla (as usual) was dreaming bigger. He intended nothing less, he said, than constructing equipment to “attach our engines to the wheelwork of the universe.”
What exactly did Tesla mean by this? Well, this is where he tied in his ideas about the possibilities for wireless transmission of energy.
“I firmly believe,” he said, “that it is practicable to disturb by means of powerful machines the electrostatic conditions of the earth and thus transmit intelligible signals and perhaps power. Taking into consideration the speed of electrical impulses, with this new technology, all ideas of distance must vanish, as humans will be instantaneously interconnected.”
Tesla’s experiments were still in early stages so he didn’t yet feel he had a grasp of the electrical capacity of the earth or its potential charge, but he knew the size of the earth and the speed of light and that was enough to get him started theorizing about the optimum wavelengths for transmitting impulses through the planet.
“If ever we can ascertain at what period the earth’s charge, when disturbed [or] oscillates with respect to an oppositely electrified system or known circuit, we shall know a fact possibly of the greatest importance to the welfare of the human race,” he told the crowds. He also produced for the audience a diagram that depicted how to set up the aerials, receivers, transmitter, and ground connection for moving electricity through the earth.
“When the electric oscillation is set up,” Tesla said, “there will be a movement of electricity in and out of [the transmitter], and alternating currents will pass through the earth. In this manner neighbouring points on the earth’s surface within a certain radius will be disturbed.”
Tesla also noted that “theoretically, it [w]ould not require a great amount of energy to produce a disturbance perceptible at great distance, or even all over the surface of the globe.”
Tesla left Philadelphia by rail at the end of February for the National Electric Light Association convention in St. Louis.
Accompanying him was T. C. Martin, who we’ve mentioned before and who we’ll spend more time with in the next episode. Martin was covering both lectures for Electrical Engineer, and on the train ride, he proposed a textbook based on the inventor’s collected writings. The first half would be about the AC polyphase system, with chapters on motor design, single phase and polyphase circuits, armatures, and transformers; and the second half would be made up of Tesla’s lecture on high-frequency phenomena, that he had given in New York, London, and Philadelphia. Martin would write the introduction. The book—The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla—would eventually run almost five hundred pages and we’ll talk about it more next time.
On February 28, Tesla arrived in St. Louis to give his lecture and the city was vibrating with anticipation. The event was booked into the Exhibition Theater, but that venue proved too small given the interest in the event, so it was moved to the Grand Music Entertainment Hall, which seated four thousand. On that cold February night, however, the theatre was packed to bursting with several thousand additional spectators. Surely a fire code violation if ever there was one.
On the streets, “over four thousand copies of the journal containing [a] biographical sketch [of Telsa] were sold” to eager St. Louisans. (LOO-wi-SENS)
The demand for seats to the event was so great that tickets were being scalped for three to five dollars. That’s the equivalent of between $85 and $140 dollars today. Think about the last time you heard of anyone so eager to get into a technical scientific demonstration that they were buying scalped tickets, let alone $140 dollar scalped tickets and you’ll get some sense of just how crazy the appetite for Tesla’s electrical wonders was becoming in 1890s America.
At the opening ceremony, both Tesla and James I. Ayer, general manager of the local Municipal Electric Light & Power Company, who had invited Tesla to give the speech were inducted into the National Electric Light Association as honorary members. After this, Mr. Ayer introduced the inventor to the audience with “a sort of reverence as one who has an almost magic power over the vast hidden secrets of nature” and presented Tesla with giant flower arrangement—a “magnificent floral shield, wrought in white carnations and red Beauty roses.”
Tesla’s presentation that evening was the same one given days earlier in Philadelphia, so we can skip over the details, except to say that it included all of Tesla’s usual flair for the dramatic. Near the end of the performance, for instance, Tesla held up a phosphorescent bulb in one hand and announced that he would illuminate the bulb by touching his other hand to his oscillating transformer.
When this lamp burst to light, recalled Tesla (with some frustration it seems to me), the audience was so startled that “there was a stampede in the two upper galleries and they all rushed out. They thought it was some part of the devil’s work, and ran out. That was the way my experiments were received.”
After the lecture, much to his chagrin, Tesla was mobbed in the lobby by several hundred people, all eager to congratulate him and shake his hand. Never a fan of crowds and always a germaphobe—Tesla was social distancing before it was fashionable—Tesla found the whole episode overwhelming. As the New York Times reported, Tesla “had expected a little gathering of expert electricians, and though he went through the ordeal bravely, no power on earth would induce him to try anything like it again.”
It’s worth noting before we move on, that in attendance at the St. Louis lecture was Prof. George Forbes, an engineer from Glasgow. Forbes was a consultant with the Niagara Power Commission, which was working to harness Niagara Falls to produce hydroelectric power. Forbes had enthusiastically recommended the Tesla AC system from Westinghouse to the commission. We’ll have more to say about Forbes in two episodes’ times, when we turn our eye to the last major battle of the War of the Currents—the fight for Niagara Falls.
While Tesla was dissuaded from going into too much detail in his public lectures about transmitting messages and power via the earth, in private Tesla turned his attention to just that problem.
“A point of great importance,” Tesla wrote, “would be first to know what is the [electrical] capacity of the earth? and what charge does it contain if electrified?”
To answer these questions, Tesla returned to his idea of resonance and to the apparatus he had first put together in the fall of 1891.
In the same way that you can shatter a wine glass if you find the right resonate frequency, Tesla found that electromagnetic waves of a particular frequency could make tuned circuits respond—that is, resonate—if you could align the inductance and capacitance in the transmitter and receiver.
To study how high-frequency currents traveled through the earth, Tesla grounded one terminal of his oscillating transformer to the water mains, while connecting the other terminal to “an insulated body of large surface” (what we would today call an antenna) on the roof of his laboratory downtown on South Fifth Avenue. When Tesla adjusted to the frequency of the transmitted signal, he could make a tightly stretched wire in the receiver vibrate and produce an audible hum.
Telsa made the receiver portable, packing the whole thing into a small wooden box so he could carry it with him as he wandered Manhattan. With the transmitter running back at his lab, Tesla ranged all over the city, stopping periodically to ground the receiver and see if it could detect the oscillating current produced by the transmitter and produce its tell-tale hum. He would often take the receiver uptown to the Gerlach Hotel and found that he could detect the current there, about 1.3 miles (2.09 kilometers) from his lab.
However, to Tesla’s frustration, his reception at the Gerlach was at best intermittent, even when he knew that the generator was running just fine at the lab. Tesla determined that this difficulty was due to the generator producing waves not at a single frequency but rather at several frequencies. In particular, it did not produce oscillations with the same time period, and this made it difficult to tune the receiver to the right frequency. This variation in frequency was due to the technological limitations Tesla had to deal with in his era—slight changes in the speed of the steam engine that drove the alternator caused variation in frequency.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Tesla decided that he needed a better power source. So he set out to devise a new AC generator with more reliable performance.
To accomplish this, Tesla combined the reciprocating motion of a piston engine with the more traditional generating coils and magnetic field. Steam or compressed air drove the piston back and forth, and a shaft connected to the piston moved the generating coils through the magnetic field. Keeping the pressure high and the stroke of the piston short, Tesla was able to move the coils far more quickly than in a traditional rotating generator and hence produce currents with higher frequencies than were previously possible. The oscillations produced were completely isochronous (eye-SACK-ro-NUS)—which is a fancy way of saying of equal length—to the point where Tesla boasted that they could be used to run a clock.
Having achieved his objective, Tesla called this new machine an oscillator and he filed patent applications covering several versions in August and December 1893. It was one of the new invention he debuted during his lectures at the Chicago World’s Fair.
He installed one of his super-precise oscillators in his South Fifth Avenue laboratory that ran on 350 pounds of pressure. With this oscillator, Tesla could power fifty incandescent lamps, several arc lights, and a variety of motors, and it was one of the pieces he would regularly show off to visitors to the lab.
Tesla felt his oscillator could be the solution to the energy loss inherent in electrical generating stations of the time. Estimates were that just 5% of the potential energy in the coal used to power the stations was actually converted into lighting by consumers—the remaining 95% was lost due to the thermal inefficiency of boilers and steam engines, mechanical losses arising using belts to connect engines and generators, and electrical losses on transformers and distribution lines. Tesla, something of a proto-conservationist, likened this level of inefficiency to being “on a par with the wanton destruction of whole forests for the sake of a few sticks of lumber.”
Reading this quote reminds me of that old Looney Toons cartoon “Lumber Jerks”, featuring the Goofy Gophers, Mac and Tosh. The forest that they live in is cut down and shipped off to a lumber mill. The most striking image for me was always the big mechanical claw that picks up a huge tree trunk and shoves it through a giant pencil sharpener, grinding it down to make…a single toothpick. Only getting 5% efficiency from your power source is a little like that.
Though he’d hoped his oscillators might be another major invention he could sell, Tesla found no enthusiasm for the project on the broader market. There were steam turbines already coming to market that were more efficient than Tesla’s oscillator. These turbines could be directly coupled to existing electric generators, with the additional benefit that they could be scaled up to deliver power to larger and larger generators. None of which was true of Tesla’s oscillator.
In addition to his electric oscillator, Tesla also tried developing a mechanical oscillator very similar in design that could regulate the waves produced by his transmitter. While it turned out to be not particularly well-suited to the task, Tesla nevertheless was fascinated by its properties.
As he later recalled:
“I had installed one of my mechanical oscillators with the object of using it in the exact determination of various physical constants. The machine was bolted in a vertical position to a platform supported on elastic cushions and, when operated by compressed air, performed minute oscillations absolutely isochronous (eye-SACK-ro-NUS), that is to say, consuming rigorously equal intervals of time. One day, as I was making some observations, I stepped on the platform and the vibrations imparted to it by the machine were transmitted to my body. The sensation experienced was as strange as agreeable, and I asked my assistants to try. They did so and were mystified and pleased like myself.”
Tesla, and soon his assistants who tried the platform, began to experience positive physical changes due to what they christened “mechanical therapy.”
“We used to finish our meals quickly and rush back to the laboratory,” said Tesla. “We suffered from dyspepsia and various stomach troubles, biliousness, constipation, flatulence and other disturbances, all natural results of such irregular habit. But after only a week of application, during which I improved the technique and my assistants learned how to take the treatment to their best advantage, all those forms of sickness disappeared as by enchantment and for nearly four years, while the machine was in use, we were all in excellent health.”
In addition to his assistants, visitors to Tesla’s laboratory would also try out this mechanical therapy. By the early 1890s, Mark Twain was a regular amongst those visitors.
Twain and Tesla travelled in some of the same social circles and so had run into each other on occasion at the Players’ Club (where they were both members) or Delmonico’s (where they would both dine), or at the artist Robert Reid’s studio. One night, in Twain’s words, “the world-wide illustrious electrician” had joined the Reid party. The group spent the night joking and telling stories and singing songs (particularly “On the Road to Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling, who was friend to both Tesla and Twain. At some point Tesla recounted for Twain the possibly apocryphal story that I’ve mention before about one of Twain’s books saving his life when he was a boy and bedridden with a case of malaria, which endeared Tesla to Twain for life, bringing the writer to tears.
Twain was fascinated by invention and inventors. While he married into money and made his own fortune as a writer and speaker, Twain frittered it all away on a series of bad investments, including— chiefly—an automatic typesetting machine that was supposed to be driven by an AC motor. At one point in the late 1880s, Twain had sunk a lump sum of $50,000 (or about $1.3 million today) into the device and was paying its erstwhile inventor, a James W. Paige, about $3000 (or more than $80,000) a month to keep working on this thing. (Historical side notes: the typesetter never worked, and Twain was so in debt by the time he finally gave up on it that he eventually had to do a series of around-the-world lecture tours to regain his fortune. The lectures kept him and his family away from the United States for years at a time).
So, given this proclivity for inventions it’s only natural that Twain—as probably the most famous man in the world in those decades—would eventually find his way into Tesla’s orbit.
“He came to the laboratory in the worst shape,” Tesla later wrote, “suffering from a variety of distressing and dangerous ailments. But in less than two months he regained his old vigor and ability of enjoying life to the fullest extent.”
I read here from Margaret Cheney’s book, Tesla: Man Out of Time. Like the O’Neill book (on which she draws heavily) Cheney embellishes her account of the following incident by giving everyone dialog. We ultimately have only O’Neill’s word that this particular incident happened (remember: much of O’Neill’s book consists of him essentially saying “So, one time Tesla told me that…”) and he gives dialogue that Cheney paraphrases that I assume he would say Tesla told him. But despite all that, I read this account here because, well, its a pretty fun story:
“Come over here,” said Tesla, “and I will show you something that will make a big revolution in every hospital and home as soon as I am able to get the thing into working form.” He led his guests to the corner where a strange platform was mounted on rubber padding. When he flipped a switch, it began to vibrate rapidly and silently. Twain stepped forward, eager. “Let me try it, Tesla. Please.” “No, no. It needs work.” “Please.” Tesla chuckled. “All right, Mark, but don’t stay on too long. Come off when I give you the word.” He called to an attendant to throw the switch. Twain, in his usual white suit and black string tie, found himself humming and vibrating on the platform like a gigantic bumblebee. He was delighted. He whooped and waved his arms. The others watched in amusement. After a time the inventor said, “All right, Mark. You’ve had enough. Come down now.” “Not by a jugful,” said the humorist. “I am enjoying this.” “But seriously, you had better come down,” insisted Tesla. “Believe me, it is best that you do so.” Twain only laughed. “You couldn’t get me off this with a derrick.” The words were scarcely out of his mouth when suddenly he stopped talking, bit his lower lip, straightened his body and stalked stiffly but suddenly from the platform. “Quick, Tesla! Where is it?” snapped Clemens, half begging, half demanding. “Right over here, through that little door in the corner,” said Tesla, and The inventor helped him down with a smile and propelled him in the direction of the rest room. The laxative effect of the vibrator was well known to him and his assistants.
Now, there’s plenty wrong with that account: Tesla only ever called Twain “Mr. Clemens” so far as we know, and wouldn’t have called him ‘Mark’ since his real first name was Sam. Twain also didn’t start wearing this trademark white linen suit all year round until December 1906. Indeed, the best photos we have of Twain in Tesla’s lab show him in a dark suit. The white suit is so synonymous with Twain, though, that we can perhaps forgive a bit of creative anachronism and embellishment on the part of Cheney. And, while yes this is all nitpicky of me, I point it out just as a reminder that such embellishment is another reason to take Cheney’s book—and its inspiration, O’Neill’s book—with a grain of salt.
If you couldn’t guess, I’ve also read a lot about Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens as part of the research I’ve done for a novel about the Tesla and Twain friendship. Once this Tesla podcast wraps up I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a Twain: The Life and Times Podcast as a follow-up since I’ve done all the research already…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is: if this event didn’t actually happen, well, I kinda want it to have happened. Twain himself often said that you shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, so he’d probably appreciate such a quality fabrication.
What is true, however, is that Twain—always looking for an angle to make a buck—asked Tesla if he could sell the high-frequency electrotherapy machines to rich widows in Europe upon his next sojourn; the inventor naturally agreed.
Will revisit this mechanical oscillator in a future episode when we talk about Tesla’s supposed earthquake machine…
1893 was a momentous year for Tesla, beginning with his incredibly successful lectures in Philadelphia and St. Louis, and capped by his magnificent performance at the World’s Fair—and Tesla knew it.
“It is difficult to give you an idea [of] how I am respected here in the scientific community,” Tesla wrote to his uncle Petar at Christmas 1893. “I received many letters from some of the greatest minds proposing that I stay the course. They say that there are enough educated men but few with ideas. They inspire me instead of taking me away from my work. I [have] received many awards and there will be more. Think how things are that I recently received a photograph from Edison with the inscription, “To Tesla from Edison.”
I know that we give Edison a hard time on this show, and while the rivalry between the two great inventors has been (I think) overblown amongst Tesla fandom, it is important that we step back and take this comment from Tesla for what it is.
Edison was, even at the time, the most famous inventor in the world. To Tesla (at least before he actually met the man), Edison was a hero, and idol. And despite their falling out, it was clearly deeply moving to Tesla that not only did the great man—his idol—know his name, but that Edison took time to—unprompted—send an autographed photo to him. And while the War of the Currents was still being fought.
Who is your hero, your idol? How would you feel if they knew your name and your accomplishments? What if they sent you some token or momento…just because, as a sign of affection and admiration? Wouldn’t that mean a great deal to you? Wouldn’t it be evidence to you that you had truly arrived by virtue of your talent and your struggle? I think it would be to me, and I think it certainly was to Tesla.
Next time, we’ll spend time with Tesla after his triumph at the World’s Fair.
1894 would be a year of fame, glitz, and glamour for Tesla, as he worked to raise his profile and polish his reputation among New York’s high society.
I had grand plans for a “Tesla: The Life and Times Podcast Goes to the Movies” episode in which I reviewed The Current War…except The Current War doesn’t appear to be playing anywhere in Toronto currently.
I suppose, in a way, that’s not surprising. When an early cut of the film premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 the response was…less than enthusiastic. Not to mention the movie got caught in the fallout of the Weinstein scandal, which hardly helped matters.
But the director did a new cut and rescored the movie and it finally got a North American release last Friday, October 25, 2019, just not in Toronto apparently… But if it’s not playing here (Canada’s largest city), well, I suspect it’s not really playing much of anywhere.
Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times
EPISODE 23 – Tesla in the White City (1893)
Hello everyone, welcome back to Tesla: The Life & Times.
This is Episode 23, which should be subtitled “The Episode that Ate My Life.” Some episodes are easier to research and write than others, and this, well, this was the other kind.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the subject of the 1893 World’s Fair. Hopefully, when this is done, you will, too. But these episodes that stray beyond just the details of Tesla’s life where I need to bring in a lot of other sources to flesh out the “And Times” part of the podcast title…Well. They can take a while.
So while it’s been a longer wait than I promised for this episode, I hope having this extra-long blockbuster of an ep will make up for it. The World’s Fair is where Tesla made his name—after that, everything was different for AC power in the United States. And the Fair had a profound and lasting impact on the United States, paving the way for what America was to become in the 20th Century, so I really wanted to give the Fair its due in this episode.
Another factor in this episode’s delay is some significant changes in my day job. After wanting to do so for a while, I’ve finally been able to make the leap to full-time writing! Now, unfortunately, it’s not to full-time podcast writing (that would be amazing, and maybe someday if I can pull off Mike Duncan-sized download numbers—seriously, tell your friends about the podcast!) but it is full-time writing work that I’m really loving.
So, as a one-time only pitch, I’ll let you know that I’ve recently been made Partner at HeadStart Copywriting. We provide unlimited monthly writing and editing for corporate marketing teams, so you can focus on other priorities and get more done. We have a unique “Copy-as-a-Service” model and will produce unlimited short-form copy for you—whatever you want: blog posts, articles, e-mails, product descriptions—whatever you want, so long as each piece is under 800 words and in English. And revisions are included.
So, if you or someone you know is a marketer in need of help writing copy and generating content, please be in touch with me. Or you can visit the HeadStart website at www.headstartcopywriting.com —that’s copy-W-R-I-T-I-N-G.com to check us out…and to get a look at a rather nice headshot of me.
It’s a wonder what PhotoShop can do these days.
Now, as a by-product of this job change (since I now mostly work from home and can make my own hours) I find myself with a bit more free time than I had at the last gig. This should mean getting back to a once-a-month episode schedule (maybe more frequent if I can swing it) as well as finally having time to do a proper top-level domain website for the show!
Up to now, those of you who have visited www.teslapodcast.com have been redirected to a page on my personal website, kotowych.com. And if you’ve bookmarked that page, never fear: I will continue to post the episodes there. But to really boost the show’s visibility to, say, Google searches, teslapodcast.com needs a site all its own.
So, thanks in part to the generosity of a listener who made a very kind monetary donation to the show, if you visit teslapodcast.com, you will find that it is now its own URL with a very rough placeholder site. I will be posting the episodes there as they roll out, but over the next few weeks and months I’ll be working on getting an actual WordPress site up and running there. It will have all the episodes, proper show notes pages, as well as a bookstore page where you’ll be able to pick up the books I’ve used to research the show, and help fund continued production of this podcast at the same time.
Stay tuned—I’ll be sure to alert you all to it when it’s ready. And thank you again to this very generous listener for helping to make this new site possible—you know who you are.
Okay, so, with that bit of business out of the way, I wanted to take a moment before we begin to thank all those who joined our Tesla: Life and Times Facebook page since last we spoke.
Wilburn Bradburn Jr.
Simon Jeremy Mills
Sole Valdez Batres
Carol L Buscaglia
Javier Cisternas Vásquez
Jennifer June Clark
James Alexander Mauro
Led Olayvar Mendoza
Pepe Pecas Pikapapas
And: Arc Angel Tesla Coil – I’m not sure if this is an individual or a group, but the Facebook page under this name is all about building Tesla coils! They have some incredible videos of Tesla coils in action (I’m assuming these are the ones they built) and if you want to get a glimpse into what Tesla’s lab would have looked and sounded like then head over there to watch the videos. That’s Arc Angel Tesla Coil (with ARC spelled A-R-C as in an arc of electricity).
And shout outs to:
Kurt Lauderman who recommended Tesla: The Life and Times Podcast on Facebook, saying:
Very informative show. Presented very well with some subtle humor mixed. I wish there were more episodes or other shows like this.
Thanks, Kurt—and here’s a new one! Stay tuned for more soon!
Jonathan Edward Tyra says:
Thoughtful, well organized, and smoothly delivered podcast. I would recommend anyone interested in Tesla and/or history to listen to this gem.
Cisco Alvarez says:
This is actually the first podcast I’ve ever listened to and found it intriguing from the 1 episode.
I have recently been driving ALOT for the company I work for and got tired of searching for radio stations and listening to the same ole music (Or annoying music), so I decided to give this podcast stuff a try, found a subject/person that have interest in and the way you present this podcast, all of the historical facts and how you do not seem to leave anything out is perfect!!! You go back and forth touching on all aspects that were happening during the same time, which I feel is perfect and gives me a better understanding/explanations of the “whys” that always seem to be left out in history.
Thanks so much, Cisco! Thrilled to be your first podcast—there are lots of great ones out there, so I hope you search out more. I’ve given some recommendations in past episodes, I think, especially to Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome Podcast. Mike Duncan is basically the Velvet Underground of history podcasting, in that everyone who listens eventually wants to start a podcast of their own!
Over on iTunes (or Apple Podcasts or whatever they’re calling it these days) Brian from United States gave us 5-stars saying:
Awesome Podcast written and delivered by a very talented writer. Producing this series must be a lot of work. Thank you so much Stephen.
Thank YOU, Brian—and thank you everyone for your ratings and reviews. The podcast is a lot of work but I really enjoy it, and with my new schedule I’m looking forward to being able to devote more time to it in the coming months.
And I also want to give a special thanks to Andy FEEM-ster of North Fork Electric Inc. who sent in a wonderful email. He’s been listening to the podcast while actually working on servicing and restoring electric generators from the late 1800s and early 1900s, including some he’s working on now from 1905 which are “large, slow speed AC synchronous generators from Tesla’s day.” Very cool! Nice to know generators from that era were clearly built to last! Glad the podcast has been a companion through all that, Andy, and thanks for taking the time to write in! It was a really cool email to get.
If you haven’t had a chance to leaving a rating or review either on Facebook or wherever you happen to get your podcasts I hope you might take a minute to do so now. Each of these reviews and ratings helps the show become more searchable, and the more ratings and reviews a show has the more likely someone who just stumbles upon it might take a chance and listen.
Thanks for all your help.
And if you want to get in touch directly like Andy did, you can always reach me via the show’s Facebook page, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter with the handle @OurManKoto.
Now then—let’s get down to business. And this time our business begins in 1893:
On January 2, the railroad chronometer was introduced. It became the standard railroad timepiece in North America. Before the age of radio or computer tracking, this specialized timepiece was crucial for the safe and correct operation of trains. A system of timetable and train order, which relied on highly accurate timekeeping made possible by the chronometer, ensured that two trains could not be on the same stretch of track at the same time.
U.S. Marines from the USS Boston land in Honolulu, Hawaii, on January 13 to prevent the queen from voiding the Bayonet Constitution that had been imposed on her late father. Four days after the Marines landed, the Citizen’s Committee of Public Safety which was composed of unhappy Hawaiian subjects and Citizens of the United States who were foreign residents in Honolulu arranged (with the Marines as muscle) a coup d ‘état that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, the first queen and last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. While the conspirators set up the Republic of Hawaiʻi, their stated goal was the annexation of Hawaiʻi by the United States…. Like, they weren’t even subtle about it: the Citizen’s Committee of Public Safety was a 13-member offshoot of an organization called (no fooling) the Annexation Club. The conspirators got their wish in 1898 when the United States formally annexed Hawaii as a territory—statehood would have to wait until the 20th Century.
On February 1, our old friend Thomas Edison finishes construction of the first motion picture studio in West Orange, New Jersey.
On February 23 – Rudolf Diesel receives a patent for the diesel engine.
You’ll recall from last episode that the winner of the 1892 presidential election was Grover Cleveland. Well, on March 4 – Grover Cleveland is sworn in, as the 24th President of the United States. We’ll have more to say about him in a minute.
March 20, in Belgium, Adam Worth – nicknamed “the Napoleon of the criminal world” by Scotland Yard — is sentenced to 7 years for robbery (though he would get an early release in 1897). Now, you’ve likely never heard of Worth, but you almost certainly have heard of the famous literary character based on him. Because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used Worth as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’s great nemesis, the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty. Conan Doyle even lifted Worth’s nickname, calling Moriarty “The Napoleon of Crime.” However, Conan Doyle may not have realized that Worth’s nickname wasn’t due to him being a criminal mastermind so much as it was a dig at Worth’s short stature…
On May 5, A crash on the New York Stock Exchange starts a depression known as the Panic of 1893. It would last until 1897. It had a far-reaching and devastating effect on the United States, and I’ll have more to say about it later in the episode.
Edison’s 1½ inch system of Kinetoscope motion pictures is first demonstrated in public on May 9, at the Brooklyn Institute.
On May 10, in the Nix v. Hedden decision, the United States Supreme Court unanimously declares the tomato to be a vegetable. They declared that although it is actually, biologically a fruit, for the purposes of U.S. customs regulations and the Tariff Act of 1883, the tomato should be classified as a vegetable.
And that’s your fun fact for today!
On June 20, Lizzie Borden is acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts the previous year. No one else was ever charged (or even suspected, really) in the murders. You may know Lizzie Borden best from the children’s rhyme about her:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Why are so many children’s rhymes and songs actually really gruesome anyway?
Back to Grover Cleveland:
On July 1, Grover Cleveland had a secret operation for mouth cancer. Deep amid the Panic of 1893, Cleveland sought the advice of the White House doctor about a sore on the roof of his mouth. Samples of the tissue were sent anonymously to the Army Medical Museum, and it was diagnosed as a non-malignant epithelioma.
Not wanting to further panic that might worsen the economic depression, Cleveland elected to have secret surgery so that he could make a full recovery in time for the reopening of Congress in the Fall of 1893. So, under the guise of a vacation cruise off Long Island, Cleveland had surgery aboard a yacht owned by a friend.
The surgical team, sedating Cleveland with nitrous oxide and ether, successfully removed parts of his upper left jaw and hard palate, leaving him disfigured. During a follow-up surgery, Cleveland was fitted with a hard rubber dental prosthesis that corrected his speech and restored his appearance. A cover story about the removal of two bad teeth was concocted and apparently no one thought to pry any harder about it.
Good luck pulling off something like that today.
On July 11, in Japan, Ko-ki-chi Mik-i-moto develops and patents the method to seed and grow cultured pearls. He would subsequently found the cultured pearl industry with the establishment of his luxury pearl company, Mikimoto.
In September, New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.
Also in September brothers Charles and Frank Duryea drive the first gasoline-powered motorcar in America, on public roads in Springfield, Massachusetts.
A few weeks later, on October 10, the first automobile number plates appear in Paris, France.
On November 26 – The Adventure of the Final Problem, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is published in the Strand Magazine, and serialized in Sunday newspapers worldwide. Readers are shocked to discover that popular character Sherlock Holmes had apparently died at the Reichenbach Falls on May 4, 1891. Both he and his great nemesis, Professor James Moriarty “the Napoleon of crime” (who we talked about a minute ago) had tumbled over the falls, to their deaths.
And in December, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (titled: From the New World) receives its premiere at Carnegie Hall, New York City. It was a busy year for Dvořák. Between 1892 and 1895 he was the director of the National Conservatory in New York City. And it was during the summer of 1893, during a vacation to the town of Spillville, Iowa, (which was home to a Czech immigrant community) that Dvořák composed The String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed the American Quartet. One of the most popular pieces in the chamber music repertoire, you hopefully recognize it (or at least a part of it) as the opening and closing music of Tesla: The Life & Times Podcast.
I confess I’d never heard the American Quartet prior to starting this podcast, but when I went looking for intro music I knew I wanted something by Dvořák since he and Tesla would become friends and ran in the same social circles during the conductor’s stay in New York. And once I heard that opening movement, and given its connection to the new world to which both Tesla and Dvořák were immigrants, well, the American Quartet seemed like the perfect fit.
Famous births in 1893 include:
On January 12, Hermann Göring. Notorious Nazi official, creator of the Gestapo, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall of the German army, and—for a time—Hitler’s designated successor.
After the war, Göring was convicted of conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials.
Alfred Rosenberg, another notorious Nazi official, shared Göring’s birthday. Rosenberg was one of the principal authors of Nazi ideology, including its racial theory, persecution of the Jews, Lebensraum, abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, and opposition to what was considered “degenerate” modern art. He is known for his hatred for Judaism, Christianity, and plans to replace all other faiths with Nazi-centric neo-paganism. He was likewise found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials.
Alfred Rosenberg and Herman Göring very nearly shared a death day, as well: Rosenberg was hung for his crimes on October 16, 1946, as Göring was scheduled to be. But the Reichsmarschall chickened out on his appointment with the hangman and instead committed suicide the night before thanks to a cyanide pill he smuggled into his cell.
On February 10, gravel-voiced American actor, singer, and comedian Jimmy Durante was born.
On February 12, Omar Bradley was born. General of the Army, Bradley was a senior officer of the United States Army during and after World War II, was the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and oversaw the U.S. military’s policy-making in the Korean War.
Allen Dulles, American diplomat and lawyer, was born on April 23. As head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the early Cold War, he oversaw the 1953 Iranian coup d ‘état (the results of which would lead to the Iranian Revolution in 1979), the 1954 Guatemalan coup d ‘état (the results of which would lead to the 36-year-long Guatemalan Civil War between rebels and the US-backed Guatemalan dictatorship), the Lockheed U-2 aircraft program, and the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion. Dulles was also one of the members of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
On April 29, Harold Urey, American chemist and Nobel Prize laureate was born. It was his pioneering work on isotopes and the discovery of deuterium—which is one of two stable isotopes of hydrogen—that earned him the 1934 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Urey would play a significant role in the development of the atom bomb, as well as contribute to theories on the development of organic life from non-living matter.
Big Bill Broonzy, the American blues singer and composer, was supposedly born on June 26, 1893 (though some sources give his year of birth as 1903). Broonzy copyrighted more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including two of his best-known “Key to the Highway” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” probably made most famous when covered by Muddy Waters.
August 17 – Mae West, American actress, playwright, screenwriter, and sex symbol.
Dorothy Parker was born August 22. An American poet, writer, critic, and satirist based in New York; she was best known for her wit, wisecracks, and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. She would later turn to screenwriting and garner two Academy Award nominations. However, her left-wing politics resulted in her being placed on the Hollywood blacklist.
October 14 sees the birth of Lillian Gish, an American actress of the screen and stage, as well as a director and writer. Her film acting career spanned 75 years, from 1912, in silent film shorts, to 1987. Gish was called the First Lady of American Cinema and is credited with pioneering fundamental film performing techniques. Gish is widely considered to be the greatest actress of the silent era, and one of the greatest actresses in cinema history.
And on December 26, Mao Zedong is born.
The Chinese communist revolutionary became the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which he ruled as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. Under his rule, China rapidly transformed from an agrarian to an industrial economy; drove out foreign imperialism; modernized the nation; advanced the status of women; improved education and health care; and increased life expectancy in China (under Mao, the population grew from around 550 million to over 900 million). It is equally true, however, that Mao’s regime was autocratic and totalitarian, brought about mass repression, the destruction of traditional Chinese religious and cultural artifacts and sites, and was responsible for death on a vast scale: estimates range from 30 to 70 million victims of Maoism, and another 20–45 million dead between 1958 and 1962, when the rapid industrialization of the Great Leap Forward led to the deadliest famine in history.
Famous deaths in 1893 are actually pretty few:
Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky died in 1893. His death came just nine days after he conducted the first performance of his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique. The symphony’s second performance was held as part of a memorial concert to the composer three weeks later.
On January 23, U.S. Supreme Court justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar dies. I have nothing else to say particularly about Justice Lamar. I just wanted an excuse to say his full name out loud. Because it’s awesome.
On June 7, American actor Edwin Booth died. The Booths were a well-known American theatrical family of the 19th Century. Sort of that era’s version of the Barrymore family, or the Fondas.
Edwin Booth was the foremost Shakespearean actor in America, touring throughout the United States and the major capitals of Europe. He is considered by some theatre historians to be the greatest Hamlet of the 19th Century. He also founded The Players Club, a New York City actors’ club which continues to the present day, and which once counted both Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla as members.
Edwin’s life and accomplishments are, however, overshadowed by his relationship with his brother, actor John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Here’s something weird for you to consider:
In either late 1864 or early 1865, on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey, Edwin Booth saved a man’s life.
In a crush of passengers on a train platform, a man was pushed against a train, and as it began to move, he was knocked off his feet and began to be dragged. He was caught and completely helpless, in peril of being pulled under the wheels when suddenly “my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”
Here’s the crazy bit:
Booth did not know the identity of the man whose life he had saved until some months later when he received a letter from a friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, who was an officer on the staff of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Badeau had heard the story of the rescue from the man whose life Booth had saved–Robert Lincoln, son of the President.
The fact that he had saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son mere months before his father’s death was said to have been Edwin’s only consolation following his brother’s assassination of the President.
Last episode, we got a glimpse into the high powered corporate warfare between Westinghouse and General Electric to win the right to electrify the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But when we last left Tesla himself, it was mid-August 1892, and Tesla was sailing home from Hamburg bound for New York.
He’d just finished his triumphal speaking tour of London and the Continent, but had also suffered the death of his mother and what Tesla later called “a mysterious illness” that “incapacitated him for many weeks.” We would understand this today to be a nervous or mental breakdown, brought about likely by grief, stress, and exhaustion.
Tesla was returning from Europe with big plans for what was next for his career as an inventor and experimenter. Tesla left London with Lord Rayleigh’s praise on his mind and what he took it to mean: namely, that he should focus his efforts on one big idea.
That “big idea,” Tesla had decided, was to be the successful transmission of energy without wires, the goal being nothing less than the transformation of human existence.
Upon returning to New York, Tesla left the Astor House hotel for the Hotel Gerlach. A new hotel, it was equipped with “elevators, electric lights and sumptuous dining rooms.” The Gerlach is still standing and is today known as the Radio Wave Building (this is thanks to experiments Tesla conducted at this building—we’ll be talking about those more in a future episode, so stay tuned).
If you’re ever in New York and plan a visit to Tesla-related sites (as I’ve done) the Radio Wave Building is 49 West 27th Street at 6th Ave. There’s a lovely commemorative plaque about Tesla on the side of the building that you can check out (I’ll post a picture with this week’s show notes), and the foyer of the building is quite beautiful. However, a word of caution: unless you actually have business in the building they’re not going to let you poke around, and they got pretty snippy when I tried to take photos of the lovely décor. So, be warned. But, getting chewed out by the security guard in the lobby was an authentically gruff New York experience, so it was actually kinda fun in its own way.
Tesla soon returned to his lab on South Fifth Avenue, which had been mothballed while he was away. Over the first few weeks after his return from Europe, he hired several workers and a secretary and set back to work.
It wasn’t long, however, before Westinghouse came calling, in need of Tesla’s help fulfilling the terms of his contract now that he’d won the bid for the World’s Fair. As we discussed last time, massive new dynamos needed to be built to power the 90,000+ lightbulbs that would light the Chicago World’s Fair.
Even though they no longer had a formal contract between them, Westinghouse asked for Tesla’s help in aiding his men as they designed and built all the completely new equipment required for the fair.
While Westinghouse wanted the prestige and publicity that came from the World’s Fair contract, Tesla had his own reasons for wanting to help.
Having toured the facilities in Europe and talked with engineers at various electrical firms there, Tesla knew the Europeans were moving quickly toward developing polyphase AC systems: that is, systems for transmitting power using two- or three-phase current.
When he returned to New York in late August 1892, Tesla found that Westinghouse was not giving much thought to promoting his motors or polyphase system. Westinghouse was not opposed to polyphase, but with the demands of fulfilling the World’s Fair contract upon him and his focus mainly on making all those lightbulbs without infringing the General Electric patents, the A/C motor wasn’t to Westinghouse’s mind the most pressing technology to pursue.
Tesla understood that if he wanted to forward the interests of his polyphase AC system—and ensure that his polyphase system was not ignored in the United States—he was going to have to promote it to Westinghouse himself.
So Tesla quickly agreed to assist the Westinghouse engineers.
Tesla commuted to and from Pittsburgh to guide the workers on the construction of the large dynamos, and occasionally some of Westinghouse’s men would visit Tesla’s lab in New York to consult.
And advocate for his motors Tesla did. Just in case Westinghouse had any ideas to the contrary, Tesla wrote to Westinghouse in mid-September 1892 saying:
It is necessary to bring the motor to high perfection before the exhibition as this is of prime importance. Please [ask] your staff to aid me in all they can. My conviction is that a motor without brushes and commutator is the only form which is capable of permanent success. To introduce other forms I consider a waste of time and money.
As we discussed briefly in the last episode, to fulfill his contract and power 90,000 lights for the six months of the fair, Westinghouse needed brand new, super powerful dynamos from his engineers. And it was these turbines that he called Tesla in to help with.
They were, all of them, pushing the limits of the possible.
To that point, the largest AC plants powered at most 10,000 lights but didn’t also power motors at the same time. What Westinghouse needed for Chicago were dynamos that would power a hundred thousand or more lightbulbs and many, many motors all at the same time. They were building what would become the biggest AC power station yet installed in the United States.
Their lives were made easier in this goal by what Tesla must have thought was rich irony:
You’ll recall that back in Episode 12, Tesla stormed out of the Westinghouse offices in Pittsburgh after the Westinghouse engineers refused to take his trial-tested advice to build motors that ran at a relatively low 60-cycles per minute. The Westinghouse people (dismissive of Tesla) insisted on building Tesla-style motors that could work with their existing single-phase Gaulard-Gibbs AC system which operated at a frequency of 133 cycles.
The motors never worked as well as Tesla’s initial models had, and more than one man at Westinghouse thought their boss had paid a lot of money for a not very impressive set of patents.
However, during the years when Westinghouse went into receivership, and the future of the company was uncertain, a team of engineers under Charles F. Scott—who had acted at Tesla’s assistant at Westinghouse, and who Tesla had personally recommended take over the project when he left—well, that team had a bit of a rethink and made some remarkable “discoveries” about AC power.
They found that when you used 60-cycle alternating current all the
problems they’d experienced trying to shoehorn the Tesla AC motor into a 133-cycle system seemed to melt away.
Huh. Fancy that.
Using 60-cycles meant they could use two- and three-phase AC to power both lighting and motors on a single network. And, they could do all this without producing a noticeable flicker in incandescent lamps—the drive for 133-cycles initially being motivated by the desire to avoid flickering (which until Telsa’s system it was only possible to avoid using higher frequencies).
Now Westinghouse’s AC system for the Fair could make use of Tesla’s polyphase systems, and Westinghouse intended to capitalize. Westinghouse engineer Benjamin Lamme, who was the lead engineer on the dynamo project, later recalled, “It was at Mr. Westinghouse’s suggestion that the machines for the lighting plant at Chicago were each made with two single-phase alternators, side by side, with their armature windings staggered 90 degrees.”
Combine two of these, and you have, tada! Tesla’s polyphase current. Each such set-up could light thirty thousand of Westinghouse’s Sawyer-Man “stopper”-type lightbulbs that we talked about last time—the ones that didn’t infringe on the Edison/GE lightbulb patents.
With this kind of generating power, Westinghouse had plenty of built-in insurance. If a generator shorted out, no fairgoer would ever notice, as another would kick in immediately.
All these AC dynamos would be powered by one great 2,000-horsepower Allis-Chalmers engine, as well as numerous 1,000-horsepower engines, all fueled with oil (supplied by Standard Oil) rather than coal.
The White City—as the Fair would come to be known—wouldn’t suffer the polluted coal smoke haze that hung over so many American cities of the era.
The January 1893 issue of the Electrical Engineer reported that people were travelling to Pittsburgh specifically to gawk at the twelve, towering half-completed generators. Each weighed 75 tons. The rotating armatures alone weighed 21 tons.
“With the twelve 1,000 h.p. engines required to drive them they will constitute the largest single exhibit of operating machinery ever made at any exposition, and probably the most extensive exhibit in the Fair,” declared the Electrical Engineer.
Despite Westinghouse’s initial claims of how easy it would be to fulfill the terms of the World’s Fair contract, these Westinghouse behemoths arrived in Chicago only weeks before opening day and were still being installed at the end of April—with opening day slated as Monday, May 1. The engines were installed in the south nave of the vast Machinery Hall, one of the Court of Honor palaces.
One history of the Fair summed up the work of Tesla and the Westinghouse engineers in this way:
They devised and constructed in less than six months larger machines than had ever been built for this work before, and on radically different lines, embodying the principles of the alternating system of transmission. By this system, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of copper wire were saved, as it was possible to send the current under high pressure [i.e., voltage] to its destination on small wires, and then transform it down to the point of utility.
While the Fair was an ideal opportunity for Westinghouse to demonstrate how AC could be used to power an entire city, Tesla wanted to ensure that his motors got the best showing possible, and so arranged to have an exhibit of his own—one that would appear under the Westinghouse banner. More on that in a minute.
So, let’s talk about the World’s Columbian Exposition itself.
Before we begin, I want to recommend to you the book The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. It is bar none the best book I’ve read about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and I’ve consulted it extensively as I’ve written this episode.
It tells the story of the Fair from the intertwining viewpoints of the designers, including Daniel Burnham (who also designed the Flatiron Building in New York) and Frederick Law Olmsted (who helped design Central Park), and H. H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers, who used the World’s Fair as a lure and cover for his crimes.
While it is non-fiction, it reads more like a novel and was on numerous best-seller and best-of-year lists and was a finalist for various awards when it was published in 2003. It’s one of those books, in fact, that 16 years after its publication every copy in the Toronto Public Library system is always checked out and if you want to get your hands on it you have to put it on reserve and wait your turn. Surely that’s an endorsement.
It’s full of fascinating facts about the Fair that Changed America and, if you find what follows interesting and would like to learn more about the World’s Columbian Exposition than I can cram into this already overstuffed episode, definitely pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.
I will say that no matter what I can describe to you here in podcast form, the layout and grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition really should be seen to be understood. I will put up a bunch of photos and maps of the fairgrounds on this week’s show notes to give you a sense of the spectacle.
And the grounds are all the more impressive when you consider that in 1893, most people in the United States lived rural lives. It was before the age of mass media, before a time when people were used to spectacle as a common everyday occurrence coming to them through a TV or the internet.
The White City—as the fairgrounds came to be known—was designed to be a kind of spectacle that you could only find in the Old World of European capitals. It was a series of faux ancient palaces on the shores of Lake Michigan; beautiful Venetian-style canals and lagoons; vast exhibition halls built from steel but seemingly sheathed in marble and designed in a neoclassical style of Ionic columns, slender arches, grand domes, and towers.
City leaders (as well as average citizens) were keen to ensure the Fair countered the perception of Chicago as a place for railroads, coal smoke, hog butchering, corrupt politics, and little else. They wanted the city—now America’s ‘second city’—to be known as a center of cultural refinement.
Seven thousand men had toiled seven days a week for more than a year to ready the grounds of the Fair, labouring away while the Fair’s directors argued back and forth about how the electric lighting contract would be awarded. As of October 1892, construction proceeded 24 hours a day, when arc lights and generators were installed (those ones we talked about last time that GE offered to provide for usurious sums of money) and an overnight shift of workers added.
Previously reliant on manpower and donkey power alone, with the installation of electric motors work sped up, with the motors operating dredges, crushers, tool sharpeners, sawmills, pumps, and hoists for heavy beams and trusses.
Most of the engineers and the army of workers lived on-site in huge barracks, the whole site fenced off with barbed wire and the gates guarded to keep out labour organizers.
The site of the Fair, Jackson Park, was a nearly seven-hundred-acre swamp seven miles south of Chicago proper. The workers had to endure both rain and snowstorms that blew in off Lake Michigan during the fall and winter, as well as muggy, oppressive heat and a constant cloud of dust in the summer.
Nevertheless, Chicagoans were so fascinated just by the construction of the Fair that daily thousands of people made the trek to Jackson Park—in fair and foul weather alike—to take it all in. See what I mean about how starved people were for spectacle?
The fair directors—deeply in debt and with a great many unanswered questions about just how popular the Fair might be once it opened—didn’t miss a trick, and quickly turned these crowds of spectators into legitimate tourists: by which I mean they started charging an entry fee to look around.
And as these gawkers gawked, what was it they were gawking at?
The layout of the Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by John Wellborn Root (who would, sadly, die two years before the Fair opened), Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles B. Atwood (no relation to Margaret), and Daniel H. Burnham (no relation to Michael).
But it was really Burnham who was the driving force. One of Chicago’s preeminent architects and designers. He, along with his partner Root, had designed and built several of the city’s most prominent skyscrapers, and as I mentioned, he was responsible for the famous wedge-shaped Flat Iron Building in New York City. More than this, however, Burnham was the Fair’s director of works, and he was the engine that drove the build to completion basically on time—a feat that many said was impossible.
The fairgrounds were designed around what these men thought a city should be: it followed the principles of the French Beaux-Arts school of design, which emphasized neoclassicism, incorporated Gothic and Renaissance elements, and used modern materials, such as iron and glass.
Beaux-Arts architecture relied on Classical details like symmetry; arched and pedimented doors; arched windows; statuary; sculpture; murals; and mosaics that gave buildings a specific identity.
The fairgrounds were covered in nearly 200 new (but deliberately temporary) buildings in this predominantly Beaux-Arts style.
These temporary palaces on the shores of Lake Michigan were covered in what appeared to be creamy, white marble, like the great buildings of Greece and Rome.
However, these buildings were mostly constructed of steel and wood, with their facades coated in “staff”—which is a kind of artificial stone used for covering and ornamenting temporary buildings.
Made from plaster of Paris, with a little cement, glycerin, and dextrin, it is mixed with water until it is about as thick as molasses. To add strength, hemp fibres can be mixed in, with the mixture hardening in about half an hour. You can pour staff into moulds for casting virtually any shape, which is how most of the sculpture and statuary for the Fair was made. Unlike stone, staff can be bent, sawed, bored, or nailed, lending it both economy and speed.
While it can be made to resemble any kind of stone, a quick coat of white paint (applied via one of the first electric-powered spray paint guns) gave it the appearance of marble, as well as giving the Fair’s main grounds their nickname: The White City.
The White City was designed around a central “Court of Honor,” around which were built the various major “palaces.”
The Manufacturers & Liberal Arts Pavilion, for example, was at the time “by far, the largest building in the world.” It was a third of a mile long, over two football fields wide, seated 75,000, and by itself occupied more than 4% of the total acreage of the Jackson Park site.
The White City also included a central Great Basin, along with waterways, lagoons, and moats, modelled very much on those of Venice. These were equipped with a fleet of fifty gondolas powered by electric motors, which could ferry visitors to the various pavilions.
There was also living architecture to impress visitors. Frederick Law Olmsted’s contribution to the Expo was in the extensive landscaping required. In all, a million trees, shrubs, and plants were planted around the large lagoon and canals, and throughout the 700-acre site.
There was a statue dedicated to Columbus himself, of a general riding a team of horses galloping into the fairgrounds. And most centrally there was a great gilded sixty-five-foot Statue of the Republic, which rose from the Great Basin, overlooking the whole of the Court of Honor.
Running perpendicular to the “great quadrangle” for nearly a mile were most of the other large-scale pavilions and displays. Many were designed by prominent architects of the day. There was a Turkish village. A German beer garden. A model of a Cairo street with camels, a minareted mosque, and Egyptian tombs.
This section of the Expo was described in one text of the day (somewhat indelicately to our modern ears) as “a cacophonous confusion of advanced cultures, converted heathens, peculiar tongues, and queer importations.”
In all, people and cultures from 46 countries would be represented in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Again, I’m hardly doing this all justice with mere words. Please see this week’s show notes at teslapodcast.com for pictures that do a far better job of getting across the impressiveness of the White City than I can do here.
The fair’s dedication ceremony was held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds themselves weren’t opened to the public until May 1, 1893.
And when the Fair was opened…well, things didn’t go quite as might have been hoped.
The afternoon before the official opening, an English tourist—the Reverend F. Herbert Stead—visited the fairgrounds in a driving rain that would haunt the first week to ten days of the Fair. He found things in a shambles:
“The roads within the gates were even more miry than those without…. The disjecta membra of a whole host of statues lay about … helmeted heads, bare arms, and greaved legs of heroes in profusion … swarms of workmen gave the same impression of gross incompleteness.”
But not even that could keep him from being overawed by the sight of the White City and the Court of Honor around the Great Basin.
Enchanted, he wrote:
“It was a poem entablatured in fairy palaces…. It was a dream of beauty which blended the memory of classic greatness with the sense of Alpine snows…. It was a vision of the ideal, enhaloed with mystery.”
For one brief window on opening day, the rain relented, and the sun came out just in time for the official opening ceremony.
President Grover Cleveland was in attendance before an eager crowd of one hundred thousand people jammed into the Court of Honor. He gave a speech and pressed a gold-and-ivory telegraph key that officially launched the electrified Fair.
A thousand feet away in Machinery Hall, an anxious group of Westinghouse engineers held their breath. The press of that gold-and-ivory telegraph key meant the 2,000-horsepower Allis-Chalmers steam engine that would power all the Westinghouse generators finally lurched into operation.
As electricity rushed out to the fairgrounds, it was only when the engineers heard the cheers from the crowd around the Court of Honor—where three huge motorized fountains sent geysers of water hundreds of feet into the air—that they exhaled.
During the first official week of the 1893 World’s Fair, the cold, gusty, driving rain returned. This was probably for the best, however, since despite pulling out all the stops (including 6 months of 7-days-a-week-24-hours-a-day construction) much of the Fair was still unready.
But the weather warmed, the exhibits were completed…and people began to arrive.
To say visitors were impressed is an understatement. The journalist Richard Harding Davis spoke for many when he called the fair “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.”
Consider this description from one visitor awed by the electric lights and fountains:
“Inadequate as words have been found to convey a realizing idea of the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle which the Exposition offers by day, they are infinitely less capable of affording the slightest conception of the dazzling spectacle which greets the eye of the visitor by night…
Indescribable by language are the electric fountains. One of them, called “The Great Geyser,” rises to a height of 150 feet, above a band of “Little Geysers.” [By adding rotating coloured lights, the effects created] are so bewildering no eye can find the loveliest, their vagaries of motion so entrancing no heart can keep its steady beating.”
If you’ve ever seen the fountain display outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas, it was something like that.
Chicago’s Columbian Exposition would run for six months, closing on October 30, 1893.
On October 9, 1893, the day designated as Chicago Day, the Fair set a world record for single-day outdoor event attendance, drawing 751,026 people. The debt for the Fair was soon paid off with a check for $1.5 million (equivalent to over $40 million today). And Chicago permanently commemorated the Fair with one of the stars on its municipal flag.
All told, between 27 and 28 million visitors (half foreigner visitors, and half Americans—or one-quarter of the entire US citizenry at the time) would pay the fifty cent charge to enter the great fair and experience its wonders.
“Among monuments marking the progress of civilization throughout the ages, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 will ever stand conspicuous,” claimed the publication The Book of the Fair, a kind of souvenir program. “Gathered here are the forces which move humanity and make history, the ever-shifting powers that fit new thoughts to new conditions, and shape the destinies of mankind.”
But the jubilation of the start of the Fair was not to last long.
As I mentioned at the top of the show, only days after the official opening of the Fair, on May 5, 1893, a crash on Wall Street started a depression known as the Panic of 1893. It would last until 1897 and had a devastating effect on the United States.
It happened in slow motion, at first. Throughout the spring, while the US economy seemed healthy, people in the know began to grow concerned about the flight of European capital from the US market.
Then, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad failed, followed by the sudden collapse of the National Cordage Company, the nation’s leading manufacturer of rope and twine, who had the dubious distinction of becoming the first failed trust (or monopoly) in American history. If you can’t make a success of a business that has cornered the market and has no competition…Wow. These twin implosions set off the May 5th Wall Street panic known as “Industrial Black Friday.”
Three days later, the vice president of Chicago’s Chemical National Bank announced that the bank would suspend business and close temporarily due to cash flow issues. He claimed depositors would lose nothing, but that would be small comfort to people who needed cash to pay for daily necessities in an era before credit or debit cards.
After this, the catastrophe spread outward across America.
Stock prices collapsed. Five hundred banks closed, fifteen thousand businesses failed, and countless farms went under.
The unemployment rate hit 25% in Pennsylvania, 35% in New York, and 43% in Michigan. Soup kitchens were opened to help feed the destitute. Facing starvation, people chopped wood, broke rocks, or turned to prostitution in exchange for food. The mayor of Detroit launched a series of community gardens so people could feed themselves.
President Grover Cleveland was quickly blamed for the depression. He, in turn, blamed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which we talked about back in Episode 8. Gold reserves stored in the Treasury fell to a dangerously low level forcing President Cleveland to borrow $65 million in gold (roughly $1.8 billion US dollars today) from Wall-Street banker J.P. Morgan and the Rothschild banking family of England.
As I’ve mentioned before, J.P. Morgan will continue to appear in our story periodically from here on out.
Given this, you can perhaps understand why President Cleveland wanted to keep his surgery a secret—that kind of uncertainty is the last thing the US economy needed in 1893.
Editorial pages urged Cleveland to pull forward the opening of Congress. He had already called for a September start to the session—extraordinarily early for a new session of Congress. The papers wanted Congress to convene in August. One wonders how Cleveland’s plan to recover from his surgery before the September start of Congress played into his decision not to call Congress back earlier in the summer and perhaps mitigate some of the negative impacts of the panic… The ripples that hidden and personal choices have on the unfolding of history fascinate me.
Meanwhile, Chicago at least was insulated from the full brunt of the Panic thanks to the six months of millions of tourists visiting the city to see the World’s Columbian Exhibition…
And it was a place of wonders, marvels, and oddities meant to delight.
In one pavilion, audiences could hear live music played by an orchestra in New York via a long-distance telephone connection.
There was a life-sized replica of the Venus de Milo made entirely of chocolate. A locomotive made of silk. A suspension bridge made of soap. A giant map of the United States made of nothing but pickles. A life-sized knight on horseback made solely of prunes.
The Avery Salt Mines of Louisiana sent a copy of the Statue of Liberty carved of a massive block of salt. It gained the nickname “Lot’s Wife.”
Ah. Biblical humour.
New terminology entered the language, too, thanks to the World’s Fair.
The Chicago World’s Fair was the first such fair to have a dedicated space solely for amusements. Away from the exhibition halls, this area was on the city’s Midway Plaisance (kind of a large open green space). It included amusement rides (among them the original Ferris Wheel—more on that in a minute), carnival games, food booths, belly dancers, balloon rides, and other attractions.
After the Exposition, at any county or state fair people who had visited the World’s Fair in Chicago (and remember, people came from all over the country to visit the Fair) these people would go looking at their local Fair for this amusement area which had previously never existed.
It wasn’t long before these areas came to be standard features of fairs all over the United States, and in Canada, too. And though the origin of their name was eventually obscured by the mists of time, these areas came to be known and remain know today as the midway of the Fair, after the Midway Plaisance of the 1893 World’s Fair.
Likewise, it was at this time that Chicago gained its famous nickname, the “Windy City.” There are various theories as to why it got this name. The most obvious is that it’s describing the city’s weather. Having been to Chicago once, I can attest that it does seem awfully windy (especially in the downtown core, where the skyscraper-lined streets act as wind tunnels). However, competing theories are that Charles Anderson Dana of the New York Sun coined the term to describe the relentless hype of the city’s promoters in the run-up to the World’s Fair. Others argue that the term was used even earlier, in 1881, to refer to Chicago’s “windbag” politicians.
That’s my favourite possibility…
The Fair was also a place of firsts:
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner first lectured on his Frontier thesis, which argued that the expansion into the frontier was a defining characteristic of the young United States and influenced its character, drive, and optimism forever after.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written for the Fair and first performed there by a group of school children.
Much to the delight of numismatists, the United States Mint offered its first commemorative coins: the Columbian Exposition quarter dollar and Columbian Exposition half dollar.
Likewise, philatelists rejoiced in the decision of the United States Post Office to issue its first picture postcards and Commemorative stamp set.
The Chicago Athletic Association Football team played one of the very first night football games against West Point, with the field lit by floodlights powered by the Westinghouse dynamos and Tesla’s AC system. Chicago won the abbreviated 40-minute game 14-0.
Technological marvels were also debuted at the Fair. These include:
• A device that made plates for printing books in Braille
• The moving walkway, or travelator (you know, those moving sidewalks they have in airports—straight out of George Jetson, but actually a 19th Century technology)
• The electrified third rail for subways and elevated trains
• The first zipper
• The vertical file
• The first fully electrical kitchen, including an automatic dishwasher (undoubtedly one of humanities greatest achievements)
• And those hand-cranked machines that squash a penny into elongated coins
Erik Larson, in The Devil in the White City, describes the World’s Columbian Exhibition as “the fair that changed America.” And he’s right, not least of all in the number of consumer products that debuted at the Fair and which remain with us today.
For example, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oats, Cracker Jacks, and Juicy Fruit gum all appeared for the first time at the Chicago World’s Fair.
“Aunt Jemima” was registered as a trademark in 1893, and Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup were popularized during the Fair.
The First-Ever Brownie was invented by Bertha Palmer for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. This alone makes the Fair a worthwhile contribution to human culture and happiness.
The Vienna Sausage company started selling its frankfurters and sausages near one of the entrances to the Midway Plaisance. The company later became known as Vienna Beef, and is today recognized as “Chicago’s Hot Dog.”
Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is known as Pabst Blue Ribbon beer because they won the blue ribbon for best beer in show at the Chicago World’s Fair and have been riding that glory for 126 years.
And Milton Hershey bought a European exhibitor’s chocolate manufacturing equipment that he saw demonstrated at the World’s Fair with chocolate to be an add-on to his main business, which was caramel manufacturing. The rest, as they say, is delicious.
The most impressive feature of the whole Fair was its electrification, and the electricity Pavilion dedicated to the wonder of the age. But before we get to that, there are two items at the Fair—two wheels, in fact—that I wanted to draw your particular attention to.
First, the Ferris wheel. And I want to highlight this because it is one of the most enduring legacies of the 1893 World’s Fair.
Now, you’ve probably been on at least one Ferris wheel in your life if you’ve ever been to a fair or carnival. If not, well, I bet you have a pretty good idea from TV or movies of what a Ferris wheel is. Right?
Okay, now forget that.
Because those piddling little county-fair Ferris wheels are pale shadows of the very first Ferris wheel—named for its creator George Washington Ferris—that debuted at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
That Ferris wheel stood a towering 264 feet high and had a seating capacity of over two thousand. Far from a cozy swinging seat for you and your date, the original Ferris wheel used thirty-six specially designed Pullman cabins—similar to luxury Pullman train cars—as its gondolas, packing as many as 60 people in each.
50 cents (about $14 today) would get you two languid rotations on the most massive one-piece steel axle ever forged. You would get a commanding view not only of the fairgrounds but of the nearby smoke-enshrouded Chicago (the Black City—thanks to coal smoke—to contrast the White City powered by electricity).
It was a remarkable piece of engineering, and it worked the first time, having been designed from scratch as a wholly new form of conveyance. Not bad for a machine that had 100,000 different parts.
The Paris Exposition of 1889 had set a bar for world’s fairs in terms of glamour, sophistication, and feats of engineering. The Eiffel Tower—named for its designer, Gustav Eiffel, and if you’ll recall from Episode 12 an eyesore in the opinion of contemporary Parisian critics—was a thousand-foot-tall monument to French achievement (not to mention the tallest structure in the world until 1930). And this was something of a sore spot with the fair’s organizers, who felt that America’s reputation as “builders of great works in steel and iron” had been supplanted.
So, what better way to stick it to the French than by building a giant moving wheel, ammiright? What could be more American than that?
“We’ll see your stately marvel of modern engineering, and raise you one you can ride! USA! USA!”
If anything, the Ferris wheel at night might have been even more impressive than the Eiffel Tower, both to see and to ride. The great, slow-moving wheel was outlined against the night sky by three thousand light bulbs. It offered unparalleled views of the fair’s grounds, themselves lit up by a hundred thousand electric lights, as well as the Great Basin and fountains, illuminated by brightly coloured searchlights.
Mr. Ferris’ wheel was a smashing success, quickly becoming the most popular attraction at the fair. And, like the concept of a midway, it became one of the staple items at fairs and carnivals all over the United States, Canada, and indeed the world.
Though it’s impossible to know precisely how many people rode the Ferris wheel during the expo—estimates I’ve heard suggest a million or more—here are some actual ridership numbers to give you a sense of things:
The week of July 3, 1893, Ferris sold 61,395 tickets for a ride on his wheel. That was worth over $30,000 in sales (or about $850,000 dollars today). The Exposition Company took just over half that, leaving Ferris with a profit for that one week alone of nearly $14,000 (or about $400,000 dollars today).
Consider that by the end of the fair, the wheel had over 20,000 riders a day. All told, Ferris cleared a profit of $200,000 from the fair (or more than $5.6 million dollars today). The wheel remained in place for several years, taking riders around and around just as it had done during the World’s Fair, and was even relocated across the city for a time.
However, almost unbelievably, because of the devastating effects of the Panic, Ferris was forced to sell his interest in the wheel that bore his name only a few years later to cover debts incurred both by the wheel and his other work in the steel industry, which was particularly hard hit by the Panic.
His marriage fell apart, and Ferris—penniless—died in 1896 of typhoid fever at the age of only 37. His ashes remained at a Pittsburgh crematorium for over a year, waiting for someone to pay off the cost of his funeral and take possession of them.
I tell you this last part not to bum you out, but to show you just how devastating the effects of the Panic were that someone as successful as Ferris could die destitute and alone within only three years of his greatest professional and financial achievement.
Today, the spiritual successor to that OG Ferris wheel would be the London Eye, that great slowly revolving wheel on the banks of the Thames. Like the Ferris wheel, the Eye was meant only as a temporary attraction but has proved so popular that its lease has been extended again and again.
The London Eye is twice the height of Mr. Ferris’ original wheel. It has 32 ovoidal pods, each of which can carry 25 people (not the 60 they would cram in at Chicago). And like the first Ferris wheel, the London Eye is tremendously popular—the most popular paid tourist attraction in the United Kingdom, in fact, with over 3.75 million visitors annually.
Okay, so—that’s one wheel.
The second wheel I want to draw your attention to is, well, a wheel of cheese.
But not just any wheel of cheese! A giant wheel of cheese. The famed Mammoth Cheese, in fact!
And why, you may ask, would I want to highlight a giant cheese wheel for you? Well, because it’s one I actually have a 100-years-after-the-fact connection to.
So, the Mammoth Cheese was made specifically for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in a place called Perth, Ontario, where—one hundred years later—I lived for several years in my teens.
With the announcement of the World’s Fair in not-really-that-far-away-by-rail Chicago, the Dominion Dairy Commissioner (Canada was known as the ‘Dominion of Canada’ back then, by the way, as a possession of the English Crown)—the Dominion Dairy Commissioner had an idea of producing, well, a giant cheese to exhibit there to publicize Canadian Cheddar and increase its popularity abroad.
The manufacturing of the cheese (if that’s the right way to describe it) took place at the experimental dairy station in Perth.
Twelve cheese makers from Perth and the surrounding Lanark County were invited to participate. The cheese was made from one day’s milk from 10,000 cows and was called the “Canadian Mite”—not sure why—weighed a world record 22,000 pounds, was six feet high and had a circumference of 28 feet.
It was housed in a freight shed during the winter of 1892-3 and since Perth is not very far from Ottawa, the nation’s capital—in a very Canadian moment—the cheese was visited from time to time by dignitaries, including Cabinet Ministers and the Governor General. To ensure the wheel kept its shape, a team of experts turned the cheese end-over-end every two weeks. No easy feat, I’m sure.
When it came time to transport the Mammoth Cheese, it fell through the bottom of the wooden railcar it was placed on.
A special metal-reinforced railway flat car was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway expressly to move the cheese. This is widely believed to be the first-ever metal reinforced railcar, meaning that the sheer size of the Mammoth Cheese may have lead to an innovation which changed how goods are shipped around the world.
(As an aside: if you want to read a surprisingly fascinating account of how shipping innovation affects the world, check out a book called The box: how the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger, by Marc Levinson. I’ll put a link up on the teslapodcast.com book store site whenever I finally set it up…)
Anyway, the cheese was eventually shipped out, and this was such a big deal (remember—people starved for spectacle) that a complete timetable for the cheese’s train ride from Perth to Windsor, ON on the US border was widely published in newspapers. People turned out all along the route to watch the cheese pass by.
In fact, the outside of the steel cheese container had to be repainted when it reached Chicago because during the trip over 10,000 people had signed the outside of the container.
The Mammoth Cheese gained notoriety immediately (as well as something of a reputation) upon its arrival when it promptly crashed through the wooden floor it was placed on and had to be moved to a floor of reinforced concrete in the Agricultural Building.
There is a claim that “The Mammoth Cheese” was “more talked about and written about than any other single exhibit at the fair” …but I have a hard time believing that. However, when judged, the cheese received 95 points out of a possible score of 100 points and was awarded both a diploma and a medal, so it was definitely impressive.
The history of the cheese after it left Chicago is a bit debated: someone (sources differ) bought the cheese and shipped it to England. The story I recall hearing is that the cheese went rancid during transport across the Atlantic, but was so big that they were able to carve off the spoiled top several inches of the whole cheese and that the cheddar underneath was just fine to eat.
At some point, the giant wheel was divided and samples sent back to Canada in the spring of 1894 to be distributed to members of the Senate, Commons and Parliamentary Press Gallery. Despite its age, the cheese still tasted pretty good, by all accounts.
Okay, so besides living in the same town, what’s my connection?
Well, 100 years later, when I was in high school and then when I was in university, during the summers, I worked in the Perth Museum in the historic Matheson House in downtown Perth. And there, on display under a bell jar, alongside the diploma and the medal it had won at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition was…a piece of the Mammoth Cheese.
It wasn’t a large piece. You know those triangular pieces of cheese with the laughing cow on the label? Yeah, it was about the size of one of those wedges. And after 100 years it was best described as looking like a piece of foam you might use to upholster a couch. But drier. Desiccated. More shrivelled. And wrapped in a bit of cellophane that I’m sure had to be original given how fragile it looked.
I once took a visiting Australian friend to tour the museum. I was pretty eager to impress this girl and made a point to show off the shard of Mammoth Cheese and tell her the whole story just as I’ve told you.
Hopefully, you’re more impressed with me and my story than she was.
If you’re ever in Perth, do stop by the museum and have a look around. But don’t expect to see the cheese: according to Atlas Obscura, the cheese is not currently on display due to its delicate condition.
Oh, and on a related note: some of the best cheese you will ever have can be found at the Balderson Cheese Factory, in the village of Balderson, ON which is a 10-minute drive from Perth, ON. The cheese (especially the old cheddar) is incredible and is a spiritual descendant of the Mammoth Cheese. Also, try the ice cream they make there—to DIE for.
But I’m off track!
While I’m sure the Mammoth Cheese was impressive in its own way, I’m skeptical it was the most talked about exhibit. After all, this was for many attendees the first time that they were seeing electricity in all its glory and used in the way that it would come to be used in the future—everywhere and all the time.
After all, while electricity had its own pavilion, it was also woven throughout the whole Fair. Can you say that about a cheese?
Just four years earlier, the 1889 Paris Exposition had used 1,150 arc lights and 10,000 incandescent lamps; the Chicago Exposition had ten times that number in its buildings and grounds (oh yeah—Westinghouse ended up getting a lot more than he bargained for when he won the bid to light the Fair—we’ll talk about that more in a minute).
As one popular guidebook to the Fair put it:
“The Columbian Exposition is a magnificent triumph of the age of electricity… all the exhibits in all the buildings are operated by electrical transmission. The Intramural Elevated Railway, the launches that ply the Lagoons, the Sliding Railway on the thousand-foot pier, the great Ferris Wheel, the machinery of the Libby Glass Company on the Midway, all are operated by electrically transmitted energy … everything pulsates with quickening influence of the subtle and vivifying current.”
Stop and consider that phrase for a second: a “subtle and vivifying current.”
While this was written for a guidebook about the World’s Fair and is reasonably to be assumed to be a rah-rah presentation of things, think how incredible a statement that is. It was just three short years from the outbreak of the War of the Currents, Harold Brown’s horrifying experiments, and the debut of the electric chair. That someone—anyone, guidebook or not—would refer to electricity and alternating current specifically as “vivifying”—literally, life-giving, was a shocking turnaround (no pun intended). Clearly, Westinghouse’s plan to use the World’s Fair contract as a great public relations stunt for AC power had worked.
The Paris Exhibition generated a grand total of 3,000 horsepower worth of electricity, while the Chicago World’s Fair generated 29,000 horsepower. That’s three times as much electricity as the whole city of Chicago generated at that time.
Now, yes, Chicago—like most other American cities of the era—was still in the infancy of its electrification, so its not like everybody and every building had electricity they way they would today. But you get the point—the White City used A LOT of electricity for such a relatively small space that existed for just six months.
However, unlike Chicago, the White City—being thoroughly planned from the get-go—didn’t suffer that most characteristic feature of newly electrifying cities: tangles of electric wires dangling like the sword of Damocles over unsuspecting citizens below.
Instead, being designed as an ideal city, Burnham had included miles of underground tunnels—which he called “subways”—roomy enough for men to walk upright, and which were accessible by 1,560 manholes spread throughout the grounds. The wires ran through these access tunnels—tidy, organized, easy to inspect, and unable to shock (or kill) anyone walking the fairgrounds.
Okay, so George Westinghouse:
I mentioned a minute ago that Westinghouse got a bit more than he bargained for (or budgeted for) when he won the electricity contract for the World’s Fair.
For a start, his contract was for ninety-two thousand incandescent lights. But, it turned out, this was more just a guess on the part of the Fair’s organizers. No one—either with the Fair or at Westinghouse—knew in advance how many lights would actually be needed.
Luckily, from the outset, Westinghouse had planned for and built in excess capacity, an advantage of the AC system over DC. With AC, adding additional power or additional lights wasn’t a huge issue.
Which is good, because Westinghouse needed all of it. By the time the Fair was fully operational, the Westinghouse Electric Company had installed 250,000 of its non-patent infringing “stopper” bulbs—for those of you keeping score at home, that’s almost triple the number of lights called for in the original contract. And that doesn’t include the numerous electric motors of various sizes that were also on the grid.
However, on a given night only 180,000 of those lights were burning, leaving 70,000 as replacements when a bulb blew. Remember, the Sawyer-Man bulbs that Westinghouse used to avoid the Edison/GE lightbulb patents were, fundamentally, an inferior bulb and didn’t last as long as an Edison bulb. It was a good-enough solution, not a perfect one. And it meant that there were Westinghouse employees whose whole jobs at the World’s Fair was to run around changing dead light bulbs.
The great Westinghouse AC engines were installed in the Machinery Hall. From there, power was sent out through the subways. To insulate against potential short circuit and fire, transformers were “placed in fire-proof and water-proof pits outside the buildings” and stepped down the current to useable voltages. Wires leading into the pavilions were fed through ducts—lined with non-conductive, fire-proof ceramic tile. It wouldn’t do, after all, to have the White City burned to a cinder thanks to an errant spark.
The electrical set-up of the White City made it the largest AC central power station in the world during the Fair, and the first large polyphase system ever built in the United States. It was also the first truly universal AC system, powering incandescent lights, arc lamps, motors, as well as DC applications through the use of a rotary converter. Everything electrified at the Fair was powered by the Westinghouse—that is the Tesla—polyphase AC system—including, ironically, General Electric’s exhibit.
And the inner workings of the White City’s power station were on full display at the Westinghouse switchboard in Machinery Hall. There, passers-by could watch the single gargantuan control panel that monitored and controlled the 29,000 horsepower of electricity that lit the Fair and drove its engines.
Like some steampunk fever dream, the switchboard was a hundred feet long, ten feet high and was made of (noncombustible) marble. Accessible by spiral iron staircases and walkways, the switchboard’s plugs, levers, and wires operated forty redundant circuits. If there was a break, another circuit would take over instantly.
I haven’t been able to find any photographs of this thing, but I’m dying to see it. Imagine all the brass knobs and buttons! If anyone’s Google image-fu is better than mine and you do find one please please email me the link at email@example.com
“What astonished visitors most, perhaps,” said Westinghouse biographer Francis Leupp, “was to see this elaborate mechanism handled by one man, who was constantly in touch, by telephone or messenger, with every part of the grounds, and responded to requests of all sorts by the mere turning of a switch.”
The Electricity Building—the supposed star of the show—actually opened nearly a month late, on a rainy June 1 evening.
It was designed as a “delicate and airy neo-Renaissance white palace,” complete with a dozen minarets, four of which were more than 170 feet tall. It had a high, vaulted roof with skylights and a second-story balcony that was draped with red-white-and-blue bunting, as well as the flags of various nations represented at the World’s Fair. It covered three and a half acres. Which is over two football fields long, and was another football field wide. And it was lit by a combined thirty thousand incandescent and arc lights.
It housed, in the words of ex-governor of Illinois, William E. Cameron, the “magical achievements of Mr. Edison and his brother wizards.”
Visitors to the Electricity Building were greeted by a giant statue of Benjamin Franklin, his famous kite in hand. An accompanying inscription read (and forgive my Latin here): Eripuit Coelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tyrannis: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the sceptre from the tyrant.”
What greeted visitors next were the corporations.
Smaller firms such as Brush and Western Electric were represented, as was the modestly sized German firm AEG, who as part of their exhibit reproduced some of the AC equipment that Brown and Dobrowolsky used in their landmark 108-mile Lauffen-to-Frankfurt transmission of AC power (which we talked about back in Episode 19).
The main floor also had exhibits from other significant inventors: Elisha Gray displayed his teleautography machine, a kind of protofax that—for a few cents—would reproduce a person’s signature electronically at a distance. Elihu Thomson demonstrated a high-frequency coil that created sparks five feet long. Alexander Graham Bell unveiled a telephone that transmitted voice via light beams.
But it was the two behemoths, Westinghouse and General Electric, who dominated the space.
The Westinghouse Company erected a forty-five-foot high monument at the north end of the Electricity Hall which read in giant letters: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. Tesla Polyphase System.
Remember that prior to the World’s Fair, Tesla wasn’t famous outside the small electrical fraternity. That was about to change, however, and for Westinghouse to put Tesla’s name next to his at this early date no doubt helped with that transformation.
The Westinghouse display included the giant switchboard (as I mentioned a minute ago), plus a complete polyphase electrical system. It included “a generating station, a high tension transmission circuit about 30 feet long and a receiving and distributing station. The first contains a 500 h.p. two-phase alternating current generator, a 5 h.p. direct current exciter, a marble switchboard and the necessary step-up transformers. In practice, the generator and exciter would naturally be driven by water power…. Both generator and wheel are driven by a 500 h.p. Tesla polyphase motor with a rotating field, and the exciter by a 5 h.p. motor of the same type, both operated by current from the large two-phase alternators in Machinery Hall.”
There was also a rotary converter that transformed AC power into direct current for engines that still ran on DC, such as railway motors (one of which, powered by this set-up, was also on display).
As one author put it: “Only the most informed understood the extraordinary significance of the humble working model sitting on a long sturdy wooden table. It merited barely any mention in the many written popular accounts of electricity at the World’s Fair. Yet here was the technology that would soon change the whole world.”
This, in miniature, was the system by which Westinghouse intended to power the world and the reason why which he’d fought so hard to win the World’s Fair contract.
Electric meters and other auxiliary devices were also present, but I can’t imagine those got many people excited beyond the really hardcore electricity geek or utility owners who wanted to know how they could monitor and charge for usage.
Part of the Westinghouse Company space was given over to Tesla’s own personal exhibit, and we’ll talk about that in a minute.
Not to be outdone, just down the exhibit floor was the General Electric display.
At its heart was an eighty-two-foot high square column at the exact center of Electricity Hall. Set atop a round, colonnaded Greek-style pavilion, virtually all my sources disagree on what this tower was actually called—the Columbian column; the Tower of Light; the Edison Electric Tower.
Whatever it was actually called, the tower was wrapped in 18,000 miniature Edison bulbs, surrounded by a cage of crystal shards that reflected the light in all directions. It was topped with a single, eight-foot-tall, one tonne Edison lightbulb.
The rainy night of the Electricity Building’s grand opening, as the aisles were filled with visitors, precisely at 8:15pm John Philip Sousa’s band struck up his “Picadors March.”
A great concealing cloth was pulled from the GE column to cheers from the crowd. The lights of the column, reflected and refracted through the crystal, pulsed and danced to the music.
Chicago Daily Tribune wrote of the display: “Electricity danced up and down and all about its circumference in time with the rhythm of the music. First, slender lines of purple fire ran straight up and down its great height. Between them, at the next measure, came waves of crimson flame, and then, cutting up the spaces between in geometric figures and circling the column from top to bottom, clear dazzling whites.”
Soon the whole build was filled with chants of “E-di-son, E-di-son.”
Charles Coffin, head of General Electric, while he had effectively sidelined Thomas Edison as a business partner after the creation of GE, must have been glad to hear the chants of Edison’s name. He’d gone out of his way to use the great man’s world-famous name and beloved public image to associate GE with Edison in the mind of the visiting public.
So all of Edison’s latest inventions were on display at the GE booth: there was the multiplex telegraph, the Edison talking machine known as the phonograph, and perhaps most spectacularly of all Edison’s brand new Kinetoscope. A forerunner of the motion picture, the Kinetoscope ran a short film of English prime minister William Gladstone delivering a speech in the House of Commons. Though I doubt the quality was very good by our 4K ultra-hi def 21st Century standards, on the Kinetoscope’s small screen people described Gladstone looking as real to them “as if they were watching him through a window.”
Despite this, however, much of the GE display had an air of nostalgia for the past about it, focused as it was mainly around Edison’s historic lighting breakthrough.
A garden of palm trees showcased 2,500 different kinds of Edison incandescent bulbs, for example. But the basic design of the Edison bulb was already more than a decade old. And for all their triumphalism about victory in the Seven Years’ Incandescent Light Bulb War—the GE exhibit included (no fooling) a copy of the full seven-thousand-page, seven-volume “Filament Case” testimony for all to see—the basic Edison patent on the bulb was set to run out in just a couple of years. Indeed, the GE display was the only place in the whole Columbian Exposition that you would actually find an Edison-style bulb—everywhere else it was the Westinghouse stopper bulbs, powered by Tesla’s AC system (and not Edison’s beloved DC).
And speaking of AC power, while the GE exhibit mostly traded in past glory, now that Edison was sidelined and Coffin was in charge, the GE exhibit included what would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier under Edison: an alternating current system for which GE held patents.
Whatever Edison’s past accomplishments, it was clear to Coffin and to most in the know that AC was the superior system and was here to stay.
The second floor of the exhibit hall held other less-well-known inventors and devices (and some outright charlatans, too). There you could find searchlights, a seismograph, electric incubators for chicken eggs, and a Morse code telegraph.
However, you could also find electrified belts that promised a better sex life, electric body invigorators, and electrical hairbrushes. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen late-night infomercials for all these things…
Okay, so this all brings us back to Tesla himself.
After working with the Westinghouse team in Pittsburgh, it wasn’t until August 1893 that Tesla finally travelled to Chicago himself. He would present a week of demonstrations and also attend the International Electrical Congress that was held concurrently with the World’s Fair for the month of August.
One recollection of the event went as follows:
“At Electricity Hall, Professor Tesla announces he will send a current of 100,000 volts through his own body without injury to life, an experiment which seems all the more wonderful when we recall the fact that the currents made use of for executing murderers at Sing Sing, N.Y., have never exceeded 2,000 volts. Mr. Tesla also shows a number of other interesting experiments, some of which are so marvelous as to be almost beyond description.”
On the sweltering evening of August 25, Nikola Tesla spoke before “one thousand electrical engineers” at the International Electrical Congress in Agriculture Hall. In attendance was a “galaxy of notables,” including Galileo Ferraris, Sir William Preece, Silvanus Thompson, Elihu Thomson, and honorary chairman Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz, whom Tesla also took on a tour of his personal exhibit.
The Chicago Tribune reported it this way:
“People crowded about the doors and clamoured for admittance…The great majority of those who came, came with the expectation of seeing Tesla pass a current of 250,000 volts through his body…Ten dollars was offered for a single seat, and offered in vain [editor’s note: $10 then is about $280 US dollars today]. Only members of the Electrical Congress, with their wives, were admitted, and not even they unless they were provided with credentials.” Before the lecture, the Tribune reporter inquired of Professors William Preece and Silvanus Thompson as to the use of the various equipment scattered about the hall, but they “gazed in wonder and confessed they could not guess…They [simply] lumped off the whole lot under the generic term of ‘Tesla’s animals.’
“Presently, white-haired Elisha Gray was seen escorting a tall, gaunt young man towards the platform. The young man smiled with pleasure but modestly kept his eyes on the floor. His cheeks were hollow, his black eyes sunken…but sparking with animation;…Intense and continuous application of his work has sapped his energy until his friends say he has almost reached the point of dissolution. A gentleman who dined with him a week ago says he could scarcely make himself heard across the table, he was so worn out. He has glossy black hair parted in the middle, a mustache, heavy under his aquiline nose, but fading to a suggestion at the sides of his mouth…his ears are large and stand out from his head. Tesla, ever the dandy, wore a neat four-button cutaway suit of brownish gray.” Gray said to a rousing applause: “I give you the Wizard of Physics, Nikola Tesla.”
“I have with great reluctance accepted these compliments, because I had no right to interrupt the flow of speech of our chairman,” Tesla said. Appearing somewhat like a resurrected cadaver, Tesla spoke to allay the fears of all those concerned for his frail health. “A number of scientific men urged [a group of electricians] to deliver a lecture. A great many promised that they would come, [but] when the programme was sifted down I was the only healthy man left…and so I managed to take some of my apparatus…and give you a brief outline of some of my work.”
The dry-sounding topic: “Mechanical and Electrical Oscillators” was anything but.
The oscillators, he demonstrated, could generate “very precise frequencies that could be used to transmit information or electrical energy. When the oscillator was pulsating at the frequency of light, he could manifest luminescence as well. And mechanically he could create [and send precisely oscillating] pulsations through metal bars, or pipes, and test for harmonic frequencies and standing waves.”
Then, came the show.
There doesn’t appear to be a transcript of Tesla’s presentation (or at least not one that I can find), but based on the equipment used it seems to be a kind of greatest hits performance of his lectures in England and Europe: He brought out his early motors, his oscillating transformer, and an array of his new lamps.
In a small, darkened space dubbed a “Tesla room,” there was a display of early neon lights, and phosphorescent signs (forerunners of our modern fluorescent lights).
Over the entrance to this room was a sign reading “Westinghouse” that “emitted brilliant and startling miniature crackling lightning, followed by a thunderous boom that echoed throughout the noisy hall. Inside, above people’s heads could be seen “suspended two hard-rubber plates covered with tin foil. These were about fifteen feet apart, and served as terminals of the wires leading from the transformers. When the current was turned on, the vacuum bulbs or tubes [arrayed about the room], which had no wires connected to them … were made luminous…. Shown by Mr. Tesla in London about two years ago … they produced so much wonder and astonishment.”
These tube lamps—filled with noble gases and devoid of filaments—Tesla had hand-blown by glassmakers to say WELCOME ELECTRICIANS, and spell out names of notables like von Helmholtz, Faraday, Maxwell, and Franklin, as well as the name of his favourite Serbian poet, Jovan Zmaj Jovanovich. High-frequency currents that charged the atmosphere brought the gases to incandescence and made long fingers of white sparks dance across the flat, aluminum-covered surfaces of the conductor plates.
Tesla broke out his old spinning brass egg equipment, by which he’d demonstrated the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by polyphase currents. But, in light of the World’s Fair, he re-christened it “The Egg of Columbus.”
I found a YouTube video of a recreation of the Egg of Columbus and will include it in this week’s show notes.
He also riffed on this display by creating a second, similar exhibit that modelled Tesla’s theory of planetary motion.
In this experiment, one large and several small brass balls were used. When the field was energized, all the balls would begin spinning, with the large ones remaining in the center while the small ones revolved around, like moons about a planet, gradually spinning outward until they reached the outer guard rail, where they raced around and around like a roulette ball.
Even more impressive to the audience was Tesla’s manipulation of several vacuum bulbs, pivoted discs and other devices placed in all sorts of places around the hall and at considerable distances from the rotating field.
Tesla—ever the showman—would flip a switch to turn on the current and these balls and discs would seemingly come to life. The vacuum bulbs had inside them small metal discs that would spin anywhere in the hall once the current was live, no matter how far they were from the source.
With the forces of electricity and magnetism still largely a mystery to most people and still far from commonplace in American life, it proved an unforgettable spectacle.
Likewise, Tesla also used the wireless transmission of power to bust out his flaming sword trick, using ambient high-voltage, high-frequency alternating current to illuminate a wireless gas-discharge lamp held in his hand.
But his most spectacular trick—and the one that would rocket him to fame in the popular press—was the passing of electric current through his own body, without doing harm to himself.
Here again, our sources disagree: the Chicago Tribune—the most contemporary source—reports it was 250,000 volts. But a World’s Fair retrospective book published a year later says only 100,000 volts. Our modern day sources say between 200,000 and 250,000 volts. And of course Tesla’s first biographer, John J. O’Neill, reliably exaggerates the figure to a staggering 1 million volts—which, of course, I can only hear in the voice of Dr. Evil…
To the astonishment of those present (as well as the press covering the event), Tesla grabbed live electrical leads with his bare hand, enveloping his whole body in a dazzling nimbus of electric light. And he did this for several minutes, seemingly without any sign of distress.
This is interesting since on a PBS special about Tesla in 2018 they interviewed an electrical engineer who said he’d done this trick himself…and while it didn’t harm him, he did say that it hurt like hell.
There is a famous line drawing of Tesla performing this trick, and the effect can only be described as looking like a halo. If you’ve ever seen an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, well, the image of Tesla looks a bit like that, truthfully. I’ll put both pictures up on this week’s show notes so you can see what I mean.
Now, by making this comparison, please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting Tesla is divine, or a saint or the Second Coming or anything. You can find plenty of sites like that on the internet—this ain’t one of them.
I simply use the example because A) the two images have always struck me as visually similar, and B) to emphasize just what a spectacle this would have been for people who witnessed it first hand. They had just had years of Harold Brown’s and Thomas Edison’s propaganda telling them that alternating current was lethal in the smallest dose, and here was a man who looked to be on fire with electricity, but was unharmed.
Harold Brown had taken 2000 volts of A.C. and used it to kill. Tesla handled a thousand times or more voltage to educate and amuse.
The electricity didn’t hurt Tesla because he used extremely high-frequency current that only travelled along the surface of his skin, rather than penetrating through his body. He had discovered this trick during his long years of experimentation (though one wonders how badly he must have shocked himself and how often before he hit upon the magic voltages…)
Indeed, observant members of the audience would have noted the thick insulating cork soles of Tesla’s shoes, which prevented grounding. And whenever possible, while dealing with live current Tesla would keep one hand in his pocket. Electricity tends to use the shortest path to exit an object, so by keeping his hand in his pocket, Tesla ensured that if something should go catastrophically wrong any jolt of electricity would pass through his arm and down his body to the ground, rather than directly across his chest and through his heart. You might be severely burned or injured by a shock that exited through your leg or your foot and still survive—you could die from an arc that traversed the delicate electrical machine that is your beating heart.
Tesla released the machine leads and as the tongues of electricity subsided his brown suit continued to emit “fine glimmers or halos of splintered light.”
The audience leapt to its feet with applause.
Tesla returned home to New York, exhausted but triumphant.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition cost $25 million dollars to put on (that’s over $700 MILLION DOLLARS US in 2019 money), and it turned a $2.25 million profit (or just about $64 million dollars today). It hosted 60 thousand exhibitors, and in its brief six-month lifespan was visited by between 27 and 28 million people, including roughly one-quarter of all U.S. citizens. People came from around the world and from every corner of the nation and every walk of life to see the wonders of the fabled White City.
In scale and grandeur, it surpassed all previous world’s fairs. It became an enduring symbol of emerging American Exceptionalism, and a harbinger of the American Century that was to come in just a few short years, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 had been a touchstone for the Victorian era in the United Kingdom and a British Empire on which the sun never set.
However, as with any great party, what follows is a killer hangover.
In this case, once the World’s Fair was over, the harsh reality of the Panic of 1893—held at bay in Chicago for so many months by the influx of tourists and their money—finally set in.
Come November Chicago banks began to fail. So did railroads. Hundred of businesses shuttered themselves.
Even during the Fair, its commissioners were not unaware of the pain elsewhere and realized in retrospect just what a favour George Westinghouse had done them in low-bidding General Electric and saving them $500,000 that would have been very hard to part with if they’d known a panic was coming.
As a sign of their on-going gratitude, the commissioners always ensured that Westinghouse of all their creditors got paid first, and in full. Francis Leupp writes, “When the panic was passing through its most acute stage, and the banks were refusing to cash checks because they had nothing to cash them with, the treasury of the Fair handed over … to Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company large quantities of dollars and half-dollars and quarters, which were shipped directly to Pittsburgh, and used to pay off the workmen in the shops at a time when currency was commanding five percent premium.”
To everyone’s surprise and delight, the Westinghouse Electric Company actually turned a small profit of $19,000 (about $533,000 dollars today) on its fair contract. But the positive publicity for A.C. electricity was, as Westinghouse had anticipated, incalculable.
Two days before the end of the Fair, the city’s beloved four-term mayor, Carter Henry Harrison Sr., met with a caller in the front hall of home (you could just knock on a politician’s door back then and get in to see them). The visitor was a disgruntled (and likely delusional) young man who thought he was owed a job by the recently re-elected mayor. In his delusional fury, this young man—Patrick Eugene Prendergast—shot the mayor to death, right there in his front hall.
As a result, the closing ceremonies for the World’s Fair were cancelled, replaced instead by a public memorial service.
It seemed an omen of things to come.
When Chicago reporter Ray Stannard Baker stopped in late at City Hall one night, he was stunned to find every inch of the cold stone floor space covered by men sleeping on newspapers, their wet, worn shoes serving as pillows.
Chicago had seen the heights of what Gilded Age America could offer in the glory that was the World’s Fair. Now, it saw the depths of what Gilded Age America could offer, too.
In his book The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson calls the World’s Columbian Exposition “the fair that changed America,” and he’s right, so I now quote his book extensively:
The Fair change the way Americans perceived their cities and architecture. It led a whole generation of Americans to think of cities in ways they never had before. Americans began to look at their architecture for beauty and nobility, not just mere pragmatism and functionality (which I personally think was probably the Puritan influence in early American culture manifesting itself). The White City taught people that cities did not have to be dark, dirty, or unsafe.
Nearly every American town of any size has a bank or a library or Post Office in whose design can be found echoes of the White City, and its Greco-Roman columns and marble columns. Even the Lincoln Memorial in Washington can trace its heritage to the Fair.
The White City inspired the City Beautiful movement, which sought to elevate American cities to the level of the great European cities. Fair architect Daniel H. Burnham was asked to design other cities and became the father of modern city planning. The White City’s principles can be found in Burnham’s citywide plans for Cleveland, San Francisco, and Manila.
He also led the turn of the century effort to resuscitate and expand the plan for Washington DC. As part of this New Washington plan, Burnham persuaded the head of the Pennsylvania railroad to remove his freight tracks and depot from the center of the federal mall, thus creating the unobstructed green that extends today from the Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial.
Over the years many aspects of Burnham’s plan for Chicago were also adopted, among them the creation of the city’s lakefront parks and Michigan Avenue’s magnificent mile. One portion of the lakefront, named Burnham Park in his honour, contains Soldier Field and the Field Museum, which Burnham designed. I’ve been to the Field Museum—and it’s amazing.
Culturally, too, the Fair changed America.
Walt Disney’s father Elias helped build the White City. Walt’s Magic Kingdom is a direct descendant. The Disney family made so much money from the White City that when their 3rd son was born that year, Elias wanted to name him Columbus. His wife intervened, and the baby was named Roy, instead. Walt followed in December 1901.
Wizard of Oz author Frank L Baum and his artist partner William Wallace Denslow visited the Fair and were so enthralled they used it as inspiration for the Emerald City in his Wizard of Oz book series. I personally also wonder whether the essential fakeness of the great buildings—remember they were merely temporary, covered in plaster and staff—had anything to do with the essential fakeness that Dorothy and her companions uncover at the heart of the Emerald City… Just my own speculation.
The Japanese temple on the wooded island charmed Frank Lloyd Wright and influenced his designs.
President Harrison designated October 12 a national holiday, Columbus Day, which still serves as a 3 day weekend.
As mentioned, every carnival since 1893 has had a midway and a Ferris wheel.
Every grocery store still carries products that debuted at the exposition.
And, most importantly for our story, every house and building for 100 years has been lit by incandescent bulbs powered by alternating current, both of which proved themselves worthy of large scale use at the Fair.
The Fair was a decisive victory for Westinghouse and a turning point in the public’s perception of alternating current. In the year following the Fair, more than half of all new electrical devices ordered in the United States ran on alternating current, mainly due to Westinghouse’s success and the superior performance of Tesla’s induction motor at the exhibition.
Okay. So, there you have it. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. A longer episode than usual—both to write and listen to. But I hope you see just how big and impactful the Fair was for America and for the history of alternating current. This is where Tesla and Westinghouse really made a name for their system, and it set Tesla up for the fame that would follow for the next decade or so of his life.
Most of all, I hope you found the Chicago World’s Fair as enjoyable as I do.
Next time…well, I’m not really sure what we’ll be talking about next time. I’ve been so consumed in trying to get this episode in the can that I haven’t really had a chance to plan ahead much.
We will either look at the next few years in Tesla’s life after the World’s Fair—momentous years for Tesla, for both good and ill—or we will jump right back into the War of the Currents as the race to harness Niagara Falls heats up. Let me get back into the research, and then I’ll see what makes the most sense.
Whatever happens, I promise it won’t take me as long to get the next episode going as it did this one. So, I will see you back here next month.
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It was the Fair That Changed America. And it was the chance for Tesla and Westinghouse to show the world the power of their AC system. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition made Tesla a household name and changed his life forever.
Westinghouse makes an 11th-hour bid to electrify the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with Tesla’s AC system and GE will do anything to torpedo the deal. Welcome to Thunderdome: two bids enter, one bid leaves…
Tesla’s trip to the Continent would take an emotional and physical toll that he couldn’t have imagined. But he nevertheless returned from Europe with the big idea that would dominate the rest of his career.
When his colleagues in the AC field start turning on him, Tesla uses an invitation to lecture in London to reassert his place as the inventor of the AC motor and to dazzle Victorian London with all-new discoveries.