SHOW NOTES: 029 – Towering Inferno (1895)

First things first: this is the very special Maury Povich video one of our listeners, Anthony, sent in!

And the other promised item was an article from The Economist sent in by listener Abe, about a New Zealand company working to transmit power wirelessly through the air. Click here to read all about their efforts.

Now then, back in Episode 26, before we detoured to witness the end of the War of the Currents for a couple of episodes, we watched Tesla become the darling of New York high society and spent time with him and his fancy new friends exploring his laboratory.

And, as 1895 dawns for Tesla, his lab is where we’ll spend most of our time this episode, too, looking at the momentous events of the first few months of the new year, all of which centre in one way or another around Tesla’s lab.

You’ll recall from the last few War of the Currents episodes, that Edward Dean Adams, the driving force behind the promotion of hydroelectric power at Niagara, relied on Tesla’s advice at a critical moment in 1893 when his company had to decide between using AC or DC for Niagara.

Now, a few years later and feeling like Tesla hadn’t steered him wrong, Adams visited Tesla lab at 33–35 South Fifth Ave. After seeing several demonstrations, Adams agreed to promote Tesla’s latest inventions, and together they launched the Nikola Tesla Company in February 1895.

So what would Adams have seen Tesla hard at work on?

In early 1895, Tesla was pursuing four main lines of research. One was his oscillator (his combination steam engine and electric generator), which Tesla regarded “as a practically perfected machine, but which of course, suggests many new lines of thought every day.” Second was his new wireless lighting system, while a third “was the transmission of intelligence any distance without wires.” And the fourth, according to Tesla, touched “on the nature of electricity.”

Since this new company was going to promote not only Tesla’s recent high-frequency patents but also those assigned earlier to Peck and Brown—remember them from Episode 10?—Adams and Tesla included Alfred Brown as a director in the company. In addition, they invited another Niagara promoter, JP Morgan’s lawyer William Rankine (who we met back in Episode 28), as well as Charles F. Coaney to serve as directors.

The Nikola Tesla Company planned to manufacture and sell machinery, generators, motors, and electrical apparatus, and the directors planned to issue $500,000 of stock to capitalize it (equivalent to $16.7 million dollars today).

If all the stock sold, Tesla’s share of the funds would have enabled him to develop his high-frequency inventions. But it still wouldn’t have been enough to manufacture anything on a commercial scale. So, despite the claim that the Nikola Tesla Company was going to manufacture electrical apparatus, it appears the plan was much more in line with the “patent, promote, sell” model that Peck and Brown had used back in the 1880s. This strategy had also worked for Tesla in the sale of the European rights to his motor patents in 1892.

The real goal of the company likely would have been that, once Tesla’s lighting system and oscillator had been perfected, then either the patents or the entire company could be sold. Not unlike a successful tech startup today that develops some clever app or digital service and then gets bought by Google, or Facebook, or Amazon.

I told you this era had a lot of similarities to our own.

Adams eventually invested about $100,000 in Tesla’s work for a controlling interest in “fourteen U.S. patents, many foreign patents,” and any future inventions which Tesla might conceive…but there were few other takers. Why not?

After all, Tesla apparently had half a dozen entirely new inventions in the works. Mechanical oscillators that might replace the steam engine. Electrical oscillators that were key to his system of fluorescent lighting, remote control, and his now secret work in wireless transmission. And there were more out-there ideas he’d mused about, including ozone production, cheap refrigeration, the cheap manufacture of liquid oxygen, and the manufacture of fertilizers and nitric acid from the air.

One factor: poor business conditions.

You’ll recall our discussion of the Panic of 1893 back in our episode on the Gilded Age. Well, that Panic led to a five-year-long recession in the United States. During the mid-1890s, neither the existing electrical manufacturers nor utility companies were especially profitable. There was no incentive for investors to take a chance on Tesla’s next-generation technology when the companies using the previous generation DC lighting or AC power generators weren’t earning any money.

A second factor holding back the success of the Nikola Tesla Company? Nikola Tesla himself.

Tesla’s ideas were all more or less still on the drawing board and he had gained his backers because of his track record in AC and because of the promise held by his various oscillators. But Tesla had a problem developing his ideas for commercial purposes after his initial burst of inspiration.

His biographer, W. Bernard Carlson, suggests this is due to the challenge of switching from divergent thinking— the fun stage where you come up with lots of ideas and designs—and moving to convergent thinking, in which you focus on perfecting the most promising version and making it reliable, efficient, and cost-effective.

For a mind like Tesla’s, convergent thinking was probably deadly boring.

“A notable faculty of Tesla’s mind is that of rushing intuition,” noted one reporter. “You begin to state a question or proposition to him and before you have half formulated it, he has suggested six ways of dealing with it and ten of getting around it.”

But in the mid-1890s, Tesla seems to have just given up on doing development work entirely.

Instead, he focused on the variety in his invention work.

In his lectures, he wouldn’t show just the best style of a lamp, he would show a dozen variations of various quality and potential. Every few months Tesla would invite reporters to his lab so they could write up his latest discovery. But rather than getting across the power of Tesla’s genius, the flightiness that came across in these articles scared off investors. They were worried—rightly, it turned out—that Tesla would never buckle down and get to the nitty-gritty of creating a marketable product.

And none of Tesla’s partners were in a position to rein him in. Peck had died unexpectedly in 1890, and while Brown was on the board of the company he didn’t get involved in Tesla’s inventions. Adams and Rankine were talented businessmen, but they were too busy with Niagara Falls to focus too hard on Tesla’s work back in Manhattan—and besides, they were finance guys and not experts in patent strategy or engineering who could steer Tesla’s technical work.

And, as if to double down on avoiding development work, when there was no investment interest in his wireless lighting system and his oscillator, instead of refocusing his efforts and doing the work to make them more efficient and thus more attractive to investors, Tesla decided instead to expand the scope of his plans: instead of a system to light a few rooms he would look to power the whole Earth instead.

See what I mean?

After spending several years entertaining visitors with his phosphorescent lamps and oscillating transformer, Tesla decided that these were little more than party tricks. “A system of [power] transmission, based on the same principle, was absolutely worthless,” he would later explain.

Tesla rejected the idea of transmitting power using electromagnetic waves through the ether or atmosphere for both practical and theoretical reasons.

Thinking about his experiments in which his transmitter was connected to both an antenna and to the ground, tesla understood two things to be happening during this setup: electromagnetic waves radiated out from the antenna and a current passed into the ground. But because the waves travelled into space in all directions and away from the receiver, Tesla was frustrated by the energy loss.

“That energy which goes out in the form of rays,” said Tesla “is unrecoverable, hopelessly lost. You can operate a little [receiving] instrument by catching a billionth part of it, but except this, all goes out into space never to return.” As a result of this inefficiency, Tesla didn’t see much point in exploring electromagnetic waves any further.

Instead, it was what happened when the current passed into the ground that intrigued Tesla.

Why not, wondered Tesla, have the transmitter send waves of current through the Earth to a receiver and then use electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere for the return circuit? By using the ground current in this way, Tesla believed more energy could be sent from the transmitter to the receiver.

In making this decision, Tesla was turning him back on the thinking of the other early wireless pioneers—Hertz, Lodge, and Marconi—who focused their efforts on transmitting electromagnetic waves through the air.

Just as Tesla had invented his AC motor by bucking the prevailing thinking, he looked to do the same with wireless power by inverting the roles played by electromagnetic waves and the ground current in his high-frequency apparatus. For Tesla, it was the ground current that should transmit energy and the electromagnetic waves which would serve as a simple return mechanism to complete the circuit. Tesla would later decide that the circuit was completed by assuming an electric current could be conducted through the upper atmosphere.

…Unfortunately, while such revolutionary thinking had led Tesla to great innovations in AC power they would not prove as successful when it came to wireless power transmission.

Tesla’s thinking here reveals itself as based on nineteenth-century practices in power and telegraphic engineering (which emphasized complete circuits) and not on the electromagnetic theory that had sprung from the work of James Clerk Maxwell.

You might recall back in Episode 17 we talked about how Tesla decided from time to time that major theories widely held to be accurate within the scientific community were wrong and that he, Tesla, was in the right. Now, this attitude is what drove Tesla to his greatest insights and innovations when he rejected the supposed impossibility of an AC motor and power system. But, it was to prove a fatal flaw and a reminder that scientists—and everyone else, really—should strive to remain humble and skeptical. Someone always knows more than you do.

Tesla’s experiments with Geissler tubes and his early neon lights made Telsa believe that the findings of Hertz and Maxwell about the nature of electromagnetic waves were in error. These incorrect conclusions he was setting himself on a path that would lead farther and farther away from core scientific consensus and down experimental paths that were doomed to failure.

“But Steve,” I can hear some of you say, “how can you claim that Tesla’s later work was doomed to failure? Maybe Maxwell was wrong and Tesla was right all along. Maybe it was just that Tesla never had the funding he needed to make his breakthrough, or maybe the government and the energy companies that are keeping his innovations secret because they don’t want us all to have free energy!”

How do I know? Well, let me ask you this: do you have a cellphone? Are you listening to this podcast on a smartphone or maybe through Bluetooth earbuds? Where do those devices get their signals to connect wirelessly to networks to make phone calls or download your favourite podcast about the life of Nikola Tesla? Is it through the ground? No. It’s through the air, using electromagnetic signals.

Congratulations, you’ve just helped prove Maxwell’s theory correct.

We know that Maxwell was right because the technology we have that is based on his foundation works, reliably. And, unfortunately, Tesla’s wireless system never did.

Maxwell was no slouch. His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for Einstein’s special relativity as well as quantum mechanics. Many physicists regard Maxwell as the 19th-century scientist having the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. Though he’s not nearly as well known outside the field, Maxwell’s contributions to science are considered by many physicists to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

And, unfortunately, it was the dawning of this new era in physics—the one that would revolutionize our world in the 20th Century—that Tesla was rejecting entirely by deciding that he was right and everyone else was wrong. These were the first steps down the wrong path…one that would dominate the rest of his career and the commitment to which would prevent him from ever achieving anything like the breakthroughs that he’d made in his early years in electrical engineering.

Tesla had realized for a number of years that the earth carried a charge, which is part of why he decided to utilize the planet itself as a carrier of electrical energy. If the earth was full of potential energy, he reasoned, it could be tapped in to and transmission lines would be superfluous.

Having decided to maximize the ground current and minimize the electromagnetic waves radiating from his apparatus, Tesla began to use a very large inducers and very small capacitors in his transmitting circuit, connecting them to the ground usually via the water-main system in order to determine the frequency of earth’s electrical charge.

In the first experiment with ground currents, Tesla used a tall, cone-shaped coil powered by a high-frequency current from an alternator and a bank of condensers. While one terminal of the coil was grounded, the other was left free in space. When the power was turned on, “purple streamers of electricity [were] thus elicited from the earth and [poured] out to the ambient air.”

But what caused this outpouring of electrical streamers? For Tesla, they were evidence that he was tapping the earth’s electricity.

As TC Martin wrote at the time: “if [Tesla] he has not yet actually determined the earth’s [precise] electrical charge, or ‘capacity,’ he has obtained striking effects which conclusively demonstrate that he has succeeded in disturbing it. [When his oscillations] are in harmony with the individual vibrations of the [earth], an intense vibration or surging will be obtained.”

Martin suggested—and it’s unclear whether this is his own imagination or something Tesla mused about—that once the Tesla device was perfected not only could information and power be transmitted but it might be used to modify the planet’s weather.

And he ended the article with something that Tesla definite did suggest as a possibility: that “Perchance, we shall ‘call up’ Mars in this way someday, the electrical charge of both planets being utilized as signals.”

More on the Martian connection in a later episode.

Tesla was now convinced that rather than simply sending a current from one point to another on the earth’s surface, might it be possible to transmit power by using resonance? By pumping electrical oscillations into the ground at the earth’s resonant frequency, Tesla thought he might be able to broadcast power around the entire planet.

Tesla believed that he would not need to pump huge amounts of electrical energy into the earth; only a small amount was needed, at the right frequency, to serve as the trigger, and the earth’s natural resonance would do the rest.

This belief harkened back to an experience from his childhood that we recounted way back in Episode 2: that when young Tesla and some friends were tromping out in the snowy mountains of his homeland, they took to rolling snowballs down the mountain and accidentally triggered an avalanche.

Witnessing this avalanche begin from such a small cause left a profound mark on Tesla and convinced him of the tremendous forces stored up in Nature that can be released by small triggering forces. The search for such triggers influenced many of his later experiments, including his quest for wireless energy through the resonance of the earth.

But in pursuing four lines of research at once, Tesla was wearing himself out. During a visit to his lab in March 1895 a reporter described Tesla with the following:

“I was a trifle shocked the first time I saw Nikola Tesla as he suddenly appeared before me _ and sank into a chair seemingly in a state of utter dejection. Tall, straight, gaunt, and sinewy of frame like a true Slav, with clear blue eyes and small, mobile mouth fringed with a boyish mustache, he looked younger than his thirty-seven years. But what arrested my attention chiefly at the moment was the pallid, drawn, and haggard appearance of the face. While scanning it closely I plainly read a tale of overwork and of tremendous mental strain that must soon reach the limits of human endurance.”

Tesla was aware excessive work was taking a toll on him—this was a repeating pattern with Tesla throughout his life: frantic exertion, followed by total physical collapse. But, as he explained to the reporter, he couldn’t stop working:

“These experiments of mine are so important, so beautiful, so fascinating, that I can hardly tear myself away from them to eat, and when I try to sleep I think about them constantly. I expect that I shall go on until I break down altogether.

And it was in this physical and mental state that Tesla suffered one of the great tragedies of his life.

At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 13, 1895, a fire broke out at 33–35 South Fifth Avenue (now West Broadway), near Bleecker Street, in the building containing Tesla’s laboratory.

Now, given all the electrical equipment in Tesla’s lab, you might expect that it was the sparks those devices threw off that set the building ablaze. That turns out not to be the case, however. The building’s night watchman said definitively that the fire started on the floors below Tesla’s lab.

Keen listeners might remember in Episode 26 I mentioned that on the floors below Tesla’s lab there was a dry-cleaner and either a pipe-cutting business or a steam-fitting manufacturer, depending on the source you consult. And I mentioned that this fact would be important later. Well. Now’s the time.

Because it was in the premises of one of these two businesses where the fire began. However, there’s debate as to which was the origin of the blaze.

One source suggests that the pipe-cutter had over time “saturated the loft building with oil, and “it burned like a tinder-box,” making the watchman’s buckets of water futile in trying to put out the blaze. It’s also possible, however, that the chemicals used by the dry cleaners could have been the culprit.

Marc J. Siefer says in his Tesla biography that some investigators intimated at the time that the night watchman himself may have been responsible, perhaps by smoking carelessly near oily rags.

Margaret Cheney says in her Tesla bio that it was a gas jet on the first floor that ignited the oil-soaked rags.

Whatever the cause and wherever the fire started, the results are not in dispute.

The fire gutted the six-story building and Tesla lost everything.

The fire was so intense that the whole loft building imploded, with the upper floors collapsing down on the lower. Tesla’s lab, which had been on the 4th floor was now suddenly on the second floor. O’Neill says that Tesla also had equipment on another floor of the building, but the inferno claimed it all.

Interestingly, Margaret Cheney suggests that one reason the fire burned so intensely might have been due to a supply of liquid oxygen—a highly flammable substance commonly used today as rocket fuel—contained in Tesla lab. As we mentioned earlier, one of Tesla’s research ideas at this time was a way to cheaply manufacture liquid oxygen, which had lucrative industrial applications. It’s unclear how far Tesla had progressed down this road of research or whether he ever manufactured any liquid oxygen, but it’s an interesting theory for the consuming fury of the blaze.

Or it could just be due to oil-soaked timbers and dry-cleaning chemicals.

Without hope of saving the building, all the firefighters—who battled the blaze for three hours—could do was prevent the flames spreading to an adjacent box factory and the nearby elevated railroad.

As dawn broke, the New York Sun reported, all that remained were “two tottering brick walls and the yawning jaws of a somber cavity aswim with black water and oil.”

“In a single night,” reported the New York Herald, “the fruits of ten years of toil and research were swept away. The web of a thousand wires which at his bidding thrilled with life had been twisted by fire into a tangled skein. Machines, to the perfection of which he gave all that was best of a master mind are now shapeless things, and vessels which contained the results of patient experiment are heaps of pot sherds.”

Fortunately, for once, Tesla had not been toiling away late at night working on some apparatus or he might have been trapped in the flames.

Instead, Tesla discovered what had happened only the next morning as he strolled down the street to work around 10am. Imagine the charred, smouldering wreck that greeted him.

“It cannot be true,” he repeated again and again as he paced before the spot where the building used to be. His fifteen employees stood by, dumbstruck. They had apparently been gathered for some time, but none had had the heart to fetch Tesla and break the news to him.

When a New York Times reporter approached him, Tesla waved him away, saying, “I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say? The work of half my lifetime, very nearly; all my mechanical instruments and scientific apparatus, that it has taken years to perfect, swept away in a fire that lasted only an hour or two. How can I estimate the loss in mere dollars and cents? Everything is gone. I must begin over again.”
Tesla staggered away.

“Utterly disheartened and broken in spirit, Nikola Tesla, one of the world’s greatest electricians, returned to his rooms in the Gerlach yesterday morning and took to his bed,” reported the New York Herald the next day. “He has not risen since. He lies there, half sleeping, half waking. He is completely prostrated.”

The fire and destruction of Tesla’s lab was worldwide news, highlighting both the personal and public significance.

Headlines read things like “Work of half a lifetime gone” and “Fruits of Genius Swept Away.” In London, the Electrical World reported Tesla’s physical collapse.

The magazine Current Literature said of Tesla’s loss, “To have all of his innumerable marvels swept away at one stroke is a calamity to the whole world as well as to himself.”

Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun, one of the most revered newspaper editors of his day, wrote in a special editorial the day of the fire:

“The destruction of Nikola Tesla’s workshop, with its wonderful contents, is something more than a private calamity. It is a misfortune to the whole world. It is not in any degree an exaggeration to say that the men living at this time who are more important to the human race than this young gentleman can be counted on the fingers of one hand; perhaps on the thumb of one hand.”

Tesla’s losses were total.

The major part of his fortune was invested in the apparatus in that building. And he carried no insurance on any of it.

But the monetary loss was secondary.

“The Tesla laboratory was, in a sense, a private museum,” T. C. Martin wrote. “The owner kept in it many souvenirs of bygone toil and experiment… Perhaps the most painful loss of all is the destruction of Mr. Tesla’s notes and papers. His memory is all right, and flashes on any experiment of the past with the revealing power of a search-light, but the time it will take for the inventor to recreate his ongoing investigations will also cost other experimenters years of sweat and pain.”

All his specially designed dynamos, oscillators, motors, vacuum bulbs, not to mention all his records, papers, correspondence, mementos, his World’s Fair exhibit–all gone. A real kick in the teeth was the fact that Tesla had just recently brought all his notes and papers, to the laboratory to start organizing them. Along with his apparatus, Tesla estimated he lost $80,000 to $100,000 in his own investment the apparatus in the laboratory—that’s between $2.6 and $3.3 million dollars today.

Far more costly, were the lost years of work, however.

Some of his apparatus existed in similar form elsewhere—his dynamos and oscillators and motors—but his newly developed wireless transmitters and receivers were unique and would all have to be completely rebuilt. As Tesla himself later said, a million dollars could not have compensated for the setbacks in his research. And that’s a million dollars in 1895 money…

Knowing his delicate mental state, Tesla’s friends were worried for his well-being. Robert and Katharine Johnson searched for Tesla around the city at his usual haunts, but to no avail.

An emotional letter from Katharine, written the day after the fire, finally reached Tesla some days later, probably at the Gerlach Hotel. She told of their search and the hope of consoling him in his “irreparable loss.”

“It seemed as if you too must have dissipated into thin air,” wrote Katherine. “Do let us see you again in the flesh that this awful thought may vanish,” she implored. “Today with the deepening realization of the meaning of this disaster and consequently with increasing anxiety for you, my dear friend, I am even poorer except in tears, and they cannot be sent in letters. Why will you not come to us now—perhaps we might help you, we have so much to give in sympathy.”

For his part, Tesla downplayed the fire at his lab in his 1918 brief biography, perhaps not wishing to dwell on past tragedy.

He described reaching “tensions of about 1,000,000 volts with my conical coil” with steady progress being made “until the destruction of my laboratory by fire in 1895, as may be judged from an article by T. C. Martin which appeared in the April number of the Century Magazine. This calamity set me back in many ways and most of that year had to be devoted to planning and reconstruction. However, as soon as circumstances permitted, I returned to the task.”

Next time, we’ll look at the remainder of 1895 and how Tesla began to return to the task and move on with his grand plan—bringing wireless power to the world—and how he kicked himself for missing out on a new discovery that he’d actually made years earlier.

SHOW NOTES: Episode 24 – Good Vibrations (1893)

Mark Twain in Tesla’s lab (1894). Note his dark suit. This is part of the first series of photos ever taken by florescent light, which were all taken in Tesla’s lab.
What if the Russian Revolution hadn’t happened? https://nyti.ms/2hKpZv1
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

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.