The opening scene of Margaret Cheney’s Book, Tesla: Man Out of Time, describes Tesla leading his close friend, Mark Twain, and a few other acquaintances into his New York City laboratory at midnight for an overwhelming display of massive electric sparks that neither Twain nor the others had seen before, or even believed possible. Through midnight performances such as this, Tesla was able to fascinate and eventually join New York’s upper class. With his sense of fashion, his good looks, rumors of his revolutionary inventions and his penchant for poetic and visionary conversation, he attracted a great deal of attention among the women and capitalists of the Gilded Age.
Tesla enjoyed the attention and the socializing for its own sake but also, he hoped that by amplifying his persona of singular genius he could lure potential investors, such as Jacob Astor and J.P. Morgan. Tesla, though working continuously for days on end and sometimes incessantly for months at a time, found pockets of time to play the artist, the socialite, and to regale the media with visions of his imminent inventions. He seldom generated sufficient capital to carry out the experiments he envisioned but, nonetheless, during certain periods, Tesla was able to attract generous and not-so-generous investments from the barons in whose elite social gatherings he made sure to make appearances. He would come to rely almost completely on their investments, and to be mocked by his life long rival, Thomas Edison, for his repeated failures to capitalize on his inventions and to properly secure his own financial future.
No one at this time, no matter how fascinated by or supportive of Tesla, could have realized that in his secretive Manhattan laboratory he was constructing superconductors and transistors based on science beyond his peers: technology that would lead to the modern computer. No one, when he claimed he was picking up signals from Mars, could have understood that, right or wrong about Mars, Tesla’s imagination in regards to electromagnetic radiation would lead to the practices that define modern Astronomy. Tesla was never completely ridiculed or deemed irrelevant in his time, but he was, as Cheney asserts, truly ‘out of his time’ in the sense that the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was incapable of understanding the import of his ideas or the process by which he worked.
It is Tesla’s non-capitalistic approach that allowed him to make such huge scientific strides. While he relied on the Gilded Age Barons for investments, he did not have time for business ventures and even signed away his rights to collect royalties on his Alternating Current patents. While his life long rival, Edison ,was still waging a propaganda war against Tesla and his A.C. system in favor of his supremely inadequate Direct Current, Tesla had already moved on from his superior energy invention to research into ‘wireless’ technology (radio). While Edison was developing commercial ideas for laying electrical wire, Tesla was in Colorado Springs sending vibrations through the earth and creating lightning and thunder on mountain peaks. While Marconi was stealing Tesla’s patents to make small radio devices, Tesla was imagining a worldwide wireless network across which all information could be spread.
The American mind has often proved most imaginative in regards to money making, but Tesla, an immigrated Serb and naturalized U.S. Citizen, was free of the imaginative bounds imposed by greed and thus free from the limitations of his own time. He did not want to ‘invent’ in the Edisonian sense of merely creating new products for a profit. He wanted to make machines that tapped into the universe’s mysterious wonders and to utilize those forces to completely revolutionize the world. It is in this sense that Tesla, while equally as famous as Edison among their contemporaries, is less a part of the American Cultural History than Edison. Edison truly embodies the spirit of his time period, and his personal history is interwoven with the political and capitalistic history of our country. This history in which Edison is hero serves, for now, as our dominant History, and, unfortunately, this history seems largely to neglect Tesla and artists like him who aim to move the world forward with their imagination.
But this comparison of Edison to Tesla as pragmatist to visionary is often made and it does a great disservice to Tesla. Read this book and focus on the unceasing energy of his mind and imagination. Notice how his imagination is constantly flooded with the possibilities implied by his experiments with electricity and magnetism (among many other things). Notice how he is more than an inventor of machines; he is an unprecedented technological visionary who never ceases dreaming, (and “dreaming correctly” as one contemporary said of him), of the potential of science. Tesla lived, after all, during the time period when the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office was reported to have said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” He makes this comment before discovery of the electron, the television, robotic technology, x-rays, and computers, all of which Tesla is, in part, responsible for discovering. Like an artist, Tesla found his world unsatisfactory and with the optimism of an inventor he envisioned and played a significant part in creating an entirely different world.
Note: This book was recommended to me by Kevin Heaton, editor of this website.