If an inventor superhero league had formed at the turn of the 20th century, Nikola Tesla would have stood among them as a giant. His work on electricity and electromagnetic waves not only led to modern electrification, but also inspired more wild ideas, including wireless power stations and a particle beam weapon to shoot down airplanes.
Tesla shaped a modern world where the United States went from horse-drawn buggies and gas-lit houses to fast-moving cars and electrified cities. His showy displays of electricity's power before huge crowds also earned him the nickname of "wizard" in a time when mastery of science and technology could seem as fantastical as magic — and when scientists still studied supernatural phenomena such as haunted houses or communing with spirits at séances.
Newspapers of the time referred to both Tesla and fellow inventor Thomas Edison as "wizards" of the modern age. By contrast, today's storytellers have favored Tesla's ability to channel seemingly incredible occult or magical powers in films such as "The Prestige."
"What that plays on is that we want to see Edison as the early grounded, highly practical commercially minded inventor and that Tesla as the more intuitive, spiritually tuned in, person who is reaching for, discovering the secret forces of the universe," said Bernard Carlson, a professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia.
Visions and nightmares
Tesla may not have possessed the strength to bend a horseshoe with his bare hands like Leonardo da Vinci (the Renaissance man is starring as an action hero in two upcoming films). But he had a photographic memory and the imagination to envision the next generation of breakthrough ideas.
Born on July 10, 1856, to Serbian parents in Croatia, the inventor suffered from nightmares and flashes of light (unrelated to known diseases) that interfered with his vision in his early life. He eventually transformed such a curse into a gift of sorts by willing himself to control and shape his mind's wild impulses. A Hollywood scriptwriter might find such personal history irresistible in combination with Tesla's pop culture reputation for tapping occult or magical powers.
"He had a powerful imagination," Carlson told InnovationNewsDaily. "What drove him as an inventor was that he could imagine amazing things in his mind as an adolescent."
Tesla favored certain types of designs — such as coils or windings — as mental "building blocks" for his inventions. He also seemed willing to push forward with ideas once he got something working in his laboratory, rather than waiting to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, Carlson said.
Such imaginative visions worked out well when Tesla charmed lone newspaper reporters or dazzled entire crowds with his demonstrations. His rise to stardom followed a few years spent working for Edison in Europe and New York City before he split off and eventually joined forces with Edison's rival George Westinghouse.
Changing the world
Tesla developed an alternating current (AC) system — the foundation for our modern power grid capable of transmitting electricity across long distances and electrifying the world. His AC system eventually won out over Edison's direct current (DC) system in the "War of Currents" in the 1880s.
Westinghouse used Tesla's AC system to beat Edison and win a contract for powering electric exhibits at The Chicago World's Fair of 1893. A fictionalized Hollywood account of Tesla might easily find fertile ground in the World Fair's spectacle, as well as salacious side events such as serial killer H.H. Holmes luring World's Fair guests to his Chicago "Murder Castle."
Tesla's business strategy relied upon promoting his ideas and selling the patents to companies such as Westinghouse, Carlson said. That worked very well for a while, but eventually fell apart when financial panic and recession made investors wary of funding Tesla's next big idea — the possibility of transmitting wireless power through the Earth itself to anywhere in the world.
"It's a fabulous vision," Carlson said. "Unfortunately, the universe doesn't appear to work that way according to what we understand now."
The idea of the Earth conducting electricity across huge distances was scientifically flawed, but Tesla pressed ahead with experiments in Colorado and New York City. He convinced financier J.P. Morgan to fund his Wardenclyffe project on Long Island to demonstrate a worldwide system of wireless communication — a sneaky means to realize his dream for broadcasting electric power worldwide.
A tragic figure
The project ended when Morgan pulled out of the project and funding from other investors dried up. But Tesla's experiments and dreams of wireless power did perhaps herald the coming of today's technologies for charging smartphones and other gadgets wirelessly, or ideas for beaming solar power from space to Earth through microwaves or lasers.
"He was thinking about a new generation of technologies rather than incremental improvements," Carlson explained. "What happens is that we've never gone to a new generation of electric power techniques — we deliver power basically in the same way that people did it in 1895."
Tesla continued dreaming and offering up Hollywood-ready ideas such as a "peace ray" (called a "death ray" by the media) that could theoretically fire charged particles of mercury at warplanes. But the inventor's lonely death in 1943 marked the passing of the torch from inventors and tinkerers to the powerful institutions of modern science and engineering.
"His success was based on a cult of personality as opposed to a cult of articles and degrees and credentials," Carlson said. "He gets caught in a time warp."
Still, stories can — and have — conjured up happier alternatives for Tesla's life. In a fictional world, Tesla might have joined forces with fellow inventors such as Edison and Guglielmo Marconi (savior of Titanic survivors) to usher in a new age of technological wonder and fight shadowy forces seeking to twist new innovations for their own nefarious ends.
So what are you waiting for, Hollywood?
This is part of an InnovationNewsDaily series about the compelling aspects of various inventors' lives, personalities and inventions and the role they played in Hollywood, pop culture and the progress of society in general. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.
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