Nikola Tesla - A Man Out of Time

more than a year ago
There’s nowadays little dispute about the fact that Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was one of the greatest inventors of all time, putting his personal stamp on the electrical age with his pioneering work on alternating current, electric lighting, x-rays and radio waves. However he is also one of the most ambiguous and enigmatic figures in modern science, working for years on projects which never yielded any results, or talking portentously of discoveries that he never got round to demonstrating. When he died in relative poverty (as a long-term resident of room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel), he wasn’t just celebrated as one of the defining scientists of the modern epoch, but also remembered as the archetypal nutty professor: a misunderstood genius; a near-recluse with strange habits; a frustrating figure who had made major breakthroughs early in his life only to disappoint later on.

The son of a Serbian Orthodox priest from the Lika village of Smiljan, Tesla has long been celebrated as one of the greatest figures to be born on Croatian soil, and it’s no surprise that there are several signs of his legacy in Zagreb. A statue of Tesla by Croatia’s greatest 20th-century sculptor Ivan Meštrović squats meditatively on the corner of Preradovićeva, providing a place of pilgrimage for visiting techno-geeks. The Technical Museum on Savska cesta carries its name and boasts the “Tesla Laboratory”, a display area detailing many of the man’s inventions. For the indefatigable Tesla-spotter, there’s a plaque on the wall of Zagreb’s Old Town Hall on Ćirilometodska in the Gornji Grad recalling the great scientist’s visit to the city on May 24 1892, when he proposed building a municipal power station based on alternating current - an offer that came to nothing at the time.

The ultimate in Tesla heritage experiences however is the trip to his native Smiljan, 205km southwest of Zagreb. It’s here that a complex of traditional buildings – including reconstructions of his father’s parish church and the house where the Tesla family lived – has been adapted to serve as the Nikola Tesla Memorial Centre. Located close to the Gospić exit of the Zagreb-Split motorway, it can quite feasibly be included in a one- or two-day tip the nearby Plitvice Lakes National Park. A visit to the centre offers the chance to enjoy a short documentary film about the inventor’s life, a words-and-pictures chronology covering his major contributions to science, and examples of his inventions in action – including plenty that’s of a hands-on, interactive nature. The centre also boasts one of Croatia’s most imaginative outdoor play-parks, with features designed to amuse a wide age-range of children. Smiljan is set in one of the most picturesque and unspoilt parts of Croatia, where rolling green hills alternate with semi-barren rocky plains.

Tesla only spent a small portion of his long life in Smiljan, attending school in Gospić from the age of 6, then going away to the secondary school in Karlovac at 14. He won a scholarship to study at Graz Polytechnic but the grant was withdrawn due to administrative boundary changes – Tesla took to gambling in the hope of winning additional funds, but ultimately had to leave the Polytechnic without ever finishing the course. He nevertheless found work as chief electrician in Budapest’s first telephone exchange, experience that won him subsequent employment with the Paris branch of the Edison Company. His thorough understanding of electric motors won him an invitation to work with Thomas Edison in New York. The two men did not get on, however; Edison famously offered Tesla $50,000 to re-design his electric generators, only to claim later that the deal had been an off-the-cuff joke. Tesla worked as a manual labourer in order to save up the funds to launch his own operation, the Tesla Electric Company, in 1887. It was Tesla’s pioneering work in alternating current – and the support of entrepreneur George Westinghouse – that provided him with his professional breakthrough. He used his alternating current system to provide electric power to a pavilion at the Chicago Fair in 1893; an electricity generating station using Tesla’s system went into operation at Niagara Falls three years later.
Tesla’s work on radio waves and the transmission of electrical energy enabled him to demonstrate a remote controlled model boat at Madison Square Garden in 1898. When Guglielmo Marconi made the first transatlantic radio transmission in 1901, he did so by building on many of Tesla’s innovations. Tesla set up a laboratory in Colorado Springs in 1899, where he conducted numerous experiments in generating high-voltage electricity, but by this stage he was already making a habit of squandering investors’ money in long-term research that yielded few practical results. The attempt to build a huge radio transmitter at Wardenclyffe outside New York was similarly inconclusive.

In 1915 Tesla was rumoured to have won the Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with Thomas Edison, but the Nobel committee appeared to change its mind and gave it to someone else instead. By this time Tesla was turning into the kind of eccentric scientist who was shrouded in mystique rather than real scientific success. He claimed to have invented a death ray but never divulged any of the details; and when he died in 1943 the FBI impounded his papers on the off chance that they might contain some world-shaking theoretical innovations. There is no evidence that they found anything of the sort; Tesla’s status as the ultimate misunderstood genius nevertheless continues to rise.

By Jonathan Bousfield



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