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Nikola Tesla played a powerful role in the electrical revolution that transformed life at the turn of the 20th century. Born to a Serbian family in Croatia, he studied engineering in Austria before immigrating to America in 1884. He arrived penniless in New York, and within a decade, rivaled Thomas Edison as a celebrity scientist. His inventions, patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and wireless communication. A new biography draws on original papers from Tesla’s private and public life to examine what, why and how he invented.
- W. Bernard Carlson Professor of science, technology, society and history at the University of Virginia; author of "Technology in World History" and "Innovation as a Social Process."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Tesla: Inventor Of The Electric Age” by W. Bernard Carlson. Copyright © 2013 by W. Bernard Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Inventor Nikola Tesla has been celebrated as a figure second only to Leonardo Da Vinci in his technological virtuosity. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius.
MS. SUSAN PAGEA new biography draws on original documents from Tesla's personal and public life to demystify the legend and illuminate his approach to invention. Author W. Bernard Carlson joins me in the studio. He is a professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia and his new book is titled "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age." Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. W. BERNARD CARLSONIt's great to be here.
PAGEWe invite our audience to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll free number, its 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So today is actually the 157th birthday of Nikola Tesla. Tell us about his birth.
CARLSONThat's right, today is his birthday. He was born at the stroke of midnight between the 9th and the 10th of July and he always celebrated the 10th as his birthday. When he was born there was a terrible thunderstorm with lightening and the midwife said to his mother, "He'll be a child of darkness." And his mother without missing a beat said, "No, he'll be a child of light."
PAGENow, that is such a perfect little anecdote. Do you think it's true?
CARLSONI think it's true. I think it reflects very clearly his mother and his mother's optimism and her enthusiasm for what was going to happen to her children.
PAGENow the subtitle of your book is "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age" and I wonder, would an advocate of Thomas Edison say no, Thomas Edison is the inventor of the electrical age?
CARLSONWell, I think that they were both equally important in the development of the electrical revolution that reshaped America in the late 19th century and in fact the newspapers at that time would often run stories where they would say, "interview the two wizards of electricity," and then they would proceed to ask Edison his opinion and they would ask Tesla what he thought and the two of them would often take very different sorts of approaches.
CARLSONAnd both of them were absolutely needed, in fact, there's an interesting Tesla-Edison rap video that was recently done and in that, of course, they basically have Edison and Tesla argue and go through sort of a duel and I actually wrote a little piece that I put on the "Daily Dot" about 10 days ago and the point I made is that for a successful economy like the American economy, you need both sorts of fellows.
CARLSONYou need inventors who can do the visionary thing, which Tesla was a master at, but you also need the people that can the hardheaded practical things and that was what Edison was good at. So we need both of them.
PAGESo he was working the 1890s. Why do you think there is, in this day and age, a rap video about a debate between Tesla and Edison given the passage of time and the remarkable inventions we've seen since then?
CARLSONWell, it's come about because I think that there is a strong current within popular culture that wants to recognize Tesla, the alternative to modern science and corporate capitalism and that people are very much interested in the fact that you could have high technology, you could have amazing things like distributing power wirelessly through the earth was Tesla's big idea at the end of his life and at the same time they don't want to necessarily get all tangled up in the, as I say, in the book, the rationality of capitalism and the rationality of modern science.
CARLSONIn other words they want to believe that that high technology could come about as a result of intuition, magic and the spirit. And Tesla played, in all of his interviews, to that sort of description of how he went about doing things.
PAGEHe was quite a character, tell us how his inventions changed the world.
CARLSONTesla had two, as I say, disruptive innovations. He worked on two really big things. The first one was the alternating current motor and he brought that out in 1888. He had worked on it for about 10 years and in bringing that invention out he basically allowed the electrical industry to move from being electric lighting to electric, light and power.
CARLSONIn other words, Edison's big contribution was the incandescent lamp and he built systems that were primarily oriented towards delivering lighting for your home, your business or your streets. And there was no good way to distribute lots and lots of power that you could use to run machines and factories or elevators and skyscrapers and Tesla delivered the motor that we still use today in order have power that we can enjoy in all sorts of situations.
PAGESo he's had kind of a revival now in interest. But if you read history books of the late 20th century, he's, I think, largely absent. Why was that?
CARLSONWell, he dies in 1943 and in 1943 he's basically impoverished. He's living very modestly in one or two rooms in a hotel in New York and there are no major companies that are named after him.
CARLSONWe have Consolidated Edison that delivers electric in New York, we have, if you go to England one of the major telecommunications company is Marconi Cable and Wireless but there is no, until the Tesla Motor Company came along and appropriated his name, there was no major company named after Tesla. So there was no corporate sponsor to continue to put forward his story and honor his legacy.
PAGESo if that's why he was forgotten, why has he been remembered now?
CARLSONHe's being remembered now because again, I think, people are fascinated by somebody who's a non-corporate character and somebody who basically tilted against the windmills of big business.
CARLSONRemember that Tesla takes on all of the different companies. This, I mentioned before that he had a big invention with the electric motor. His second big invention was an idea that he was going to develop wireless power. That we were going to be able to get rid of all the wires that we use to distribute electricity, to carry our telephones messages, even carry the Internet.
CARLSONAnd in many ways he was developing the next generation of electric distribution and in one fell swoop he was going to eliminate all of those other wired systems and we would have everything basically coming to us by just simply tapping into the ground and people are fascinated by this sort utopian bold vision that he was pursuing.
PAGEWell, not only a utopian vision, but it sounds, in many ways, pretty prescient.
CARLSONIt is in the sense that there are researchers at MIT and elsewhere that are really working still with the basic circuits that Tesla came up with and their vision is, in fact, there are products out there now that you can buy where you can basically, don't have to plug your cell in to charge it up.
CARLSONYou basically put it on a little tray and then basically you have a new back with a special coil in the back of your cell phone, there's a coil in the tray and the two charge each other up. And the vision is, is this you'll never take your cell phone out of your pocket or out of your purse, you'll just walk into your home or your office and the walls will have the coils and you will just charge up the phone because you're in the field of those coils.
PAGENow you've written quite a lengthy, substantial book here almost 500 pages. How long did it take you to work on this book?
CARLSONI had support from the Sone (sp?) Foundation and they have been very patient. They thought it would take me about three years to write this book and in reality it took me 15. And part of that was is I made an important decision early on which is that I was really going to try to understand Tesla's technology, how he did things, his method of invention and really be sure that I got all of those technical details right.
CARLSONAnd I often tell people, they sort of say, well, why didn't you focus a little bit more on his personality? It's like, well, would you want a biography of Picasso that doesn't talk about the paintings? So if you get a biography of an inventor you want to talk, you want to hear about his masterpieces. You want to know how he crafted those things.
PAGEAnd why did you want to do this book?
CARLSONWell, I studied the history of technology in the late 1970s at the University of Pennsylvania and while I was there my professor, Tom Hughes, basically pointed one day, sort of kind of the figurative story, he basically, we're in this seminar room and he sort of pointed to this fellow and he said, "You're going to do space history."
CARLSONAnd he pointed to the next one and he said, "You're going to do German electrification." And so on down the line, he got to the end and he said, "Well, you're going to do inventors." And so I've spent the last 30 years quite enjoyably studying inventors and their eccentricities but more importantly their methods and their styles.
CARLSONTesla in many ways was the Mount Everest of inventors and that is to say everybody knew his name in terms of, if you start talking about people in the history of technology and in the very next breath they say, "Well, Tesla's really important but he's crazy."
PAGEWas he crazy?
CARLSONNo. I spent a lot of time thinking about how did I want to make sense of his eccentricities, of his behaviors and the most helpful thing is I had a good friend who was a former professor of psychiatry and one weekend I was over visiting and he said, "Bring me something, send me something by email about what you're doing with Tesla."
CARLSONSo I sent him a little biography, you know, five, six pages. Then the next weekend he calls me and he says, "Come on over. We're going to have a glass of wine." So I go over and I said, "So what did you think of the little story?" And he said, "It's simple. The man suffered from depression and that he had incredible high energy days where he could do, he felt he probably could do anything."
CARLSONAnd then, of course, sadly he had the manic down days where he basically probably didn't leave his hotel room and I think that that explains a lot of the curious behaviors that people have instead tried to associate with OCD or any number of other ailments.
PAGEWhat were the peculiar behaviors that have caught peoples' attention?
CARLSONWell, in one of the biographies, they go on at some length and they sort of say that Tesla had a real phobia of germs and he to basically wear white gloves when he would go to dinner at Del Monaco's which at that time was the fanciest restaurant in New York.
CARLSONHe would also have to have right next to his silverware 18 napkins and every time he started with another course with a new spoon or a new fork he had to polish the spoon or the fork before he used it and, of course, then all of those would have to be taken away.
CARLSONAnd as he got older he became more and more of a vegetarian and had very peculiar ideas about what he should or should not eat. Now, I hasten to say that before you decide that this like OCD keep in mind that when he was a teenager he finished high school and he got a letter from his dad, his father, and it said, "Son, go out and go hunting."
CARLSONAnd his father was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church and a not big fan of hunting and what happened is, is he came home and he wound up getting cholera and so he became quite phobic about germs as a result of that.
PAGEWe're talking with W. Bernard Carlson. His new book is called "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls and questions, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about Nikola Tesla by his biographer W. Bernard Carlson. We’re going to take your calls in just a moment. First, tell us a little about his early life and how that may have affected the way he approached inventions.
CARLSONWhen he was a young fellow he had a very vivid imagination. And, in fact, he would have just terrible nightmares that he probably practically saw in three dimensions and they scared him terribly. And he really struggled with this when he was seven, eight, nine. When he was about ten or eleven he read a book by a Hungarian novelist that basically had a hero that was able to master and become a better person as a result of willpower.
CARLSONAnd so Tesla, instead of fighting these nightmares, began to shape and re-channel them in positive ways. And as a result he developed a very well highly disciplined visual imagination. And he was able to use that for the inventing process. In other words, he was, as he would like to say, a theoretical inventor. He would think about how he wanted to build a machine and he could visualize it probably right in front of his -- you know, more or less in front of his eyes and work on it up to a certain point. And then he would actually test it and develop it. So the childhood experience of having to get control of those night terrors was the making of him.
PAGENow, his father was not enthusiastic, I gather, about his career choice. What did his father want him to do?
CARLSONWell, if you were -- Tesla grew up in the borderland between the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empire and a portion that was today Croatia, but was then the military frontier of the Austrian empire. And in those days if you were a Serbian peasant living there, you really -- and you wanted to move up, you really had two choices. You either joined the Austro-Hungarian, like his grandfather did and one of his uncles did, or you were a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church.
CARLSONNow, of course, if your father is a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church, he wants you to follow in his footsteps. And this is underlined by the fact that his older brother who Tesla always claimed was probably even smarter than him, died in an accident in about -- when he was about 14 years old. And as a result the whole family's -- all the energy got focused on Tesla because now all of a sudden he was the first son.
PAGEYeah, we have actually someone who's posted a Tweet with that point asking "what affect did his brother's death have on Tesla's motivation and drive?" Did it change him as a person, do you think?
CARLSONI think it -- I'm not sure it was -- I'd say that it changed Tesla as a person. I think it changed the family dynamics and that all of a sudden the family had a very complicated -- his mother and father had a very complicated set of expectations for Tesla. In other words, he was supposed to do every bit as well as Dane or Daniel, the older brother who died. But at the same time they spent years grieving about Dane. And so were saying, well you'll never quite be as good as Dane. So it's set up some interesting family dynamics that I think Tesla always wrestled with.
PAGEYou know, I've been struck by how many prominent people who achieve great things have had a childhood tragedy often with a sibling that made them work harder or made them feel compelled to work harder.
CARLSONThe example that I often was thinking about when I was working on Tesla was -- is Alexander Graham Bell. He was actually the third son in his family. And he came from a series of actually -- his grandfather and his father were also named Alexander and they became prominent in their fields. And then son number one and son number two die of childhood illnesses. So the whole energy and the whole expectation of who's going to carry on the family legacy falls onto Alexander Graham Bell.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. Let's go first to Nathan. He's calling us from Kingsport, Tennessee. Nathan, you're on the air.
NATHANWell, thank you. I want to thank you first for writing this book. I can't wait to pick it up. I'm glad I tuned into this show while driving to Kingsport. You've already mentioned some things that I haven't heard, and I started researching Tesla I'd say about 28 years ago when the band in the '80s Tesla came out. And that was the first time I'd ever heard of Tesla.
NATHANI'd always been inundated in books through school. I was in about 8th or 9th grade at the time and always been inundated with Edison and books about Edison and reports about Edison from other students. And I started making sure I focused all my attention on Tesla and doing reports on him. And every time there was a different type of biography from grade to grade I always did it on Tesla. But this is -- I've already heard at least three things I haven't heard before about him.
PAGEWell, Nathan, that's great to hear. Thanks for your call.
CARLSONYes. That's really, you know, exciting because I did try to identify new materials and new stories about Tesla. I also tried to run down some of the myths and some of the things that often get repeated over and over again. And if they're true then I sort of say here's how they're true. And if they're not true I try to find things out. But what's kept you going for 28 years to, you know, pay attention to Tesla? I mean, clearly the band has done just fine but they've kind of come and gone. And -- but you're still a fan.
NATHANThey've gone but I've got children now. Both kids are going into the 9th grade this year. And for the past ten years I've been harping on them every time they see anything about Edison, oh let me teach you about Tesla. So -- especially when the motor company came out -- made them really research more and more of it. And they've gone into electrical backgrounds of their own into researching and tinkering with stuff because of that.
CARLSONOh, that's great.
PAGESo Nathan, thanks for your call. Nathan, a defender of Tesla against Edison. here's an emailer, Manual, who wants to talk about Tesla versus Marconi. He writes, "Why do we, to this day, have children educated about Marconi's invention of the wireless radio when the patent courts have reversed so many of the patents and they go to Tesla instead?" is that true?
CARLSONIn 1940 -- well, beginning in the 1930s the new deal administration under FDR initiated a series of cases where they basically looked into monopoly practices by a number of big companies, including RCA. And the court -- the case wound its way through the courts. And essentially the argument was made before the Supreme Court in 1944, 1945 -- the decision comes down in 1945 that RCA probably is an illegal monopoly. And the way that the lawyers do it is by basically showing that there were a number of inventors, including Tesla, that basically had patents that preceded Marconi's American patents.
CARLSONAnd so the Supreme Court didn't make a decision on the validity and the priority of the patents, but they basically said RCA is a monopoly and, you know, there is a problem with the Marconi patents.
PAGEAnd you talked about -- you thought -- you concluded that it's possible that he was suffering from depression. He came up with the idea of using electricity to pull himself out of depression. How did he come up with that idea and did it work?
CARLSONWell, we know that -- and still to this day, mental health professionals in cases of last resort often will use electroshock therapy in order -- and it does -- they don't necessarily know exactly how it works on the brain, but it's important and it's a vital therapy. I think what happened with Tesla is that after he develops the Tesla coil, the high frequency, high voltage transformer in 1891, he's doing various types of experiments. And I suspect that he accidentally electrocutes himself. And, fine, said, rather than feeling the pain it actually gives him an elevation in terms of his mind and spirit.
CARLSONWhere it really becomes an important issue for his health is in 1895 he suffered a terrible fire in his laboratory on south 5th avenue in New York City in Manhattan right on what is today the campus of New York University. And the entire laboratory was wiped out. And that put him, needless to say, into a terrible depression and a terrible funk. And the way he got over that was is he would give himself periodic shocks. And as a result it basically allowed him to overcome the depression and get back to work.
PAGEThere's that incredible iconic photograph of Tesla reading a book with this huge Tesla coil behind him. But it's, in a way, a phony picture you say.
CARLSONYes. It comes from the time when he was in Colorado Springs. In order to basically get ahead of Marconi -- Marconi is getting a lot of press coverage circa 1899. He sent a message -- Marconi's already sent a message across the English Channel from the French coast to the English coast, which is like 60 miles. People are beginning to predict that Marconi is going to, you know, be the lead guy in radio and wireless technologies. And Tesla decides, I better go to Colorado Springs and I better figure out how I'm actually going to build a big system.
CARLSONNow, while he's in Colorado Springs he has to -- he conducts a series of experiments. He's convinced that he can send power throughout the world but he needs a way to show people the amazing things that he's done in Colorado Springs. So he brings out a top photographer from New York. And the photographer works with Tesla in the middle of the winter. This is in mid December, 1899 and they take series of these photographs, about 50 in all, that show the high powered magnifying transmitter, the Tesla coil doing all sorts of things. And Tesla decides that we need to have a picture with a person in it.
CARLSONSo what they do is they're using glass plate negatives. And the first image that they take is they show Tesla calmly reading the book. And then he gets out of the way and they crank the machine up and the lightning bolts fly across the laboratory. And it looks like, you know, he's sitting there and the lightning bolts are going over his head. And he partly did it to give you a sense of the scale, the power of these machines that he was doing.
CARLSONAnd he had to because, remember, this is the first set of dramatic electrical invisible machines. And people were used to seeing giant steam engines and seeing them turn and sort of saying, oh my gosh, look at the size of that engine. And so we know it has a lot of power. So how would you know that these coils have the same amount of power, if not more?
PAGEHe was a great showman, as well as a gifted inventor.
CARLSONAbsolutely. And I think that -- I just recently reread, with pleasure, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. And what it reminded me was that Jobs and Tesla both understood how important it was to do the product rollout and to basically do it with smoke and -- you know, Jobs did it with smoke and mirrors and with just the right amount of fanfare and built to a crescendo. And Tesla did the same thing with his inventions. He wanted people to get excited. He wanted them to see great possibilities in them.
PAGEAnd you write that he talked about the balance or the tension even between the ideal and the illusion.
PAGEWhat did that mean?
CARLSONSo Tesla -- remember Tesla's father we talked about a moment ago, was a Serbian Orthodox priest. And one of the things that Tesla got out of his -- you know, his interactions with his father was something about the Orthodox theology. And in Orthodox theology there is a strong belief that everything in the world, both nature and manmade, has a logos, an underlying ideal principle. And it's an idea that comes from Plato's philosophy.
CARLSONAnd Tesla approached invention with the notion that what he had to do was to find that underlying principle, that ideal. And if you could understand that then you could build the perfect invention. And that was what he pursued. Now, the problem is while he could understand the ideal, ordinary average people, business people, customers, lawyers, patent agents didn't necessarily understand the ideal. So he had to tell you a story or give you a demonstration or get you to imagine the possibilities that came with the ideal.
CARLSONAnd in the book I call those illusions. Now he isn't being a trickster but he is using an illusion in the sense that it's an approximation of the idea. Of course there were people that thought he was a bit of a magician.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Richard's been really patient. He's calling us from Pittsburgh. Richard, you're on the air.
RICHARDOh, yes. Thank you very much. I'm an electrical engineer. Spent all my life in the power industry, but I started reading about Tesla when I -- and I’m not 80 years old by the way -- reading about Tesla when I was in high school, actually built a Tesla coil while I was in high school. And one of the stories about Tesla that's so fascinating in the books I read, he was trying to figure out how to make this alternating current motor.
CARLSONHe was sitting on a park bench and being religious, he saw Joshua's wheels spinning in the air. And that inspired him almost immediately to devise the induction motor using three-phase electricity which is the basis of practically all of our motors and actually all the big generators in power stations, the idea that three-phase rotating magnetic fields.
RICHARDAnd that brought him an association after he got rid of his association with Edison, who was somewhat of a showman and not much of an engineer, he collaborated with George -- Pittsburgh's George Westinghouse to build this first three-phase alternating current generator in Niagara Falls and the three-phase transmission lines which, in fact, are the basis of our electric grid. Not anything related to DC and it's still -- it's the world's system. Thank you very much.
PAGEHey Richard, thanks so much for giving us a call.
CARLSONI'm so glad that you brought up the point about three-phase power because all of the power that is distributed around the world is distributed by using two- or three-phase power. And that was an idea that was original to Tesla. Up to that point no one had ever actually thought about using alternating current using the three-phase power. And it really was a contribution that Tesla made. And I often show a slide at the end of a talk where you see all the lights around the world from a satellite. And I make the point, those lights are on because of three-phase power.
PAGELet's talk to Diville (sp?) calling us from Miami. Hi.
DIVILLELove this show by the way. I heard -- one of my friends told me something that he invented some device that could shake a building. Because they found, like, the perfect frequency. Is that true or a rumor?
CARLSONWell, when Tesla was in his 80s in the 1930s, he would tell some interesting stories at his birthday interview, which always took place on the 10th of July, the same day that we're, you know, doing this interview. And one of those interviews he talked about the fact that he had made a mechanical oscillator in the 1890s and that he had attached it to the steel frame of the building in which his laboratory was located. And that the -- as the story goes the little mechanical oscillator not only made the whole building shake but it made the entire neighborhood shake.
CARLSONAnd I have a feeling that -- I have two thoughts about this. One is, if there had been an artificial earthquake in downtown New York, it would've turned up in the newspapers somewhere. And I could never find, in all the newspapers I looked at, any reference to an earthquake in Manhattan in the 1890s. Then the other thing is the Myth Busters did a wonderful TV program, oh I guess about six or seven years ago, where they tried to repeat this experiment using an abandoned bridge -- a steel bridge.
CARLSONAnd they were able to get the bridge to shake but they couldn't get the ground surrounding this bridge to shake. So there's some question as to how much power you'd actually need to have this experiment come off. But it's a great story.
PAGEDiville, thanks so much for your call. Now, you can tell from the cover of his book that he's a handsome looking guy. Never married. How come?
CARLSONWell, he never married because, remember, we were talking a moment ago about contemplating the ideals, thinking about that exact perfect way of doing an invention. And he really took an approach that meant that he made choices throughout his life where he could concentrate and be, as he'd say, the receiving instrument for those ideals. And he felt that a marriage and family would get in the way of that.
CARLSONAt the same time, I think he's clearly very conflicted about his sexual identity. Throughout his life he has no -- he has only maybe one female friend, which is Katherine Johnson who is the wife of an editor who publishes one of his major articles in the early 1900s. But all of his friends and all of his close associates are male. And indeed, there's enough evidence that I was able to find that suggests that he probably liked boys more than he liked girls.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll go back to the phones, we'll read some of your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And in this hour we're talking about Nikola Tesla, inventor of the electrical age, with his biographer, W. Bernard Carlson. Here's a very interesting email from Robert. He writes, "I had the good fortune to know a scientist now deceased who knew Tesla when he was a young man. One of the areas of interest to Tesla was electromagnetic pollution. Do you have any information in your book about the Tesla watch which was created to shield living organisms at the cellular level from electromagnetic impulses that are different from the electromagnetic field of the earth?" I'm not sure I understand that question entirely, but there it is.
CARLSONWell, Robert, I'm glad that you brought that up. I'm afraid that I don't know as much about Tesla and his interests with electromagnetic pollution as I probably should. People have mentioned over the years that there is a Tesla watch or Tesla inspired watch that you can buy that works on somewhat different principles. One of the things that I think was of interest in the 1890s and continues to this day is electromagnetic waves were the first very major form of invisible radiation that people got to be thinking about. And they had to wrestle with this in the physics community in terms of having to develop an ether to come up with explanations as to the ether being the mode that the -- the media in which the waves were propagated.
CARLSONBut at the same time, they also thought that the waves might be related to spirits and the spirit world. And certainly there are people to this day that think that certain radio waves are associated with certain messages from the hereafter. And probably the watch is about, you know, putting us in touch with the good waves from the hereafter and protecting us from the bad waves.
PAGEWere you able to interview people -- you probably weren't able to interview people who knew Tesla. Did you interview people who knew people who knew Tesla?
CARLSONNo. I really made, again, a major choice early on, which is I built the book around print and documentary sources and looking at surviving artifacts and models. And that just happens to be more my strength.
PAGEAnd did you find things that had not been disclosed before, not been seen before included in previous biographies?
CARLSONYes. And that's really the thrill of the chase. You asked before why does a -- why does a nice guy like me tangle with something like Tesla for 15 years. And part of it is once you get into it, you're able to develop a degree of connoisseurship, a familiarity with things and you'll be able to make connections. One of my favorite stories that is new in the book is we often say, so J.P. Morgan gives Tesla $150,000 to build a laboratory out on the north shore of Long Island at Wardenclyffe. And Tesla goes and experiments there, but Tesla is essentially scooped by Marconi who sends the first Transatlantic message at the end of 1901.
CARLSONSo if you're Tesla and you've been scooped by Marconi, what do you tell the world's most powerful financier as to why he should keep investing in you and trust you? And what he actually comes up with is a variation of the worldwide web. Tesla basically writes a letter in January of 1902, six weeks after Marconi has done the Transatlantic signal, and he says, Mr. Morgan, what we're going to do is we're going to collect all the news, all the stock quotes, all the telephone messages, all the telegrams that people want to send, we're going to send them out to a place like Wardenclyffe and we're going to pump them into the earth.
CARLSONAnd we're going to broadcast them all over the world. And then people everywhere around the world will have a little receiver, no bigger than a pocket watch which they can then get the news or the messages that are specific to them. If he wasn't talking about a smart phone, Susan, I don't know what he was talking about.
PAGENow, we have a caller, Mark, calling us from Orlando who I think wants to talk about J.P. Morgan and that story. Mark, hi.
MARKHi. How are you doing?
MARKYeah, you know, I've also been reading Tesla stuff for the last 25 years and I've always been fascinated by him. What I was saying is I thought it would be interesting to talk a little bit more about the J.P. Morgan situation because part of the reason why Tesla came across is relatively obscure in the 20th century compared to Edison, was that J.P. Morgan backed Edison. And in such a vicious fight that he eventually forced Westinghouse to convince Tesla to give up his patents and his rights which would've led to huge payouts on the part of Westinghouse, which ultimately led to Tesla's poverty.
MARKWhereas Edison who's strongly backed led a viscous assault against Tesla, which, you know, ultimately made Edison more popular, but their rivalry throughout the earliest part of the 20th century kind of differentiated the two of them and set the stage, I think, for why we don't really know as much about him as we should.
PAGEYou know, it's great to get calls from listeners like Mark who are very interested in Tesla and have been reading about him themselves. What do you think about Mark's comments?
CARLSONWell, it's great that you've been, like a couple of the other callers, been falling Tesla for a number of years. And as you'll see in the book, one of the things that I had the opportunity to do was to look very carefully at a series of about 50, 60 letters that were exchanged between Tesla and Morgan, and to really understand their business dealings. And always remember that Morgan gives Tesla $150,000 to basically run with the wireless power idea in 1901, and essentially supports it for a number of years, and doesn't actually go after Tesla and say, you know, we're through, this is a big threat, I don't want to do this. He basically says, I don't want to put any more money in this because I'm not sure it's the right kind of investment for me to make.
PAGEMark, thanks very much for your call. Tell us about the Tesla science center at Wardenclyffe now.
CARLSONSo Tesla builds in 1901 with that money from Morgan a splendid brick building that is still standing. It was designed by the famous architect, Stanford White. And at that building Tesla also had a tower where he was able -- he was planning to pump energy into the earth and then use the tower as the return signal for -- or the return source for the entire system. And as we were just saying, Marconi first comes along in 1901 and basically steals Tesla's thunder and becomes the leading inventor in wireless technology.
CARLSONMorgan loses interest in the particular project and the building is then basically, you know, Tesla loses control of the building. He has to give it to somebody in order to pay his debts. And the building passes from hands to -- you know, from one company to another, but, because it's a solidly built building, survives into 2013. Well, in 2012 a group called the Wardenclyffe's Science Project went to work to basically raise money for the building. And they realized that if they didn't raise money by a certain point, the state of New York was going to basically take the building away from them and they would never be able to gain access to it.
CARLSONInto this story, we have to introduce Matthew Inman, also known as The Oatmeal who has a very popular online comic strip. And Matthew launched a kick starter campaign and within two weeks raised close to a million dollars in order to save the building and to get people all excited about Tesla again.
PAGEYeah, that's great. Now, he actually worked for Thomas Edison in New York for about six months. How did that come about?
CARLSONWhen Tesla basically is a young man, he goes to -- he goes to engineering school for a little while. And as one of our listeners told us, he had -- he basically dropped out of engineering school and he went to Budapest and there he had the insight that he was going to build a motor. And I think Tesla realized that if he was going to develop this motor that he could see in his mind's eye and his imagination, he was going to have to learn some practical electrical engineering. And there's no better way to do that then to get yourself associated with the various Edison companies that were growing up in major cities.
CARLSONSo Tesla gets himself hooked up with a telephone company that's going to install an Edison telephone in Budapest. He does well with that company. He goes to Paris. He learns some more things about electric lighting there. And he's so good in Paris that in 1884 his sponsor with the company, the manager, basically writes a letter to Edison and says, I'm sending this -- sending you this young fellow to New York. I know two great men in the world, you and this young man standing in front of you. It's got to the best letter of recommendation I've ever seen.
PAGEAnd did they -- how did the two men get along?
CARLSONWell, I think that the basic thing is Tesla was very junior engineer and basically had learned to keep to himself and to be quiet. And so he only talks to really Edison, the head man, once or twice in those sort of six months. And he's -- as Tesla tells it, and this is another new story in the book, is Tesla was out at Coney Island one day and Edison was there. And Tesla finally as a young man gets his nerve up and he is about to approach Edison and tell him all about alternating current and his ideas for the motor and so on and so forth, and a street person, a bum, sort of steps between Tesla and Edison and accosts Edison. And Tesla sees this as a sign that he was not supposed to tell Edison anything about alternating current. It's a great story.
PAGEYou know, here's the incredible thing about Tesla, or one of the incredible things, he arrived here penniless basically. He became America's foremost inventor a decade later. Although then ended penniless again.
CARLSONThat's right. It's an incredible rags to riches to rags story. And it really is -- it is a fascinating kind of drama of what happens to a hero-like character. That he basically has this incredible ten years from 1884 when he arrives in New York to 1894 where he's the toast of the town and he's seen as the really leading electrician, great in some -- for some people than Edison. And then he has this long, you know, this essentially decline so that by 1904 he's run out of money, he's irritated J.P. Morgan and he can't make his wireless power scheme in Long Island work and he has a nervous breakdown.
PAGEAnd so what do you think happened with him? I mean, why someone who had such great skills, why this terrible turn late in his life?
CARLSONWell, I think that essentially the issue is as we go back to the themes that I developed in the book of ideal and illusion. Tesla when he was able to focus on the ideal and work through that perfect idea and keep in mind that -- that he could keep in his own mind that the idea was here, but I have to tell people about the illusions in order to get them excited, get them to invest. And as long as I can keep those kind of in balance, I'm okay. As he gets older and he gets more deeply involved in, you know, circa 1900, in the wireless power scheme, he confuses the reality with the illusions.
CARLSONAnd he believes that if I've got J.P. Morgan backing me, I've got a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, I'm the best dressed man on Fifth Avenue in New York City, I'm dining in Delmonico's, you know, I sneeze the New York papers carry it, then the rest of the stuff is going to fall into place. And add to that, that unlike in the early part of the story where he had a great business partner who kept him grounded, he never had the same sort of sensible business guy that could've kind of pull on his coattails and say, you're going a little too far. This isn't going to work. We got to kind of rethink this.
CARLSONAnd sadly, so, you know, there's the psychology part, the first thing I said, and then there's the social part, which is he didn't have -- he didn't have the right kind of business partner.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Susan. She's calling us from Madison Heights, Va. Hi, Susan.
SUSANHello. And I want to thank you. I wish it's more timely. I'm a bau-biologist and I have been involved with Tesla for many, many years, because I'm also a naturopathic doctor. To answer a couple of -- a few callers from behind, yes, he was a genius who was not a good business person. He was actually inventor of the cell. He sold off all of the information to his patents, which later he was recognized against Marconi, who took it away from him for a while, to the government who privatized. So he's an individual coming from a very strange Slavic area into New York.
SUSANJust a side bar, a second, Edison really didn't invent the incandescent. It was his African American assistant, just like La Farge invented Tiffany glass and Tiffany had the sponsoring and the money. Tesla was a very interesting person because he wasn't interested in the money. Yes, he lived a great life in that time. And he did die in the New Yorker. And the reason why I know he died in New York was my parents honeymoon that same year that Tesla lived at the Hotel New Yorker on 34th and 8th Avenue.
PAGEAnd did they see him? Did they meet him?
SUSANI don't know. I don't know. I wasn't born then. But the interesting thing about Tesla and electromagnetic frequency and the impact is that his concerns were, he sold to the government who privatized something that is now as I, as a bau-biologist, and that's I-E-S-T, it's the German school of toxic energy, toxic waste, how it impacts on the human psyche, human body, he -- it is somewhat spiritual, but it's actually proven there's a difference between electromagnetic frequency and electric frequency. One has a straight bar. The other has a curved linear -- nonlinear bar.
PAGESusan, thank you so much for your call. What do you think about Susan's comments?
CARLSONI think the important -- the thing that I want to pick up on, and she had a lot of interesting things to tell us and things that, you know, folks want to probably follow-up on, is Tesla's ethnic background. Tesla for his generation of electrical engineers and prominent people in American business was one of the few Slavic or Eastern European people that made it to the top. And that always confused people because they were used to dealing with Germans and English people and French folks.
CARLSONAnd they weren't used to encountering somebody from an Eastern European background, from somebody who was from a Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox background. And, in fact, Tesla was asked at one point in those six months or so when he worked for Edison, that Edison walked up to him and said, so is it true that your parents were cannibals? And that just gives us a sense of the distance that people felt about Tesla's ethnic background.
PAGESo just before his death, he claimed he had perfected a death ray. Tell us about that. Did he?
CARLSONWell, in 1934, 1935, again, every -- after his 71st birthday, he every year would have a interview on the 10th of July and he'd bring in the reporters and he would always have a great story to tell them. And as one caller reminded us, he told the story about the artificial earthquake at one of those. And I apologize, I'd forgotten, it's the 1934, the 1935 interview, he walks in and he sort of says, right, don't worry about long range bombers attacking the United States, I've got it all worked out. And of course at this point the reporters are on the edge of their seats.
CARLSONAnd he says, what we're going to do is we're going to create a particle beam weapon and we're going to build essentially a giant Van de Graaff generator and we're going to make high voltages. And the high voltages are going to energize little, teeny, tiny particles of mercury that then will go out and hit the plane and, more importantly, hit the pilot, raise the pilot's temperature sufficiently high that his blood boils and the pilot dies and then the plane crashes.
CARLSONNow, there are any number of complicated problems with this particular thing. But remember, Tesla is a fellow that gets the vision, he gets the basic idea for these things. And he says, you know, somebody else, some other engineer, they'll work out the details. They'll figure out how you'd actually keep the beam of particles in focus, how you'd fully energize them, all of those little details. That wasn't Tesla's problem. But he did have an idea for a particle beam weapon.
PAGEBernie Carlson, thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show" to talk about your biography "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age."
CARLSONThanks so much. It's been great to be here.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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