If Tesla Was a Man of our Time…
Colorado Springs has a special history with Nikola Tesla. While it is true he spent less than a year here, we feel a special kinship or affinity for him – hosting plaques, museums, and snippets of his history when it twines with ours.
His laboratory stood near the site of the Colorado Springs Deaf & Blind School. It’s a huge leap, but over a hundred years ago there was a large barn-like workshop there – one whose roof rolled backwards, and revealed an 80 foot tall wooden tower, from which extended a 142 foot metal mast capped with a copper ball. Though close to the foothills, building projects that tall were remarkable for the time period, and stood out as being especially curious.
Tesla was known to say he was born too early – a man ahead of his own time. (Margaret Cheney wrote a book about his personal and private life using those words – Tesla: Man Out of Time.) Infamous for being a thoughtful, internalizing man, he would spend hours pondering or struggling through problems; he would mentally experiment with potential projects and discard them on a regular basis. When he did write something down, it was either prolific personal musings and notes – such as his collection of notes from his time in Colorado Springs – or completed schematics and spec sheets for objects that once fabricated worked almost exactly as he had imagined them.
During his lifetime, he obtained over 500 global patents. At the time of his death, he still retained over 200 domestic and international ones – yet died in relative obscurity and poverty. His contributions to modern society are countless and recently becoming very well known. While not all of his patents, ideas, or theorems were original, his special ability to engineer and fine-tune them from being theoretical into practical science was his true gift. His forward-thinking ideas of things to come – robots, autonomous machines, remote controlled war, death rays, computers, guided missiles – sounded like science fiction back then but are accepted technologies today.
Tesla came to Colorado Springs for many reasons – primarily, two financial backers paid his way and purchased new equipment and land for him. In addition, they procured permission for his use of the power plant when the city draw was lowest. Nikola also theorized that the thinner air was more conductive to electricity and would facilitate his desire to send a wireless signal to Paris. While here, he theorized the air between the earth and the ionosphere vibrated at a specific frequency (8Hz) – which was verified in the 1950s. He deducted the earths ionosphere was superconductive (which it is), also validated after he had moved on to other ideas. His violent lightning experiments (which terrified people as far away as Cripple Creek), blowing a generator at the El Paso Power Plant – which he had to promise to repair before they would let him have access to power again – aside from these things, there isn’t much data or documentation on what Tesla did while here. His prolific notes were mostly philosophical in nature, not scientific. His most fascinating ‘discovery’ was receiving ‘a repeated signal’ from what he claimed was outer space.
There are many pop culture references to Tesla – my personal favorite is seeing David Bowie portray him in The Prestige (I’m a Bowie Fan, I’m a Tesla Fan; Bowie+Tesla=Winning). They are fascinating and amusing, interesting and thought-provoking; but what we truly know of Tesla is nowhere near as exotic. He believed in global peace through superior military might; he was a healthy man who insisted on walking 8-10 miles a day, a vegetarian towards the end of his life – and he predicted that by the year 2100 the world would voluntarily choose to participate in eugenics, the selective breeding of progeny. He predicted flying cars by the 22nd century, as well – his image has become an inspiration in science fiction and steampunk universes alike. In fact, Tesla’s ‘mad scientist’ reputation seems to encourage the mystique – did the FBI truly confiscate all his ‘dangerous’ weapons documentation, and manage to get his earthquake machine and death ray to our military engineers? – and believers of things more far-flung into resurrecting his work and lines of research – did Venus actually send him a ‘wireless’ transmission all those years ago?
But, the world has changed since Tesla’s day – and while we still have robber barons of industry, those baron’s now wear corporate faces – Apple, Exxon, Wal-Mart, General Electric, Microsoft, IBM, Nestle, Chevron, etc. Strife in the Balkans, Bosnian Crisis, airplanes, sinking ships, two World Wars – one over an assassination in Serbia – Lenin, Hitler, evolution in schools, Hemingway… The list of world-shaping events that happened between 1901 and 2014 are numerous and varied in how they impacted our world; frankly I’m not sure today’s society would be any more ready for him, either. Plus, if we stumbled across some tall, spare ‘geek’ who was running around every possible webpage and social form of media (from LiveJournal to SnapChat) howling about FREE ELECTRICITY FOR EVERYONE I think that he, too, would disappear the way of the ‘revolutionary’ Wankel Rotary Engine or the Myt Engine.
In all reality, if Nikola Tesla was born within these last 30 years, it is very possible he would never have been able to develop into a contributor to technology or a scientist with a lab of any kind. The region he was born in has been war-torn many times since he left it – it’s possible his family might have been a casualty in any number of conflicts. As a child, Nikola would have fits of sensitivity to light, sound, and even what he called ’emotion’; modern mental health would attribute such behavior to a disorder like Aspergers. As he grew older it became obvious that he had trouble making friends or forming normal social relationships and was socially intimidated by women. This, combined with his repetitive behavior and obsession with specific problems or topics would have hinted at something closer to Autism. Modern people would point at his ability to speak 8 languages, perform complex mathematical problems in his head, engineer complex and ‘wondrous’ solutions that combined far-flung theories of mathematics, physics, and engineering together into functional experiments and consider him a savant. He was obsessed with the number three and must possess and touch things in triplicate; he hated the texture of hair and the shape of a pearls or spheres and any kind of jewelry in general – and according to Edison, he couldn’t interpret ‘American humor’. His problems sleeping more than a couple of hours and almost desperate obsession with germs coupled with a bizarre fascination with pigeons seems so idiosyncratic, it makes one wonder. The parallels between Tesla’s behavior and modern-day neuroses and syndromes is almost uncanny. Ultimately, if Nikola Tesla were alive today we would be faster to categorize him with those wearing aluminum foil hats and people like Raymond Babbitt then with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates – that is, if we even let him immigrate to America in the first place.
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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