The Currents
of Nikola Tesla
A CultureMap®
by Marjorie Killingsworth
Published on 7/10/13

The scientific breakthroughs of Serbian-born engineer Nikola Tesla, once one of the world’s foremost inventors, were among the most significant of the early 20th century. His introduction of alternating current for energy transmission surpassed Thomas Edison’s inefficient direct current model and transformed civic and industrial life. This CultureMap looks at the “War of Currents” Tesla waged with Edison, his “death ray” that could kill millions instantly and his abiding presence in popular culture.

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Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American engineer and inventor)
to  Thomas Edison  (1847–1931 | American scientist and inventor)

Fierce, antagonistic competitors, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison had very different backgrounds and methods of working. Edison was homeschooled; a prodigy, Tesla completed his secondary education early and studied electrical engineering at an Austrian university. Edison, a workhorse who learned by trial and error, said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Tesla had a deep understanding of natural science and was possibly a savant; it is said he had a photographic memory and could form detailed mental pictures of complex technological concepts.

The inventors met when Tesla arrived in America in 1884 (he became a citizen in 1891). Armed with a letter of introduction to Edison, Tesla began redesigning generators for Edison Machine Works. Their falling out began when Tesla requested the $50,000 Edison had promised for his work. Claiming his offer had been a joke, Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Tesla left Edison’s company but eventually bested his former employer in what came to be called the War of Currents, a competition for dominance in the electricity market.

Despite their contributions to science and technology, neither Tesla nor Edison won the Nobel Prize, apparently because the prize committee found their feud distasteful.

Thomas Edison  (1847–1931 | American scientist and inventor)
to  War of Currents

Direct current (DC) was initially the predominant mode of electrical transmission, despite a fundamental flaw: It loses power with distance from the generator, so a city would require scores of power plants. Thomas Edison held numerous patents relating to the transmission of DC electricity, and his royalties increased as the devices proliferated. Such considerations may have motivated Edison’s refusal to pursue alternating current (AC) electricity when Nikola Tesla suggested it during one of their earliest meetings. Through the use of transformers that alternate (step up and then step down) voltage, AC power lines can transport electricity at low cost across great distances.

In the late 1880s Edison responded to advancements in AC electricity by Tesla and businessman George Westinghouse by mounting a disinformation campaign to demonstrate AC’s dangers. In this War of Currents, as newspapers called it, Edison’s researchers set up high-voltage AC apparatuses to electrocute stray cats and dogs and, to reinforce how lethal AC could be, lobbied for its use in New York’s first electric chair. In 1896 the successful powering of the city of Buffalo with AC electricity harnessed from Niagara Falls proved Tesla’s system superior. Edison later admitted his greatest regret was ignoring Tesla’s early advice.

Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American engineer and inventor)
to  War of Currents

Nikola Tesla dreamed of an efficient alternating current (AC) model of electricity generation while a university student in Austria, earning jeers from one professor. Later, when Tesla was 24 and living in Budapest, a vision for his AC motor came “like a lightning flash” while he was reciting poetry in the park. Tesla continued, “In an instant I saw it all, and drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams which were illustrated in my fundamental patents.”

Thomas Edison was revered in America and his direct current (DC) method of electricity distribution was the standard until Tesla teamed with businessman George Westinghouse to develop an AC model. AC scored a major victory in what was called the War of Currents, when the Westinghouse Corporation won the contract to light the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The proposal it submitted using Tesla’s AC system was far cheaper than Edison’s DC proposal. Twenty-seven million visitors witnessed the power of AC at the world’s first all-electric fair. Westinghouse then earned a contract to extract electricity from Niagara Falls, a turning point in the War of Currents. Before long, DC generators nationwide were converted to AC, and Tesla had won the war.

Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American engineer and inventor)
to  Death Ray

Nikola Tesla was equal parts brilliant and strange. Full of odd superstitions (he would stay only in hotel rooms with a number divisible by three) and terrified of germs, jewelry and round objects, Tesla may have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. A flamboyant showman, he created breathtaking displays, such as an 1899 demonstration in which he illuminated 200 lightbulbs wirelessly from a source 20 miles distant. Among his many inventions was an electromechanical oscillator, which was dubbed the “earthquake machine” after he nearly took down a Manhattan building while testing it.

Despite brilliant accomplishments, Tesla came to be seen as something of a quack, if not a full-blown mad scientist. The announcement on his 78th birthday that he had invented a so-called death ray fueled this assessment. Of the electricity-based defensive weapon, Tesla claimed, “We can project destructive energy in threadlike beams as far as a telescope can discern an object…. Should you, say, send in 10,000 planes or an army of a million, the planes would be brought down instantly and the army destroyed.” Though the device was never built, upon Tesla’s death the FBI, leaving nothing to chance, confiscated his private scientific papers and classified them as top secret.

Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American engineer and inventor)
to  The Prestige  (Christopher Nolan (dir.) | film | 2006)

In the mystery thriller The Prestige, singer David Bowie portrays Nikola Tesla in a key supporting role. Set in late-19th-century London, the film features Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as rival magicians whose relationship in some ways parallels Tesla’s tortured competition with Thomas Edison. One scene (not based in fact) alludes to the Edison-Tesla feud when Edison’s minions are revealed to have burned Tesla’s lab in Colorado Springs to the ground.

Tesla enters The Prestige as the dueling magicians vie to best the other’s teleportation illusion. Magician Robert Angier (Jackman) blackmails his foe, Alfred Borden (Bale), into revealing the secret to his illusion. Borden gives him a single word: Tesla. Angier travels to Tesla’s lab, paying the scientist to construct a teleportation machine for him. Tesla complies but leaves Angier with an ominous warning: Do not let the device stay intact forever.

In an interview, director Christopher Nolan explained why Bowie was his only choice to play Tesla, saying the actor he wanted had to “present an extraordinarily charismatic and noticeable presence in the film. I wanted somebody who wasn’t a movie star, somebody who’s charismatic and had this sort of star quality in a slightly different way.”

The Prestige  (Christopher Nolan (dir.) | film | 2006)
to  Death Ray

Although the teleportation machine the character Nikola Tesla builds for magician Robert Angier in The Prestige is entirely fictional, it is consistent with some of the scientist’s more fantastic alleged inventions, including the death ray. Known also as the peace ray, the death ray was a defensive weapon conceived (but never built) by Tesla to shoot particle beams at several hundred times the speed of conventional weapons.

Although Tesla never performed a teleportation, a probably apocryphal incident said to have taken place in 1943, known as the Philadelphia experiment, evokes his invention in The Prestige. The experiment was supposedly a military test involving the electrical transformer circuits known as Tesla coils and the manipulation of electromagnetic fields. Versions of the story say this either rendered the USS Eldridge invisible or teleported it between Philadelphia and Norfolk. (The tale inspired the 1984 film The Philadelphia Experiment.)

Tesla’s role in The Prestige, while fictional, has historic resonance. Tall, dashing and impeccably dressed, Tesla reveled in performing feats with a magician’s flair before admiring audiences. These included sparks-flying demonstrations of the Tesla coil and his unveiling of a remote-controlled boat at Madison Square Garden in 1898, technology that had never been seen before.

Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American engineer and inventor)
to  The White Stripes  (1997–2011 | American alternative rock band)

Jack and Meg White of indie band the White Stripes star in the segment “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil” from director Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Possibly Nikola Tesla’s best-known innovation, the electrical transformer circuit called the Tesla coil has numerous applications stemming from its capacity to generate electricity of extremely high voltage—one can easily produce more than 1 million volts. Tesla coils create electric fields that can illuminate lights wirelessly, shoot arcs of electricity in fantastic displays, emit radio waves and create music. They can be built from household materials, and scientists and amateurs worldwide construct them.

In Coffee and Cigarettes Jack tries to get Meg interested by listing Tesla’s myriad accomplishments before showing her his homemade Tesla coil. The band also mentions Tesla in its song “Astro,” and Jack may be holding a bulb from a Tesla coil on the cover of the 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan. Two 1980s music groups also referenced the influential scientist: the new wave act OMD, with the song “Tesla Girls,” and the hard rock band Tesla. Coffee and Cigarettes director Jarmusch is also reportedly at work on a Tesla opera.