Nikola Who?

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International Tesla Society LogoInternational Tesla Society LogoIn suburban Lakeside on the outskirts of Richmond, sometimes the lights suddenly go out. Portable phones click dead in mid-conversation for no apparent reason. Answering machine tapes inexplicably are erased.

A high-pitched sound is heard on weekend afternoons. Like a banshee power saw, 110 shrieking decibels come from the mysterious building behind Robert L. Hull's house.

“If they knew what is going on over here...,” Hull says of his neighbors, pausing. “People are still very Frankensteinian in their knowledge of electricity. But nobody has come over here yet to string me up.”

On good days in his laboratory, when Hull jolts 13,000 watts of electricity into the wired coil tower, the needle in the power company meter beside his house spins recklessly and the envelope of scientific laws is pushed. On bad days, transformers catch fire, capacitors explode.

“I've set my lab on fire two or three times,” says Hull. “I've burned up two TV sets, one washing machine and two computers. The giant arcs go where they go.”

The device radiates so much energy, says Hull, 47, that it can surge into the house wiring like lightning finding an antenna, burning out light bulbs that aren't turned on. “You have to be careful when working in the higher power units,” warns the computer systems engineer who describes himself as “the spark plug” in founding the Tesla Coil Builders of Richmond five years ago.

In their off-work hours, Hull and other members tinker at high-energy research based on the ideas and inventions of a little-known turn-of-the-century scientist named Nikola Tesla — a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi who, unlike them, largely has been forgotten. Admitting that the group's fascination with Tesla is “pretty arcane,” Hull likens Tesla aficionados to “high-tech string collectors.” Except that there are more like them out there. More than you'd ever guess:

  • Outside Ann Arbor, a schoolteacher has waged a decade-long campaign to shame the Smithsonian Institution into recognizing Tesla's genius.
  • In Colorado Springs, a 3,000-member society dedicated to promoting Tesla and his methods prepares for an “extraordinary science” conference where basement inventors from around the nation will converge to demonstrate their gadgetry — much of it spinoffs of Tesla's designs.
  • A rock band from Sacramento performs its song “Edison's Medicine,” ripping America's best-known inventor for stealing Tesla's ideas. The group's name: Tesla.
  • Yugoslavia declared 1993 “The Year of Nikola Tesla.” A Serb born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla is honored as a Benjamin Franklin-type figure in the Balkans — despite his immigration to the United States. The year-long celebration was to focus attention on the man whose likeness decorates the Yugoslav 1,000 dinar bill but has been overshadowed by war and atrocities.
  • Last Christmas, the Barnes & Noble bookstore catalogue marketed for the first time a Tesla documentary made by the Tesla Memorial Society. Almost 2,000 copies have sold.

But who is Nikola Tesla? And why have so many people had nothing to say about him — until recently?

Whether the answer to that question is the real Revenge of the Nerds or the truest meaning of “science in the public interest,” for a growing subculture of Americans, the forgotten scientist named Tesla has become much more than a stumper in final “Jeopardy.” Increasingly, thousands of would-be inventors, technology buffs and friends of the underdog have plugged into an undercurrent of fanaticism that has tried to shed light on the life and achievements of a genius whose work quite literally lit up the 20th century — but whose identity has remained in the dark.

To his credit, the inventor who died penniless and possibly mad in 1943 predicted it would take society a century after he was gone to catch on to his ideas. This being the 50th anniversary of his death, there are those unwilling to wait another 50 years.

“Tesla was somewhat like the Mother Teresa of science.”

— J.W. McGinnis,
International Tesla Society

“Interest in Tesla has been increasing, particularly within the last year or so, and we're kind of a barometer of that,” says Bob Feuling, who owns the Tesla Book Co. in Chula Vista, Calif. Gross sales at the mail-order catalogue business have jumped 30 percent in each of the last two years.

The company's catalogue provides a clue to the disparate loyalties Tesla commands. In stock are his lectures, patents, correspondences and an autobiography. Several biographies are listed. So are titles on Tesla's “secrets” — weather engineering, electromagnetic grid systems, death-beam weaponry, Soviet Tesla-type weapons, UFO activities, and “zero point energy,” one of several euphemisms for the energy-producing equivalent of perpetual motion believed by Tesla disciples to be his greatest legacy.

“We sell to people who range from establishment scientists to people I would categorize as paranoid-schizophrenic,” says Feuling, 45.

The renewed interest? “A lack of complete trust in established institutions would be my best guess,” says Feuling. “The view is Tesla was ripped off by the establishment. Up until a few years ago, nobody heard of him. Now anti-establishment people view Tesla as their champion.”

In championing Tesla, even devotees admit romanticism runs rampant. But there are undeniable facts that deserve more than a cryptic footnote in the history of science. For example, Tesla did register more than 100 U.S. patents. His obituary in the New York Times calls him a “prolific inventor” and attributes to him the induction motor, dynamos, transformers, condensers and specialized coils that still are used in electrical equipment, from automobile ignitions to televisions. His research also contributed to some of the century's most dramatic breakthroughs, among them the electron microscope, fluorescent lighting, lasers, remote control, vertical take-off aircraft and X-rays.

Teslaphiles make much over Marconi getting credit for inventing the radio. Their hero actually invented more radio components; in 1943, six months after Tesla's death, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Marconi's radio patents, deciding that Tesla's had priority.

Perhaps his most important invention was the polyphase alternating current (AC) system, the one that produces the kind of electrical power found in wall sockets. And maybe that's where history turned ugly for Tesla: His AC system blew away the direct current (DC) system, the kind found in batteries, that was the baby of his rival, the greatest of American inventors according to history's interpretation — Edison.

But anonymity leaves room for embellishment. Talk to enough Teslaphiles and you hear about the mysterious “Philadelphia Experiment” in which giant Tesla coils produced intersecting electromagnetic fields causing a Navy vessel to disappear. You hear wild tales of “Star Wars” weaponry. You are told the man who was buddies with Samuel Clemens and knew FDR believed he once received a coded communique from intelligent life on Mars. Most often, you hear Tesla was cheated by history simply because he invented a system that would deliver nonpolluting energy to everyone, free-of-charge, and greedy industrialists could not allow that.

“Those things are almost impossible to verify,” says Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society in Alta Dena, Calif., and adjunct professor of the history of science at Occidental College. “It's like the story that there are carburetors out there that will get cars 150 to 200 miles per gallon, and the automobile and oil companies bury them.

“Tesla was always on the fringe and you have to be if you want to make progress. Einstein was on the fringe. But you also have to be right.”

In his book and PBS series, “The Mechanical Universe and Beyond,” California Institute of Technology physicist David L. Goodstein names Tesla in the same breath with Leonardo da Vinci as “a true saint of engineering.” Goodstein is no Tesla groupie, but he acknowledges the inventor “deserves substantial credit” for the world we live in.

“He's the epitome of the romantic hero — a downtrodden, ignored, unappreciated genius overpowered by the industrial machine of Edison,” says Goodstein, who believes there are no easy answers explaining history's blind spot regarding Tesla. “He has followers who want to give him credit for almost everything invented in the 20th century. And chances are Tesla will make a historical comeback.”

William H. Terbo's hunch is that Tesla's comeback may come for most Americans on the big screen. “There are three movie treatments floating around Hollywood,” says Tesla's grandnephew, dropping the names of Jack Nicholson and David Lynch.

Terbo says Tesla's popularity has grown since 1979, when he co-founded the Tesla Memorial Society, in Lackawanna, N.Y., near Niagara Falls where Tesla masterminded the first grand-scale hydropower system.

If there is anywhere where Tesla lore is on the tip of the tongue, Colorado Springs is it. Tesla came to its dry climate in 1899 to conduct experiments that often lit up the horizon with man-made lightning. One photograph of him here shows the inventor seated calmly in his laboratory with all electrical hell breaking loose around him.

Flashes of Tesla's brilliance still occasionally electrify Colorado Springs, where the cognoscenti are commonly referred to as “the Teslas.” Near the Tesla Museum on East Bijou is the International Tesla Society's headquarters and laboratory where high-voltage experiments burn bright. “We have wide doors here,” says J.W. McGinnis, 53, president of the society he identifies as the fastest growing grass roots science organization in the world. Five years ago, membership was in the low hundreds. Today it's upwards of 3,000 members in 22 countries. “But it's his purity of thought and consideration that sets him apart from most people,” says McGinnis. “Tesla was somewhat like the Mother Teresa of science.”

When McGinnis isn't toying with a Tesla coil that puts out a half-million volts, he's talking up the incredible promise of Tesla technology. The society operates a computer bulletin board dedicated to Tesla-talk and publishes a Tesla newsletter and a slick magazine called “Extraordinary Science.” The conference by the same name in July, he says, is “a put up or shut up affair” open to anyone to submit their inventions for review.

“Our membership wants answers to the problems we face in the delivery of safe, affordable energy ... ,” says McGinnis. “The only problem with Tesla's power was that it is free. That's why he has been suppressed.”

“Tesla was always on the fringe and you have to be if you to progress.”
—Michael Shermer,
Skeptics Society director

Marc Seifer believes there are other reasons why Americans don't know Nikola Tesla. A psychologist and handwriting analyst from Kingston, R.I., Seifer is coauthor of “Nikola Tesla: The Man Who Harnessed Niagara Falls,” a book written to introduce Tesla to youngsters. Two hundred copies of a screenplay he wrote are now making the rounds in Hollywood. And he's shopping around a 1,000-page manuscript, “Lost Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.”

Seifer's exhaustive investigation of Nikola Tesla started 15 years ago after he accidentally stumbled upon a Tesla reference and wondered why he'd never heard of him. He studied Tesla's patents and searched libraries and discovered that even books on alternating current didn't mention Tesla's name; only five of 13 textbooks on the history of invention mentioned Tesla. “What really blew my mind was that he was not just a hermit inventor holed up in the woods somewhere,” says Seifer, 45, “but rather he was world famous.”

To confirm Tesla's “disappearance,” in 1983, Seifer surveyed 80 incoming college freshmen and 89 electrical engineering students at three New England colleges. None of the liberal arts students and less than a third of the engineering students recognized Tesla's name.

Since then, using the Freedom of Information Act, Seifer has read between the lines of marked-out letters and documents obtained from government agencies ranging from the FBI to the National Archives. He has tried to interpret Tesla's state of mind through the years from the scribble in his personal letters. He's come to some conclusions.

Foremost is that Tesla is forgotten because he “bit off more than he could chew,” says Seifer, meaning he failed to finish or prove many of his inventions. When financier J.P. Morgan bankrolled Tesla to develop a wireless telephone that would operate over 10 miles, for instance, Tesla instead used the money to try to light the Paris Exposition of 1902 from giant towers on Long Island. And he failed.

“I think he would have succeeded with the wireless telephone if he hadn't tried to do more,” says Seifer. “And had he succeeded there, everyone would have known his name.”

Seifer also believes the theory that industrialists conspired to protect their territory from some of Tesla's inventions is credible. Tesla's casual connections with certain Germans and Soviets who were interested in his inventions may have played into the hands of McCarthyites, he adds, helping to erase his name.

Ten years ago, John W. Wagner was a schoolteacher doing his best to inspire third-graders at Bates Elementary in Dexter, Mich. He, too, came across a book on Tesla at his daughter's college library and was wowed by it. When he turned inside the back cover and found that in 38 years only eight students had borrowed the book, he started telling his students about the inventor. “Tesla could very easily become one of America's best and greatest folk heroes,” he says, “if only we could get the news out.”

For a decade, Wagner's students have honed their writing skills by corresponding with corporate executives, congressmen, anyone who might join their campaign to pressure the Smithsonian to honor Tesla with an appropriate exhibit.

At the National Museum of American History, Tesla is represented only by a photograph of a Tesla tower, and one AC motor and his name on two plaques. So in 1988, Wagner and his students commissioned a sculptor to make a bronze bust of Tesla, paid for by selling Tesla T-shirts. They offered it to the museum. The Smithsonian declined.

“In all honesty, we probably could have said more about Tesla,” admits Bernard S. Finn, curator of the National Museum of American History's division of electricity and modern physics. He argues there are many historical figures who've never gotten their due.

“It happens,” he says, adding that were it not for the troubles in Belgrade, he had planned to borrow Tesla artifacts from the Belgrade Museum. “The principal reason we have not done an exhibit on Tesla is that we don't have much to show,” he says. “Our program is not dictated on whether the subject is interesting or timely, but whether we can show something.”

Teslaphiles say that's just an excuse. They say if Tesla backers had big money like the Orkin Co., there'd be a Tesla exhibit now just as there is a pest control exhibit. “We're not talking about some screwball,” says Wagner, who — with his students — has collected 50,000 signatures petitioning the Smithsonian in Tesla's behalf. “I say give the poor man credit for what he did.”

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