Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Lamentations of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was a genius, but a genius with a strong moral character and sense of loyalty and duty. What he wasn't was a good businessman. A recent immigre from the Balkans to the U.S., he assumed that people were as good as their word. In the person of Thomas Alva Edison, however, he found his sinister, dark, pathological identical twin.

We Americans love our heros. Edison was not only a genius, he was a shrewd businessman. But his treatment of Tesla was nothing short of despicable. In the documentary I watched last night from PBS, Master of Lightning, the hum between the lines became obvious that Edison was envious of Tesla's genius. Their feud over currents, DC (Edison) v. AC (Tesla) was the stuff of legend. Their showdown at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892-3), which Tesla won, is the stuff of epic drama. You can feel the pathology working in Edison's mind, as he strives to show people the dangers of AC current by electrocuting animals and finally human beings. Repulsive.

Tesla, the airy, disconnected, obsessive-compulsive idealist and dreamer, spent his early paydays on mature research and development, and ended up penniless. He'd signed his lucrative Westinghouse contract back over to the company during Westinghouse's financial rocky period. The AC motors he had patented, and which drove the industry of the world, had made billions for corporations, yet he was a pauper. Finally, Westinghouse granted him an allowance for food and lodging for the rest of his life. Ironically, exactly what he would have enjoyed in the communist/socialist state his homeland became. It is precisely this trenchant irony, which gives his story so much dramatic potential.

1 comment:

Steve Will said...

You intrigue me. Paul has often commented on Tesla. Now you. And there is a documentary I can see? I must do so.