Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Electric Wizard

On the 150th anniversary of the birth of brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla, Mark Pilkington explores the enigma of the man who lit up the world.

The Bird Man of Bryant Park

18 May 1917. As he had almost every day and night for the past several years, a middle-aged man strode into Bryant Park, a small green square behind New York City’s magnificent public library. Immaculately turned out as was his custom, his 6ft 2in [1.88m] frame, strikingly gaunt but always noble, was draped in a black tailcoat and trousers, topped by a black bowler hat. Beneath the coat, he sported a waistcoat, a crisp white shirt and a white bow tie. A brand new pair of grey suede gloves enclosed his unusually large hands and prominent thumbs, which clasped a cane and a brown paper bag full of breadcrumbs.

Within moments of his arrival, the pigeons were upon him, like iron filings surrounding a magnet. Smiling and murmuring to the cooing birds, the man stretched out his arms and disappeared under a flurry of grey and white wings. His avian reverie was short-lived, disturbed by the appearance of another man, also dressed in tails, who urgently bade him away.

Reluctantly, the bird man of Bryant Park shook himself free and dusted himself down. It was, after all, an important night for Nikola Tesla; he was to be awarded the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers’ (AIEE) Edison Medal, by the man who had come to find him, his old friend Dr Bernard A Behrend.

"Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night," declared Behrend in the presentation speech, borrowing from Alexander Pope’s epitaph to Newton. "God said, Let Tesla Be, and all was light." He went on: "Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle… His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science."

While it’s still possible to find modern histories of electricity that make no mention of Tesla, during his lifetime he was, alongside Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, the most celebrated inventor of the age. His polyphase system of Alternating Current (AC) remains the basis for transmitting electricity across power lines and drives induction motors – another Tesla design – in everything from CD players to submarines. Tesla is often credited with starting the "Second Industrial Revolution", but his genius touched on much more than just motors. His writings, patents and inventions included early models for radio, X-ray-emitting tubes, fluorescent lighting, robotics, radar, aircraft, missiles and, heading further out into the unknown, energy weapons, weather control and – his great dream – the wireless transmission of electricity.....


No comments: