“You know, some people are sure that you’re crazy. Others think you’re a faker. Now, both of those things could be true and you still could be some kind of a genius.” - Orson Welles as J.P. Morgan
At the turn of the last century, the world was aflutter with invention. As it was before the explosion of the atom bomb, scientists were glorified as prophets of modernity. They were portrayed as taming electricity and venturing into hitherto unknown realms. Countless names have been etched into the history books while hundreds more remain anonymous. They are the explorers that sailed away in search of far off lands or trade routes, never to be heard from again.
School kids still learn about Guglielmo Marconi being the “father of radio” and Thomas Edison being the father of just about everything elsefrom phonographs to movie cameras to the light bulb. Meanwhile, the life and work of Nikola Tesla remains enshrouded in mystery. Yet, Tesla had lain enough groundwork for wireless transmissions that the Supreme Court decided in 1943 that he had anticipated all subsequent patents for radio. Likewise, it was his system of alternating current that replaced Edison’s and is still in use today.
The reason for Tesla’s lack of prominence could be that along with the representations of scientist as savior came fearful portraits of the “mad scientist.” These visions were fueled by yellow journalists of the day. Headlines decried the fate of the common man in the face of these new discoveries, pondering if the implementation of electricity was an abomination. Moreover, while Tesla was quite a showman, he wasn’t necessarily media savvy, doing little to sway the perceptions of him not being entirely stable. If anything, Tesla was tailor made for the “mad scientist” role (he was even the model for Superman’s frequent nemesis in Max Fletcher’s cartoons of the 1940s).
In his series of autobiographical articles published by Electrical Experimenter magazine (Feb-Oct of 1919), Tesla often writes of his undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I contracted many strange likes, dislikes and habits, some of which I can trace to external impressions while others are unaccountable. I had a violent aversion against earrings of women but other ornaments, as bracelets, please me more or less according to design. I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house, it caused me the keenest discomfort. Even now, I am not insensible to some of these upsetting impulses. I counted the steps in my walks and calculated the cubical contents of soup plates, coffee cups and pieces of foodotherwise my meal was unenjoyable. All repeated acts or operations I performed had to be divisible by three and if I [missed] I felt impelled to do it all over again, even if it took hours.”
Another reason for Tesla’s anonymity could be that for all of his visionary ideas surrounding wireless technology and electricity, he had little to no fiscal reasoning. In fact, his plans for a world where energy flowed freely and was as free as the air threatened enough financial powers-that-be that Tesla’s test transmitters were dismantled by the U.S. government.
Unfortunately, Tesla’s teachings and ideas have been de-legitimized due to their adoption by cultists and/or conspiracy theorists. In a recent hodgepodge collection of works by and about the inventor, The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla, there are pieces tying Tesla to UFOs and the so-called “Pyramids of Mars.” True, several of Tesla’s ideas may still seem preternatural, especially his use of the ionosphere and the earth’s natural magnetism in order to “girdle the globe.” Yet, several of theories have since manifested into reality and experiments with the ionosphere continue.
Kristo Papic’s film The Secret of Nikola Tesla, is a Serbian-funded fictionalized account of Tesla’s fruitful years at the turn of the century. The film begins with a foreign-language voice-over and some documentary footage, including interviews with various scientific talking heads and some spooky spiritualists. Stalling the narrative even more is an odd bookend scene of an older Tesla being interviewed. This ineffectual device appears to place the inventor in a modern context despite his passing away in 1943.
Those points aside, at the core of The Secret of Nikola Tesla is a fairly well crafted recounting of the debate surrounding Tesla’s Alternating Current system and the established Direct Current method of Thomas Edison. Played by Dennis Patrick, Edison’s motivation behind rejecting Alternating Current is shown to be purely financial-it would mean having to rebuild his power plants at a considerable cost. Also at stake was the prestige and the financial gains of harnessing the natural power of Niagara Falls. Edison is shown playing the popular press by decrying Alternating Current as inherently dangerous“If I had my way, I’d have the damn thing prohibited by law.” He goes so far as stage a press conference where he electrocutes a dog to prove his point (in real life Edison didn’t stop with dogs).
Toying with these inventors is the powerful J.P. Morgan. The role of a puppet-master, remotely pulling the strings from his office and bed was highly suitable to Orson Welles. The rotund actor was a few years from his death and most likely unable to get around as well as he once was. Morgan is portrayed as ruthless and conniving while Tesla’s other financier, George Westinghouse (Strother Martin), acts like a philanthropical nitwit.
Starring Petar Bozovic, the young actor appears to do a fine job as Tesla despite his dubbed voice. The film does well to not sanctify Tesla. His shortcomings and oddities aren’t ignored. He stares off into space blankly during financial discussions. In a meeting with Westinghouse, Tesla requests twelve napkins to clean his silverware and nearly faints when peaches are brought to his table.
While the film is a good primer for information about the man once dubbed “The Modern Prometheus,” Papic’s work suffers from its attempt to summarize so many events in such a short period. The destruction of Tesla’s laboratory passes without note or a guess at the cause. There are several unexplained flashbacks that may have had voice-overs at one time along with at least one scene that is not translated.
For more information about Tesla, Papic’s footage is re-used and expanded upon to some degree in Craig Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum. There are also several books about the inventor available, including My Inventions, an autobiographical collection of magazine stories that is limited by Tesla’s narrow vision of self and overextended hope for the future. The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla is boring in its countless pages of schematics and his long-winded address to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (5/20/1891). It isn’t until the fifth chapter that things begin to get interesting with a reprint of Tesla’s article, “Transmission of Electrical Energy without Wires” from Electrical World and Engineer (3/5/04). However, apart from that, and some writing on a “death ray,” Tesla was said to be working on in 1934, the book is junk. The most authoritative look at Tesla’s life is Tesla: Man Out of Time (ISBN: 044039077X) by Margaret Cheney. Well-researched and comp-rehensive, Cheney’s book is currently out of print.