High Times Greats: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Nikola Tesla

Who was Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), and what did he invent? (Hint: It’s not the car.) Learn more about Tesla in this August, 1981 High Times article.
High Times Greats: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)
Nikola Tesla/ Wikimedia Commons

To commemorate Nikola Tesla’s death on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86, we’re republishing Michael Olshan’s article from the August, 1981 edition of High Times.


This is a story about a man who enjoyed few things in life more whole-heartedly than to pump thousands of volts of electric current through his body, with sizzling arcs of Technicolor lightning forking and clashing around him like all Frankenstein, causing banks of electric bulbs to flash on and off with every shake of his head, and causing steel plates to dissolve at the mere touch of his forefinger. This man for amusement would summon thunderbolts down out of the open sky; once he touched off an earthquake that nearly devastated New York City from the Bowery to the Brooklyn Bridge.

At the same time he was unable to shake hands with human beings—because he was scared to death of “germs.” His closest friends were nevertheless city pigeons, who nested by the score in any place where he lived. His name was Nikola Tesla. Someday his craziness may set us all free forever, or it might just kill us all.

Consider this compass, ladies and gentlemen. The needle always points north. That’s the secret, understand? It doesn’t do anything itself, it only points north. It does nothing itself, but something is being done to it, all the time. Anywhere you go in this world, this needle will always be made to point north, or south, if you happen to be on that side of the equator. If you point it in any other direction with your finger—like so, see?—something draws it back to northward. Everywhere you go, something works on this compass needle.

This thing that works, ladies and gentlemen—this power—is at work everywhere, all the time. It works everywhere, continuously forever and for nothing. For free! Free power, fools, do you understand it and what it means? It looks deceptively weak and simple here—a little magnetized needle, afloat on a cork in water, pointing simply but steadily to the north. But think! If we can tap into this power, it will be colossal beyond imagining, and everlasting, and totally free.

These are hard times, ladies and gentlemen. We are poor, desperately poor, and getting poorer all the time. But all around us we have this invisible power, free, if we will only tap into it. How should we beggar ourselves by ignoring this power, and impoverish our children yet unborn? Imbeciles! Lunatics! Can’t you see it’s free???

That was always Nikola Tesla’s problem. His energy was free, and so how then could it possibly find any buyers?

He couldn’t sell it in Europe, for sure. This Serbian engineer sustained his great, shattering energy intuition in his early 20s—a wonderful epiphany that occurred on a balmy pigeon-fluttering afternoon in a park in Budapest, Hungary when he was working for Continental Edison, formed by Old Tom of the same name back in New Jersey USA. While everyone at Continental Edison was properly thrilled by Tesla’s new concepts (as much of them as they could comprehend, anyway), no one there had the authority to put them into practice. They were, the simplest of them, horrendously revolutionary.

Take Mr. Edison’s cherished direct-current (DC) electronics system. With all due respect to the founder of Continental, this is a frustratingly limited and inefficient way to pump electrical energy along copper wires. If we must use copper wires, or wires at all (there are better ways, fools!), then why must we be hamstrung with direct current?

Observe how pitifully it works. We have to build and operate a separate generating station for every mile of DC wire, because that’s as far as you can pump electricity through copper wires with DC. And the generator itself! Disgraceful! Those horrid wire brushes spinning in metal drums, shedding all that horrible racket; those flaring sparks, heating until the brushes melt, that’s noise! Light! Heat! Power! It’s all power; and it’s being wasted right there in the bloody generator!

And the power that’s left is sluiced into the copper wires and pours down along them like water. Like water! God in heaven, are we working with 19th-century electronics or mere Archimedean hydraulics? Just like the tenants at the top floor of a tenement enjoy hardly any water pressure at all (hydraulics! Feh!), so also the people toward the one-mile limit of DC propulsion have dimmer lights that flicker wretchedly.

It would be so simple and economical to improve all this, improve it far beyond recognition. Merely close the DC rotor coils and energize them by magnetic induction! Stationary field coils carrying multiphase alternating current! Alternating current (AC), a cyclone of electromagnetism! Cheap, smooth, silent, sparkless, colossal electric power. So much power from one generator that you could feed it literally thousands of miles, all around the world. So much power that instead of building auxiliary generators every mile, you would have to build transformer units especially to step the current down, after you siphon it off the main feeder cable, so that it doesn’t short out every light bulb and icebox in the district. Would this not be a wonderful thing, so simple and so much better? If you must use wires at all, by God, sirs, this is how it ought to be done. Without those cursed wires, of course, you could merely…

Well, yes, Nikola, very illuminating. They promoted him to the Paris office of Continental Edison, and when they couldn’t keep a lid on him there, either, they bought him deck passage on a steamer to New York and then shipped him out in the fall of 1884, with letters of respectful recommendation to Old Tom himself. Typically of his life, somebody trotted off with all Tesla’s luggage at the Paris railroad terminal, and somebody else lifted his wallet. Only his photographic memory with his passage-ticket number indelibly imprinted on it, got him on the boat. On the way across, he blundered by absent-minded accident into a free-for-all among the crew members, complete with brass knucks and belaying pins. He cleared immigration at Battery Park in Manhattan with just four cents, a dramatic assortment of livid bruises decorating his dark and handsome features, and the very important communications to Mr. Edison in his pocket.

Alternating current would be a conspicuous savings for Old Tom, sure enough. Imagine: no more big complicated power stations for every single mile of Edison wire. A whole hell of a lot less work, by God, for all the contractors and construction workers of New York and New Jersey. Since Consolidated Edison, Inc., was then (and still is) one of the main contracting and construction companies in New York and New Jersey Old Tom was damned if he’d fool around with this newfangled AC booshwah. Terrible dangerous idea, Old Tom called it. All that electricity all over, trillions of volts maybe, terrible, terrible dangerous. Think of the children! Enough of ’em fried themselves dead every year on low-test, old-fashioned Edison DC. And now some crazy Serb wants to have trillions of volts sizzling all up and down the whole blame country? Unthinkable. Irresponsible. Obscene!

So Old Tom securely deep-sixed Nikola Tesla’s alternating-current proposal, and to keep an eye on him made him a company troubleshooter. Poor Tesla spent a year at it, conscientiously railroading all over the Con Ed system, going nights on end without sleep, haranguing plant foremen, hand-correcting shoddy repairs, and just generally studying the hell out of this Stone Age DC system.

Most of the time he spent on the drawing board, scribbling away feverishly. And presently he came to Old Tom with a sheaf of blueprints: improved generator designs, streamlined switching systems, efficient cable weave, the very best and most cost-efficient technology that could ever be designed for direct-current electronic transmission. Old Tom was hearty and generous: “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you if you can do it!” he guaranteed the kid, with a manly slap on the back, and a hearty American handshake that raised the hair on the back of Nikola’s neck.

So Nikola Tesla proceeded to put through the U.S. Patent Office no fewer than 24 applications for brilliant new dynamo designs and support systems. All were duly approved, in the name of Consolidated Edison, Inc. And when Nikola went to Old Tom for that 50K, Old Tom damn near threw out another hernia laughing. “Tesla, you don’t understand our American sense of humor!”

Nikola Tesla, of gentle European descent, certainly did not understand any such cheating, abominable thing. He had a most infernal sense of honor and decency, in fact. Before Old Tom could even get around to citing the drastically reduced sum he’d really meant to pay this troublemaking young Serb, he was astonished to see Tesla turn elegantly on his heel and stalk silently off the Con Ed premises, forever.

Hard times loomed.The railroads, the telegraph, and this rudimentary DC system had all been laid out, all over America, over a ten-year binge of industrial speculation and investment, but by the ’80s industrial capital was in short supply. The major investors and developers, like Edison and J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould and so on, were content now to assemble their assets, accumulate their coupons, and fight over what was left in vicious boardroom battles on Wall Street. Meanwhile, they weren’t hiring, so everyone was out of work. And they certainly weren’t buying ideas like this new AC nonsense of Tesla’s, which would complicate their profit taking intolerably by sparking a new binge of speculation and investment.

There was independent money around, though, if you lucked into it. By sheer luck, Nikola Tesla wound up in 1885 digging ditches in New York, on a labor squad directed by a foreman who happened to be an electronics-gadgetry nut. This crazy Serb, needless to say, just by leaning over his shovel and opening his mouth, could bedazzle an electronics-gadgetry nut for hours on end, company time. This foreman happened to have a little gelt salted away and so did some of his Long Island friends. And Nikola Tesla was a magnificent rapper, so long as you didn’t go aggressively shaking his hand, slapping his back, and insisting on direct eye contact throughout the conversation.

The Tesla Electric Company was duly set up, with minimal investor bread, on West Broadway and Bleecker Street, where SoHo now starts. It took Nikola only a few months to whip together a working model of an AC generator—though it took months more to get it through the bedazzled U.S. Patent Office, where the bedazzled officers insisted on seven different basic-concept blueprint designs for it. At the end of the first year, Nikola Tesla personally held 30 basic patents: motors, alternators, transformers and control systems for one-, two-and three-part AC transmitters. As he got deeper into it all, he began observing terrific new things about basic physics itself, things a person could never put down on a patent form.

He got rich, after a fashion, for a while. In 1888 he gave a historic speech on AC before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. One of the auditors was George Westinghouse, the erstwhile railroad whiz who’d invented the railroad air brake and gotten enormously rich. Recognizing pneumatics as a fairly dead-end field for industrial development, and having no vested interests in DC, Westinghouse was ready to plunge. The Gay ’90s were palpably in the wind now; there was the smell of new investments, new inventions everywhere. This 32-year-old Serb had clearly come up with a better mousetrap. Westinghouse gave him $1 million cash for the title to all his patents so far, and guaranteed him a $1 royalty—U.S. and foreign—for every unit of horsepower his system might generate.

Nikola Tesla’s salad days were brief, but magnificently overcivilized. Having a half million bucks in the bank (he very scrupulously split 50-50 with his investors), Nikola proceeded to take out a suite at the wonderful Waldorf-Astoria, crème de la creme of international hostelry. He appeared in the dining room promptly at eight each evening, in black tuxedo with crimson cummerbund, and ate alone at a private table.

Women were crazy about him, of course. This darkly handsome, sleek and burning-eyed genius, a millionaire at 32, unattached, mysterious, cultivated, continental, affable, eloquent, and just a trace obviously mad—he was so very altogether delicious, Sarah Bernhardt herself made disgracefully public overtures to him, to the delight of the Hearst scandalmongers.

It came to nothing but headlines. When Nikola Tesla died, it appears that he was as innocent of the so-called pleasures of the flesh as he’d been the day he was born—86 years of unrippled, unfrustrated celibacy. The belles of Manhattan gave up on him early, reluctantly but realistically. The man never spoke to anyone at the Waldorf until he had eaten, resolutely alone. While he ate, he generally had the waiter hand him about two dozen freshly starched and laundered linen handkerchiefs in succession. After dinner, in the main saloon, he was dependably captivating and loquacious, even fiery when it came to his revolutionary new physical technology—unless some aggressive investor or debutante came up and forcibly grabbed his hand and pumped it in introduction, whereupon poor Nikola would queasily excuse himself and spend ten minutes in the lavatory scrubbing each possibly contaminated finger with special antiseptic soap. And you only saw him in the early evening. The rest of the time, when civilized investors or debutantes were either dancing the night away or nursing the daylight hangovers, this crazy Serb was working on his draftboard, or in his electric company.

Nikola Tesla was, by any scale of sociability, a cold fish.

But just visit his Bleecker Street lab, and dear God what a display! No decent mad-scientist movie will ever be made without using the flashing, bursting, smashing, dazzling glass-and-steel electrical incunabula with which Nikola Tesla merely amused himself, to impress visitors and to kick the ass of old Tom Edison.

Edison, of course, was desperately filling the Hearst papers with scientific-sounding jeremiads about the certain and horrible consequences of this alternating-current witchcraft. Goddammit, it just produced too much juice, Old Tom wailed, the world wasn’t ready for it. “Just as certain as death,” he guaranteed the papers, “Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size.” To prove it, Edison got a lot of people physically killed, dead forever, with this newfangled Tesla-Westinghouse AC.

The first AC casualty was one William Kemmler. Kemmler had been duly convicted of chopping several people up with an ax and was sitting on Death Row at Sing-Sing, waiting remorsefully to be duly hanged, when Old Tom pressured the Auburn administrators into installing a primitive AC “humane execution” unit. The unit took the form, now archetypal, of a steel chair frame outfitted with a steel bonnet and leather shackles. Kemmler, uncomprehending but ready to pay for his crimes, duly sat down in it and was strapped in tight. Contrary to Old Tom’s prediction, the 10,000 or so volts of AC didn’t instantly put out all Kemmler’s interior lights; the amperage wasn’t nearly high enough. It took six successive jolts to put Kemmler entirely on the Yonder Side, by which time the Death House at Sing-Sing smelled like a Boy Scout barbecue. “I would rather see ten hangings’,’ the phsyician in attendance estimated, “than one execution like this.”

It was an equivocal demonstration of the lethality of the “Westinghouse current,” as Old Tom was calling it, but it caught on eventually and people are using it today to fry each other legally. With proper modifications, Edison showed the Hearst papers how you could fry live dogs, calves, and ultimately a horse. But it never got him anywhere. Inside ten years, Edison was renting AC from Westinghouse by the megawatt.

At least Old Tom had the cold comfort of knowing that none of the money he paid for Westinghouse juice was going to its abominated developer, Nikola Tesla. The impudent Serb had put on some stupendous stage shows at the height of the electric-chair controversy. This is where he would galvanize and disintegrate metal plates with his bare fingers, strobing and flaring magnificently in his tux and cummerbund, before awed thousands at the Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t the voltage, he’d solemnly explain in his lugubrious Lugosi accent, as thousands of volts flickered through his sleek black hair follicles, it was the amperage that put the kick in the juice. Then he’d hit an amp switch, and rainbows of sizzling electromagnetism would shoot up into the rafters, leaving folks blinking away the retinal afterimages for ten minutes.

The performances were so—well—electrifying, that the promoters of the very first World’s Fair, the Columbia Exposition in Chicago, 1893, picked the Westinghouse current for illumination, despite all Edison’s propaganda. Nikola did such an extravagant job of wiring the place up, George Westinghouse actually wound up slightly in the hole because of it. Or so he told Nikola, anyway. George’s creditors, he presently told Tesla with convincing trepidation, were about to call in his slips, but he didn’t personally have the collateral to cover them all. If they were to put the squeeze on him now, Westinghouse declared, that’d mean postponing a lot of grand new power projects, and abandoning others outright. Whereas, if George could only tell his money people that Nikola Tesla had handed over to Westinghouse all the royalty rights to AC horsepower produced in the USA…

‘Twas done. ‘Twas nothing. Ha! What were royalties, mere static pelf, to Nikola Tesla? If it meant forging ahead more quickly on the historic Niagara Falls hydroelectric project, why this crazy Serb would gladly pay hard cash out of his own pocket! So with a scratch of a pen on a piece of paper in George Westinghouse’s offices, with plenty of witnesses conveniently present, Nikola Tesla impatiently signed away a few-score million dollars in potential AC mazuma.

The Niagara project was a virtual mystical experience for Nikola. By 1895 he had, with his own hands, harnessed the most colossal natural source of concentrated hydraulic power in the United States and hitched it up to his own alternating-current electrodynamic grid. He even showed the foremen at Alcoa how most efficiently to use it to extract aluminum out of bauxite ore. When all the lights in Buffalo went on, in the homes of rich and poor alike, each glowing with equal brilliance thanks to Niagara Falls AC, it positively made Tesla feel like Prometheus Fire-Giver himself.

Hubris, it’s called. When humans take on the airs of the gods—even sweet, balmy young geniuses like Nikola Tesla—the gods get back to them presently and none too gently.

Even though, after that royalty giveaway to Westinghouse, Tesla’s income was now pretty much circumscribed by his personal bank account, he’d never accept a steady job from Westinghouse. He tried running the Pittsburgh operation for a while, but it was a ballocks. He found it impossible to teach, utterly impossible, but even the brightest engineers at Westinghouse were whole technological epochs behind him. “To do creative work” he kept protesting, “I must be completely free.”

So he cut loose, went back to his New York electric company and went broke in stupendous fashion. He was getting a little weird now; even weirder than before. “I look forward with absolute confidence to sending messages through the earth without wires. I also have great hopes of transmitting electrical force in the same way without waste.” He would free humanity of those stupid copper wires, if it was the last thing he did. “I must first ascertain exactly how many vibrations to the second are caused by disturbing the mass of electricity which the earth contains…”

He was talking wireless radio communications, of course, which we ordinarily associate with the name Marconi. For Tesla, though, this petty business of bouncing signal impulses up through the magnetosphere, from a land-based transmitter to a land-based receiver, was only prelude to some immensely grander notion about driving signals down into the earth itself and having them burst out elsewhere, immeasurably amplified.

But he was content to start from comparative scratch, with an upward-shooting transmitter on the roof of his electric company. The receiver he put on a boat, which he sent 25 miles up the Hudson to wait for the frequency beep. It never arrived. Typical of Tesla’s life, the lab somehow caught fire just then: all his equipment, models, notes, and a big bundle of hard cash up in smoke, with no insurance. Insurance?! Nikola Tesla had more important things to do with his money than haggle with insurance agents, those troglodytic slaves to Mammon.

An investor promptly came through with $40,000, quite properly. Wouldn’t you have put 40K on the man who’d wired Niagara Falls, Alcoa, and the whole city of Buffalo, and never asked for a farthing in royalties? After Nikola got through with that 40K, though, investors were very tough for him to come by, very tough indeed.

First of all, there was the embarrassing incident of this earthquake. Now, you can’t say this project didn’t work; in fact, it worked superbly beyond all reasonable expectations. It was the work of a madman, that’s all.

Nikola had built this grand new lab on West Houston Street, over by the Brooklyn Bridge, which was barely ten years old. Now, the ground in that part of town was sandy loam, so sandy that the bridge’s builders had had to lay in a Great Pyramid’s worth of solid limestone for foundation. The rest of lower Manhattan was largely sandy. Good, fine-grained, tightly packed sand. Very firm, but very friable. Resonant stuff, if you were to hit it just right.

Tesla set up a compressed-steel hammer, see, and set it to steadily tapping a metal template that went deep, deep into the Manhattan loam. He knew that soldiers on the march in long columns have to purposely break step any time they cross a bridge, lest the regular tramp-tramp-tramp of hobnails gradually disintegrate the bridge. Nikola had an intuition into the physics involved in this, and he used lower Manhattan to prove it.

Sure enough, the regular bash-bash-bash of Tesla’s hammer began generating shock waves among the subterranean sand particles. Through a receiving gimmick at the hammer site, Tesla’s engineers began recording a really phenomenal and steadily mounting input of rebound energy while the steel hammer just bashed away steadily, monotonously. By and by they were getting 5, 10, 15 times more energy back out of the ground than it took to run the hammer’s air compressor. Eureka! This was something better than perpetual motion! Just hook the hammer’s compressor up to a generator powered by this feedback gimmick and you’d have not just enough to run the hammer, but more left over to…

At about that point, the noise of sirens and shrieks began to become audible over the clamor of the compressor and the bash-bash-bash of the hammer. Nothing at all untoward was happening at Tesla’s lab, which was sort of ground zero for this phenomenon. However, every kilowatt of rebound energy he was picking up there represented just the detritus of the phenomenal energy exchange that was going on amongst the resonant sandy-loam particles of all lower Manhattan. In ever-expanding concentric circles around Tesla’s lab, the earth was reacting violently, rippling and hopping and bellowing like all the fiends in hell. Shingles were raining off the roofs, lamps were falling from the ceilings, and panicked horses were careening their carriages over the quaking cobblestones, casting passengers in every direction.

The police finally located the source of the calamity and burst into the Tesla Electric Company on West Houston. They got there just in time to see the inventor himself, like the very Sorcerer’s Apprentice, whaling frantically away at his air-compressor with a sledgehammer. Prometheus Fire-Giver was all well and good, but Nikola Tesla had no wish at all to be Poseidon Earth-Shaker.

He prudently left town to spend the rest of the 40K. This time he set up shop in Colorado, where a local power company guaranteed him all the wattage and wide-open space he could use. Since Tesla was never a teacher; a lot of the stuff he did there has never been suitably explained to this day. It still drives certain people crazy to think about it. Abandon hope, all ye techies who read further in this piece, for here there be Dragons.

It had to do with a 200-foot metal mast surmounted by a four-foot copper ball, dominating the lonesome Colorado prairie under Pike’s Peak. Below this pylon, in a shed, sat Tesla’s “magnifying transformer,” extruding a primary coil that wound about a 75-foot-diameter fence and stretched up aloft to make contact with the giant copper ball, or “electrode.”

No comic-book writer could ever do justice to the sound effects broadcast by that Godawful machine; the visual display would be a challenge to George Lucas. Tesla was casting lightning bolts as high as the Empire State Building, and that was just the stray skim-off from the 12 million volts he was able to pump through this baby continuously. When visitors wanted impressing, Nikola would put up in the night sky whole extended ballets of many-colored “globe lightning” He did this for kicks, and never bothered telling anybody how, which is a sorrowful thing, because physicists still don’t know what globe lightning is, or where it comes from.

He dispensed with wires at last. With his Pike’s Peak gimmick—which was only the demonstrator model—Tesla was presently lighting electric bulbs 25 miles away, no hands, no wires, nothing up the sleeves. And he was too busy to explain that one either, so it’s never been done since.

What he was so almighty busy with was geomagnetic phenomena. With his 200-foot, multimillion-volt transformer, Nikola was jamming megafixes of pure juice into Mother Earth, to see how much lightning he could call down out of God’s sky to restabilize the local electromagnetic setup. At least this was one part of what he was doing, as frantically as possible, while the money held out. His broader project had something to do with precisely measuring the exact wattage of potential resonance between the electricity within the earth and the electricity in the sky above it. He swore he did it, too, and knew exactly how to provide limitless free energy through manipulating it all.

Free, fools, free! Every home running its own electric lights. Every factory running its own machines. Things unheard of, undreamt of, things to make the heart soar, things to chill the guts with horror. And every megawatt of it free! Free forever!

In the meantime, there was the little matter of at least one meal every few days for Nikola Tesla, a roof over his head, a bed to sleep in. After FAAZAFT-ing away that $40,000 on an earthquake and some 200-foot-tall white elephant at Pike’s Peak, Nikola was flat broke. And no sane investor would answer his calls, either.

Well, he wasn’t flat broke. It might have been better if Tesla had been flat broke at this point, scrabbling and desperate, ready to grasp at any straw, but also to think two jumps ahead for once. The fact was, though, he did still pull a dollar out of every horsepower unit generated by Westinghouse AC in Europe. Considering the U.S.-European rate of exchange back then, this wasn’t exactly handsome, but it grew as Europe steadily industrialized. And eventually the government of Hungary unspeakably proud of this son of their soil—who had wired the fabulous Niagara Falls, laid on him a $7200 annuity for life—a bourgeois income back then. So Tesla, never given to women or booze or gambling anyway always did have enough to live on, if never nearly enough to work with.

He had enough time to try to teach, just a little, once he got back to New York and moved into a respectable though non-Waldorf residential hotel. In a few magazine articles around 1899, Nikola managed to get across the elements of his scheme for wireless sound-signal transmission. These articles came to the attention of J.P Morgan, were translated into layspeak for the great man, and he pounced.

Morgan had loads of money invested in electronic communications gimmicks: telephone, telegraph, Edison’s developing phonograph and cinematography projects and so on. Whatever was going to develop in this area, J.P. Morgan was going to have his thumb on it and get his piece of it. More than that, if developments proceeded to pick up apace in this area, then by God it would be J.P. Morgan who set that pace, sir. Unstructured development is chancy business, damned chancy, especially for your philanthropic investor. Terrible thing. A man buys up a new mousetrap design, builds a plant and a line for it, tools up the tools to make it, takes on a whole assembly staff—at modern wages—and right then, bank on it, some beady eyed loon with ink on his fingers comes up with a better mousetrap. Keep an eye on them damn beady-eyed, ink-finger types, sir. Pin ’em down. Buy ’em up. Drive ’em crazy if you have to, they’re all half-crazy to start with, anyway.

So Nikola Tesla was duly visited in his hotel by emissaries of the omnipotent Morgan, who offered him $150,000 down for a 51 percent interest in any future patents Tesla might be awarded. Since Morgan in the same year gave a cool million to the Harvard Medical School and bought Andrew Carnegie out of US Steel, this 150K was manifestly chicken feed, a mere flea-flick. But Tesla signed over the controlling interest in his brain, for the rest of his life, to J.P. Morgan. If Tesla had been physically hungry or shelterless, now he might at least have insisted on a clean 50-50 split. But he was just comfortable enough to have a proper genius’s contempt for all things material, so he tossed it all away with another scratch of the pen. Because, y’see, Morgan’s flunkies told him Morgan himself would underwrite all Tesla’s future development projects as well.

That’s what they told him. all right. They even gave him carte blanche to put up one of his mystery monster-transmitters at Shoreham, Long Island: a huge plant surmounted by a 187-foot tower from which Tesla would shoot all the electric power for the grand Paris Exposition of 1903—all the way across the almighty Atlantic, no hands, no wires, nothing up his sleeve.

Then, just months before the exposition was to open, while Nikola was still copper-plating his 150-foot-diameter “electrode,” J.P Morgan cut him off without another penny. The great man gave no reason for it, just a perfect stonewall; he wouldn’t speak to Tesla himself, or authorize any of his flunkies to talk to him. Of course, they’d promised to underwrite Tesla’s projects, sworn it with a hearty handshake that turned him green around the gills. But they hadn’t promised it on paper, y’see. You just don’t understand our American sense of humor, Tesla.

It was undoubtedly just as well, for everyone in the world but Nikola Tesla. As time went on, and relatively sane people like Guglielmo Marconi got into this deep and murky business, it turned out that what this crazy Serb had been talking about, since the 1880s, had been microwave transmission.

Among the very few patents poor Nikola was not screwed out of over his life was one that described long-distance radio transmission: antenna, grounding, frequency tuning, the works. Morgan sat on it firmly of course, and some 15 years later Marconi finally developed the gimmick himself, absolutely independently. Still, the competing patents hung in limbo until 1940, when Tesla was officially awarded the priority title in preference to the man already and forever remembered as the “father of radio.” The development of television was similarly complicated by preexisting Tesla patents, and still today geniuses of space-age gimmickry keep running up against century-old patented precognitions by this crazy Serb.

The contemporary idea of furnishing the earth with unlimited microwave energy generated by sunlight in gigantic orbiting transformers, and beamed down to the planet, is a minor modification of a Tesla patent. Scientists in the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada, China, Western Europe, Brazil and God only knows where else, are competing pell-mell to physically implement this turn-of-the-century Tesla epiphany. Microwaves from outer space: free, infinitely self-replenishing, radioactive electrical energy.

Of course, ecologists guarantee that the microwave energy would permanently disorder the entire geomagnetosphere, altering climate unpredictably and the earth-sited receiver-transformers would be hideously poisonous to life for miles in all directions. If the slightest thing were to go wrong with one of the orbital transformer-broadcasters (remember Skylab?), it conceivably could char zebra streaks of slow death and destruction ’round and ’round the turning globe before engineers could locate it and shut it down.

But it’d be everlasting, and best of all, not free in the least. Orbital microwave systems would take billions on billions to develop, and forever after, someone as evil as Edison, Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan put together would always have a finger on the on-off button, charging us all money for every minute he refrained from turning it off.

Nikola Tesla, early on, guaranteed that he had something much nobler and more humanitarian than this in his head, fully formed, a physical presence there, needing only the opportunity to be physically developed. It might be very illuminating to know what it was, or very scary, or merely funny.

Probably it would be merely funny. When Tesla died in 1943, the FBI went through his place and carried off all his papers while the body was still warm. There was one hell of a war on just then, and if Nikola ever had come up with an infinite-energy source—or a way of devastating half the planet, either—it would certainly have been physically demonstrated by the U.S. armed forces well before August 8, 1945. But that was some other genius’s brainstorm, not Tesla’s.

As for poor Nikola, it would be entertaining but depressing to cover the last 40 years of his life in detail. After Morgan screwed him in 1903, Tesla very slowly but steadily drifted off the deep end, and he had a long, long time to drift, too. He started making friends at last, around that time—with pigeons. Big, fat, filthy lice-ridden Manhattan gutter turkeys: Tesla, who could not have kissed Sarah Bernhardt on the lips in her ravishing prime, for fear of “germs,” coaxed New York City park pigeons to his hotel rooms, by the dozens, and let them nest and shit all over the place, while he taught them everything about physics which mere humans could never learn. Needless to say he was continually getting evicted.

He turned into an entertaining old crank, after he got 60-ish. Sunday-supplement writers found him a dependable source of diverting comment, prattling on about gem-focused “death rays,” faster-than-light interplanetary communications systems, climate-modifications through magnetic manipulation of the ionosphere, and other impossible science-fiction goosebumpers. Someday, he swore, mankind would inevitably evolve out of all this untidiness around us and graduate into “the perfect society of the bee.” Yes, yes, he’d drone on, avoiding eye contact with the reporter while stroking the pigeon in his lap, “the perfect society of the bee.”

The night he died […] was marked by a late-summer Manhattan thunderstorm, one of those magnificent electromagnetic displays that dependably impress even visitors from Brazzaville and Rio de Janeiro. Old Tesla, the 86-year-old virgin, was feeling his oats in proper fashion that night. The radio patent had set him up in a swell supermodern skyscraper, with a spacious balcony looking out over the wonderfully resonant canyons of midtown. Nikola, ’tis said, stood out there on the balcony all the way through the thunderstorm, sort of choreographing the flash and forksplit with vigorous élan. But when he came back in, he looked rather wistful, maybe even a little disappointed. “I have made much better lightning in my life,” Nikola Tesla apologized.

A few hours later, he died in his sleep. The doctor said it was natural causes, but more likely it was terminal hubris.

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