Tesla died penniless
in obscurity, but his
legacy is slowly
6: The Forgotten Genius
On January 7, 1943, Nikola Tesla died in New York City at the age of 87. He was virtually penniless, living at the dilapidated Hotel New Yorker in a room that he shared with a flock of pigeons, which he considered his only friends.
The thriving industries he had built had long since turned their backs on him. The scientific community shunned him and his eccentric views. To the general public, he was either unknown or an object of ridicule, a lunatic whose ravings were fit only for sensational tabloids. The popular Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons of the 1940s pitted the Man of Steel against the death rays and electromagnetic terrors of a scheming mad scientist, whose name was Tesla.
How could this have happened? Whatever his flaws, however far afield he may have strayed at times, Tesla surely deserved better than this. Modern society owes him just as much as the people of his time did, if not more, and yet we have forgotten him.
There are several schools of thought on the question of Tesla's fall into obscurity. The first, and probably the most irrefutable, is that Tesla failed to make the history books because he failed as a businessman. The most successful people aren't necessarily the most brilliant, but those who can play the game to reach the top. Tesla was a disciple of the pure sciences as opposed to applied science, with little facility at figuring out how to profit from his ideas. His business associates often did not act on behalf of his best interests, and Tesla himself made scores of bad financial decisions.
For example, in the wake of Tesla's successful implementation of AC, he stood to collect an enormous amount of wealth. He had signed a contract with Westinghouse which could conceivably have put him among the richest men in America. But when George Westinghouse told Tesla that the financial drain of the arrangement would put his company's future in jeopardy, Tesla ripped the contract to shreds, as a gesture of friendship. Had he held Westinghouse to the deal, or at least negotiated for a fraction of it, Tesla would have died in luxury, and may have preserved his notoriety much more fittingly.
Other analysts take the blame off Tesla's shoulders, and propose that big business and the U.S. government conspired to suppress the inventor's genius. At the top of the suspected conspirator list is Thomas Edison. Edison despised his former employee's success with AC, and it is known that he set out on a campaign to smear Tesla's name. He held demonstrations at which animals were lethally electrocuted with AC-powered devices, in a deceptive and inhumane effort to warn the public of the danger posed by Tesla and Westinghouse's "unsafe" new electrical system. Edison also sat on the War Department advisory board that rejected Tesla's proposals of the death ray and his radar-like device.
J. P. Morgan is also implicated in the anti-Tesla cover-up. Morgan counted on increasing his already monumental wealth by exploiting Tesla's ideas, until he learned that Tesla was considering the free distribution of energy -- a terrifying idea to any self-respecting capitalist. He ended his funding of Tesla's experiments at once, and some think he used his considerable clout to ensure that no one else would bankroll Tesla's threatening schemes.
The government, which had always held Tesla at arm's length when he attempted to pitch a proposal, became suddenly fascinated with his work as soon as he died. The FBI ordered the Office of Alien Property to seize all of Tesla's papers and possessions. This confiscation was unequivocally illegal, since Tesla had been an American citizen since 1891.
The records of Tesla's work were judged to pose no threat to national security, and the FBI's file on Tesla was closed in 1943. It was reopened in 1957 in the wake of reports that the Russians were performing mysterious Tesla technology experiments. Many are convinced the Pentagon has followed suit with top-secret Tesla-based projects of its own, the most infamous being HAARP, the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program. Reminiscent of Tesla's giant magnifying transmitter, only pointed in the opposite direction, the $30-million experiment is designed to pump enormous quantities of energy into the atmosphere over Alaska. The purposes of HAARP are unclear, although researchers probing the project have called it everything from a communications and surveillance network to a mass mind-control device.
A final theory is that Tesla ruined his reputation with his own outlandish inventions and claims. Some claim that Tesla went wrong as soon as he struck upon his quest for wireless energy. Others believe that he descended into insanity or senility when he began to speak of death rays and Martians. Tesla never accepted the work of Albert Einstein, which he criticized as being vague and incoherent. Given his adherence to these beliefs, many question how great a scientist Tesla could have been.
Strictly speaking, such arguments are probably correct. To the best of modern scientific knowledge, Tesla's free energy system simply would not work, there are no signals broadcast from Mars, and the theory of relativity is sound. But there are two things left to consider.
First, even if Tesla's later ideas were dead wrong, they by no means diminish the immense quantity of very right ideas that he contributed to our world. And second, it bears remembering that alternating current was also perceived as unrealistic Tesla gibberish for quite some time before its true brilliance was finally proven. There is the possibility, however remote, that Tesla's most bizarre concepts will be validated at some point in the future, when science finally catches up with him. Only time will tell.
For now, Tesla's true legacy is increasingly being recognized, bit by bit. The Supreme Court ruled shortly after his death that Tesla was the legal inventor of radio, not Guglielmo Marconi. Similarly, Tesla has been rightfully acknowledged as the inventor of the fluorescent bulb, the vacuum tube amplifier and the X-ray machine. History books are now starting to include these facts. Finding exposure in our current so-called "information age," in which technology is king and strange new ideas are tolerated more and more, Tesla is becoming something of a folk hero. This may run the risk of reducing Tesla and his work to an Internet fad, but any effort that keeps his name alive is worthwhile.
The final fate of Tesla's Wardenclyffe laboratory was strangely fraught with meaning. In 1917, it was consigned to demolition. Tesla's money for its upkeep had run dry, and its meager remaining contents were reportedly coveted by German spies. As a preemptive move, it was dynamited. But the proud steel tower of Wardenclyffe remained. The demolition crew blasted the site repeatedly, but the tower would not collapse. They had to return at a later date and dynamite it once more. It fell to the ground, but did not explode, nor did it shatter into pieces upon its thunderous impact.