Monday, October 22, 2012

That Mad Serbian Lightning Man

Last time I posted, I said, "Next week, I'd like to talk about Tesla." I am, apparently, a goddamn liar. Or I don't own a calendar. Make what you will out of that.

To many minds, Nikola Tesla was the father of the twentieth century. The Industrial Age would not have been the same without the fruit of the fertile mind of the Serbian-born genius, and it's a damn shame that kids don't learn anything about him, getting instead the propaganda from the Edison camp.

(That's what Thomas Alva Edison was good at. Two things: swooping in on patents when inventors were down on their luck, and PR. Everybody "knows" Edison invented the light bulb, right? Gah.)

But there are other articles on the War of the Currents, articles that are both better researched and better written than what I might have for you. What I wanted to talk about mainly was how Tesla acted. He was a strict man, and when he gave his word, he kept it to the best of his ability. He expected the same of you, and it was quite often he didn't get what he was expecting.

(But no, I'm not ranting about Edison. I promise.)

Instead, this short blog will be about Tesla's ethics. I know my last blog was mostly the same thing, but I seem to be stuck on this, still. Why now? I couldn't tell you. But it seems appropriate, so here we are.

Had Tesla wanted, he could have cashed in on all the patent money he was owed by the Westinghouse corporation and driven them into bankruptcy. That is amazing, that one man had so much hold on the technology of the day, he could have broken the company he was working for, just by getting his due. Instead, he took just enough to keep his experiments going, and even at the end, when his financers backed out on the free energy project (sad, though Tesla might should have seen that coming) and everything collapsed like a house of cards, he didn't take what he could have from Westinghouse.

Eventually, his patent money dried up (the stuff he was collection on) and he was left more or less high and dry. Oh, not right away. He had several rather wealthy and generous investors, one of whom he did kind of... well, lie to. John Astor gave Tesla a lot of money to develop one thing, and Tesla used it to develop something else. This strikes me as odd, having read what I have of Tesla's life, and it makes me wonder what the hell else was going on in his life at the time.

I guess that just goes to show, the guy was human, for all his genius. He had his faults. Besides the OCD, he was also a proponent of imposed selective breeding. Yeah, I know. You don't have to tell me that's fucked up. But anyway. As a scientist, he was occasionally close-minded, which seems odd to hear about such a maverick.

Tesla ended up living poor, giving the occasional (and unusual) statement to the press and trying to find investors for whatever he was working on at the time. Because of the mostly unfettered vision Tesla had, it was hard for him to find money. He's the original Mad Scientist, you know? When he said things like, "I can make your motors more efficient," investors threw cash at him. When he said things like, "I can talk to Mars," mmm, not so much.

He died penniless and in debt, his largest project, that of wireless energy transmission, a failure.

Unfortunately (for both of us, me writing and the one guy reading) I don't have a life lesson tucked away somewhere that will help make sense of all this. Nor do I have an upside. For the most part, Nikola Tesla did what he said, or did his damnedest to, and in the end, he was a broken old man, whose best friend was a pigeon. (No shit, look it up.) And the first person to royally fuck him over lived a good life, active in the community and with awards named after him until he died of diabetes. Rich as sin.

Maybe there is a life lesson there, a kind of truncated Golden Rule: Do unto others.

How does that make you feel? It makes me feel old and cranky, so I guess I'll stop here. Next time (not next week, I know better than that now) I'll have something slightly happier, I hope. Maybe something about writing. I know, I said I wouldn't, but recent developments have decided otherwise for me.

-Thom Brannan

No comments:

Post a Comment