What really attracted my attention to man on the ten dollar bill that led me to digging into the life of Alexander Hamilton? Or later,to Benjamin Franklin, who also adorned our money with his visage?
I know that Franklin’s kite experiment, relating lightning to static electricity really should have killed him. I remember a similar incident when, as a boy, I attended a vigorous Kansas thunderstorm with a galvanized wash tub over my head. I forgot about lightning, until it flashed and I felt some sort of response in both hands. The lightning was only playing with me. Next time, it warned, I won’t be gentle. I got no reward for my experiment. Franklin beat me to it. Shucks.
Another man who built most of his career over electricity was Nicola Tesla. We see his name on an electric car and some sort of musical group. Somehow it’s easy to overlook a man who made many important contributions to our daily lives.
Writing about any historical figure requires research, and if post-secondary education taught me nothing else, it was how to do that. High school taught me to type.
But I wasn’t prepared for where my research would lead. Once past the biographical information was a lagniappe of extraordinary proportions. Hours later and blurry-eyed, I quit. I will write about what is known to be true, good stuff. Maybe there is room to do a little hinting about what else is suggested about the man and those linked to him.
Nicola Tesla was born in Croatia on July 10, 1856. He was an ethnic Serb; his father was an Orthodox Serbian priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest. Tesla was the fourth child of five. His mother never learned to read.
The first school he attended offered a four-year education; he completed it in three. Further education was extremely spotty. He started several universities, only to lose interest after a few months. And yet before his death at 86 in January 7, 1943, he had become a naturalized American citizen, worked personally with Thomas Edison, established himself as a first class inventor, mechanical and electrical engineer whose patents and theories form the basis for modern alternating current electricity, which led to the Second Industrial Revolution. Most of this was accomplished as a relatively young man.
He arrived in the United States in 1884. Two years later, he started his own company, leaving Edison with vastly improved equipment that Tesla was never paid for. He teamed up with George Westinghouse in 1888, patented a radical electric motor in 1892, invented what became an x-ray machine, and a radio in 1893. He invented a radio-controlled boat and the spark plug. Later, in 1917, he invented radar.
Facts about his personal life began to emerge. He never married, although many women fell in love with him. He seemed quiet, polite, and had many friends, most of whom were artists. One unusual friend was Mark Twain.
His public life revealed a showman. In 1899, he set up his lab in Colorado Springs, where he demonstrated the ability to make artificial lightning that, with millions of volts, jumped a recorded distance of 135 feet.
Electricity was his life. Before he died, he claimed to have found a way to extract unlimited electrical power from the atmosphere. And in science, he was a giant among giants. He even challenged Albert Einstein, who spent much of his life seeking but not finding what was called a Unified Field Theory, reconciling electromagnetism, gravitation, relativity, and quantum theory. Unfortunately for Tesla, he was unable to provide proof. Most of us feel lucky to be able to spell these words.
With genius often comes mental unbalance. Toward the end of his life, Tesla became obsessed with the number three. He had to walk around a block three times. His hotel room always had to have a number divisible by three.
Perhaps it was the spectacular displays of artificial lightning that made him a target for outrageous claims. Or else it was his impressive collection of documented inventions, many of which shape our culture today. Or maybe it was his command of fields that most of us are barely conversant with, but have no real understanding.
But whatever it was, both his name and Einstein’s became linked during World War II with an October, 1943 Navy experiment in a Philadelphia shipyard to make the destroyer escort warship, the USS Eldridge, invisible to radar using various forms of electromagnetic fields. A cult grew up around this experiment, claiming that the entire ship not only disappeared from radar, it acquired the ability to disappear from view and travel not only impossible distances, but both forward and backward in time.
If that weren’t enough, the area near the Montauk Lighthouse on Long Island was home for other, equally secretive experiment, this time involving the power of the human mind. Since it involved some of the same science and scientists, and because much of the information was classified, it all was lumped together on the Web as some sort of cosmic conspiracy that even involved UFOs and little green men. Long Island seemed perfect for the role, especially after the “Amityville Horror,” supposedly based on a true story in Amityville, Long Island.
Several highly entertaining hours were spent looking for truth. I found little. But if you have the time, Google “Philadelphia Experiment”, “Montauk Project” and “Montauk Monster.” Remember, it’s all true and includes both Tesla and Einstein. Unless, of course, someone made it all up.