Thank You for Lighting Up the World
And Not Blowing Up the Planet
Pretty much everybody even remotely associated with science has heard the name Tesla before.
He was the man who held lightening in his hand and invented the ever-zapping coils resonating the richly arcing tones of Sweet Home Alabama seen above.
Surprisingly, few people these days are familiar with the life and times of one of humankind’s most eccentric and arguably insane scientific super-geniuses. He was to electricity as Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n roll.
First off, Nikola Tesla was brilliant. Not only that, he was badass brilliant.
The Croatian-born engineer spoke eight languages, almost single-handedly developed technology that harnessed the power of electricity for household use, and held numerous patents in different areas.
The guy invented things like electrical generators, FM radio, remote control, robots, spark plugs, fluorescent lights, induction motors, X-Ray machines and giant-ass Tesla coils that shot enormous, brain-frying lightning bolts all over the place like crazy.
He had an unyielding, steel-trap photographic memory and an insane ability to visualize even the most complex pieces of machinery. The guy did advanced calculus and physics equations in his damn head, memorized entire books at a time, and successfully pulled off scientific experiments that modern-day technology STILL can’t replicate.
For instance, in 2007 a group of lesser geniuses at MIT got pumped up out of their minds because they wirelessly transmitted energy a distance of seven feet through the air.
Tsk-tsk, big whoop. Nikola Tesla once lit 200 lightbulbs from a power source 26 miles away, and he did it in 1899 with a machine he built from spare parts in the middle of the god-forsaken desert. Tesla had gone wireless before the world even had wires. To this day, nobody can really figure out how the hell he pulled that shit off because two-thirds of the schematics existed only in the darkest recesses of Tesla’s all-powerful brain.
Of course, much like many other eccentric mega-geniuses and diabolical masterminds, Tesla was also completely insane. Prone to nervous breakdowns, he claimed to receive weird visions in the middle of the night, spoke to pigeons, and occasionally thought he was receiving electromagnetic signals from extraterrestrials on Mars.
He was also obsessive-compulsive, hated human hair, jewelry, round objects, and anything not divisible by three. He was celibate and asexual his entire life.
Basically, Nikola Tesla was the ultimate mad scientist, which is seriously awesome.
Another sweet thing about Tesla is that he conducted the sort of crazy experiments that generally would result in hordes of angry villagers breaking down your door with torches and pitchforks.
One time, while he was working on magnetic resonance, he discovered the resonant frequency of the Earth and caused an earthquake so powerful that it almost obliterated the 5th Avenue New York building that housed his Frankenstein Castle laboratory. Stuff was flying off the walls, the drywall was breaking apart, the cops were coming after him, and Tesla had to smash his device with a sledge hammer to keep it from demolishing an entire city block. Nothing like having a real life Lex Luthor living next to you in Gotham.
Later, he boasted that he could have built a device powerful enough to split the Earth in two. Nobody dared him to prove it.
Another time he produced artificial lightning with discharges consisting of millions of volts at his Colorado Springs proving grounds. Thunder from the released energy was heard 15 miles away. People walking along the street observed sparks jumping between their feet and the ground. Electricity sprang from water taps when turned on. Light bulbs within 100 feet of the lab glowed even when turned off and horses in a livery stable bolted from their stalls after receiving shocks through their metal shoes. Butterflies were electrified, swirling in circles with blue halos of St. Elmo’s fire around their wings.
Tesla also ordered the construction of the Wardenclyffe Tesla Tower, a giant building shaped like an erect penis that would have housed the largest Tesla coil ever built.
The massive structure, ostensibly designed to wirelessly transmit power, was cited at the time as a potential cause of the mysterious 1908 Tunguska Event – a ten-megaton blast that detonated in the wastelands above central Russia, completely obliterating and deforesting
everything within a several-hundred mile radius.
While no one has proven Tesla’s involvement in the ass-destroyingly huge explosion now ascribed to a meteorite, it’s pretty awesome that this guy potentially could have detonated a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb destroying Hiroshima, and all back before they’d even invented the submachine gun.
During his adventures blinding half of the world with science, Nikola Tesla harnessed the power of Niagara Falls into the first hydroelectric power plant, constructed a bath designed to cleanse the human body of germs using nothing but electricity, and created a 130-foot long bolt of lightning from one of his massive coils– a feat which to this day remains the world record for man-made lightning.
Thomas Edison gets all the glory for discovering the lightbulb, but it was his one-time assistant and life-long arch-nemesis, Nikola Tesla, who made the breakthroughs in alternating-current technology that allowed for people to cheaply use electricity to power appliances and lighting
in their homes.
Today, all homes and applicances run on Tesla’s AC current.
Tesla’s Particle Beam Atomic Death Ray
But perhaps his most badass invention was his face-melting, tank-destroying, super-secret Atomic Death Ray.
In the 1920s Tesla claimed to be working on a tower that could potentially have spewed forth a gigantic beam of ionized particles capable of disintegrating aircraft 200 miles away, blinking most men out of existence like something out of a Flash Gordon comic.
His weapon, known as the “Teleforce Beam“, allegedly shot 60 million volts of ball lightning, liquefying its targets with enough power to vaporize steel.
Tesla believed wars of the future “will be waged by electrical means” and claimed his super-duper powerful raygun could shoot further than 200 miles if only its range wasn’t limited by the unfortunate curvature of the Earth.
Luckily for all humans, this crazy insanity never came to fruition. Most of the schematics and plans existed only in Tesla’s head, and when he died of heart failure in 1943, little hard data on the project existed. Still, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI ransacked his place and confiscated all his personal stuff and locked it away just to be on the safe side.
Despite being incredibly popular during his day, Tesla now remains largely overlooked among the lists of the greatest inventors and scientists of the modern era.
Nikola Tesla was one of those super-genius badasses whose intellect placed him dangerously on the fence between “great scientific mind” and “utter madness.”
Wanting to provide the world with abundant,
cheap, and clean energy free from fossil fuels by using planet Earth as its own conductor, neighbors often heard terrifying sonic booms emanating from his many mind-boggling experiments. He held 700 patents at the time of his death, made groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of physics, robotics, steam turbine engineering, and magnetism, and once melted one of his assistants’ hands by overloading it with X-rays. That isn’t really scientific, but it’s still pretty cool.
And honestly, if there was ever one man on the planet who was capable of single-handedly destroying the entire planet through his insane scientific discoveries, it was Tesla. That alone should qualify him as a pretty righteous badass mother of invention.
* * * * * * * *
Happy Birthday, Nikola. Thank you for not blowing up the planet.
You’ve gone, but you’ve turned on the light for the future. Scientist, engineer, and a badass mad genuis, you lit up all the cities around the world and changed the face of how we live in it.
You wanted to share your energy and ideas with everyone but your financial backers abandoned you because they didn’t want it given it away for free. In the end, you died penniless, alone, and largely forgotten.
You’re a man out of time, Nikola.
Nikola Tesla was born July 10, 1856, and died on January 7, 1943. If you’re reading this now, you have him to thank.
To note, the musical Tesla coils in the above clip were constructed by electrical engineering students Steven Caton and Eric Goodchild. A Tesla Coil is a special type of transformer invented by Nikola Tesla that generates extremely large voltages using a phenomenon known as electrical resonance. Each coil in the video is capable of generating a 13 foot spark, equating to about 500,000 volts of electricity. By modulating the number of sparks that emit from the coil each second, different tones are produced by the coils.
If you’d like to see a large Tesla coil in action, head on down to Shamus T Bones restaurant in Eureka and ask them to light it off for you, and their Jacob’s Ladder, too. Just don’t lift up your fork.
For Steven at GHD and Matthew at MIT.