It’s a very strange thing.
The man who lit and connected the modern world — the creator of the foundational technologies upon which the world we know is built: electrical current, radio transmission, fluorescent lighting, radar, remote control, and a great deal more — was written out of the science and the history books, and his name and work are unfamiliar to most people.
Why? What happened to Nikola Tesla?
Many stories are told about Tesla and most of them are disinformation and spin. Two main types of simulacra are propagated: one is the mad scientist, the semi-autistic idiot savant incapable of managing his affairs, the fanatical obsessive who eventually went off the rails and ended up self-defeated and destitute; the other is the mystical Christ-figure, the fragile genius, a man from the future, a visitor from Venus, a fallen angel, and so on. In some stories he is the inheritor of mysterious ancient technologies through secret Vatican papers. In others he creates the Tunguska explosion with a stray beam from his famous transmitter tower in New York.
This is a crafted spectrum of travesties and distorting mirrors, new age catch-webs and self-justifying establishment propaganda to alternately defame or mythologize the great man and deflect attention, not just from his achievements, but from his cancelled projects.
There are also some good sources out there, both biographical and scientific, if you can find them through the clouds of lies, the locust swarm of simulacra.
In any case, a more realistic assessment is not hard to arrive at by one’s own efforts, based on publicly accessible historical information. Apply a little reason and balance, and a more realistic Tesla emerges.
This story needs to be told and told often. Otherwise, it will get harder and harder to peel back the layers to find the real man, and eventually impossible. He will become a myth, and his science fabled miracles.
Tesla was by his own firm choice a man of science. His father wanted him to go into the church — and now the new age mystics build a church around him. He didn’t become a priest, but an engineer of extraordinary skill; a technological visionary, not a mystic. By his own account he could visualize machines in three-dimensional detail, observe them and work with them in his imagination, proceeding straight to engineering without committing anything to paper. As E P Dollard puts it, ‘He was renowned for building motors in his head and running them for months to assess the rate of bearing wear.’ What he imagined appeared in front of him as real as a physical object, such that he often had trouble distinguishing between what was seen by him and what others could not see.
Eric P Dollard, the electrical engineer and mathematician, has read every word written by Nikola Tesla, and pretty much every word written about him, 99% of which, he says, are worthless. And the most important distortion of all is the idea that that Tesla was a scientific outlier, a unique, unrepeatable one-off.
Tesla cannot be viewed in isolation: he was the peak of the electrical movement which swelled from Faraday and Maxwell to Oliver Heaviside and J J Thompson, C P Steinmetz, Ernst Alexanderson and P T Farnsworth. We cannot talk about what happened to Tesla without talking about what happened to the whole movement. Tesla was the crest of a wave of discovery; and he was the point at which the wave broke. It wasn’t just Tesla who was silenced. By 1919, according to Dollard, electrical discovery had been stopped in its tracks and excised from open science.
Genius is an abnormal condition. Of course hyper-intelligent, intuitive, creative people appear crazy to small-minded ‘troglodytes’ (to use one of Tesla’s friend Mark Twain’s favorite expressions) or can easily be caricatured in such a way. The idea that Nikola Tesla disappeared from the text books because he ‘went crazy’ half way through his brilliant career is absurd. How would that explain the near-complete burial of his fame as a scientist? He had already invented the basis for the fundamental technologies of our ‘modern’ world. The madness myth is part of the suppression to which he was and is subjected. It draws its sustenance from Tesla’s growing eccentricities after his meteoric career was halted in its tracks by patent theft and a financial lock-out. What happened to him is certainly enough to drive a weaker man mad. Tesla’s increasing alienation was the result, not the cause, of what happened.
The madness gambit is the tactic of totalitarians to quash independent thought, and rather than contenting ourselves with this naive explanation of what happened to Nikola Tesla, we should be looking at the implications of his unfinished project: the transmission of energy and information through the earth, to any point on the earth. The elaborate discrediting of Tesla is about burying this idea, and the science of electricity as conceived by Tesla and his contemporaries. The man is dead. The idea, despite the layers of suppression, isn’t.
The first point to establish is that using the earth’s telluric currents to transmit energy and information is not a ‘mad’ or even a failed idea. Tesla didn’t fail, he was stopped. His experimental station at Wardenclyffe wasn’t even finished when it was closed down, so any idea that the project was shown to be unworkable is simply wrong. Nor was it the idea of a single ‘mad’ scientist. Tesla had discussed it with his peers as early as February and March of 1893 at a meeting of the Franklin Institute and at the convention of the National Electric Light Association. As the Wardenclyffe magnifying transmitter neared completion in 1901, the leading electrical engineers of the time discussed it in a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers under the Chairmanship of Professor William Anthony — and the consensus was that within months they expected a system capable of generating electricity without a prime mover to be a working reality. The inventor insisted to his dying day that the Wardenclyffe project was not impossible, or even particularly difficult — just expensive.
So let’s forget this notion that Tesla’s project was in any way quixotic, or that it wasn’t going to bear fruit. There was an experimental process to go through, and a second transmitter to be built at Niagara. The fact that he could not secure funding is nothing to do with the viability of the plan. There are other factors.
By the early 90s Tesla was world famous, a charismatic and celebrated member of New York’s glitterati. A millionaire with refined tastes, he lived in his penthouse in the Waldorf Astoria and held court at the most expensive restaurant in town, Delmonicos. He was a man of courtesy and honor. Show business celebrities, writers, actors and artists, including Mark Twain, Carruso, Dvorak, and Paganini as well as members of the international aristocracy and corporate elite, even royalty, flocked to dine with him and visit his South Fifth Street laboratory to witness thrilling feats. His laboratory complex, in fashionable downtown, was housed in a handsome brownstone building. First and second floors housed reception areas and galleries of Tesla’s work. On the third and fourth floors, laboratory space.
Edison had tried to cheat him, and opposed him at every step, but Tesla had now completely eclipsed him. With Edison, it was personal. He was a clever inventor, but not a discoverer; his was a commercial not a scientific drive. And he seems to have been completely devoid of any sense of honor. The two men were no doubt opposite poles in this respect. Tesla had walked out on him after delivering what Edison had asked for and being denied what he had been promised in return, and been picked up by Westinghouse after a period in which he worked as a street laborer, digging ditches in New York for Edison’s clunky DC cables.
George Westinghouse was both a brilliant, socially motivated inventor and an ethical businessman, who worked in partnership with his engineers and allowed them to retain their patent rights in anything they invented. His collaboration with Tesla was marked by undying respect on both sides. As Tesla developed his alternating current system at Westinghouse, Edison launched into a bizarre campaign to discredit the superior AC system in the public mind. In an attempt to terrify the public as to the dangers of alternating current, he famously staged public electrocutions of stray dogs and surplus circus animals. He called this ‘Westinghousing’ the animals. Subsequently he colluded with business partners and officials to ensure that the first electric chair for human executions would be powered by a Westinghouse generator. In 1890 the first convict to be ‘Westinghoused’, one William Kemmler, died a particularly horrible death, due to the technicians underestimating the necessary voltage, resulting in something more like barbecuing than electrocution.
Strange, isn’t it? Nobody says Edison went mad. Poor, mad Nikola Tesla is all we hear.
His deranged PR campaign hurt Edison more than Westinghouse, since he was soon out of the electrical business, his name dropped from his company, which was absorbed into General Electric, the giant corporation created by the Morgan to monopolize electrical technology. GE adopted Tesla’s system and hired a certain Charles Proteus Steinmetz to analyze the mathematics behind Tesla’s inventions and counter him in the patent wars. Steinmetz’s job description was simple: “break Tesla’s patents”.
In that sense, Tesla created Steinmetz — or at least, his long and brilliant career at GE, during which he did things just as amazing as Tesla did, and went beyond him. But he had the good sense not to publicize his discoveries: ‘he kept it to the equations’, says Dollard.
Tesla’s answer to Edison’s bizarre campaign to discredit alternating current was to light up Chicago, Paris and London with amazing demonstrations, becoming famous throughout the world not so much as a scientist as a magician, who could summon fire out of the air or illuminate his whole body with plasma. He was a consummate showman, in keeping with the times, but he was no charlatan. With George Westinghouse, he lit the Centennial ‘Columbian’ Exhibition in Chicago, and electrified Niagara Falls — the Holy Grail of electrical inventors.
In 1895 Tesla was at his peak. Even before the alternating current system had finally established its superiority, he had already moved on and into a new phase of prolific discovery, working with new forms of electricity.
So what happened? Did he suddenly go mad, at the height of his powers and success, as the stories say? Or were the man and his science suppressed by forces beyond his control?
At some point, the monstrous figure of J P Morgan has to waddle into the story. John Pierpont Morgan was the most powerful financier of the period; the man they called Jupiter — the biggest planet in the system, the king of the Olympians. In the standard versions his ugly purple nose suddenly pops up out of nowhere in 1901, pulling the plug on Wardenclyffe.
In fact, and of course, Morgan was in the picture from the beginning. To take these events in perspective, we should go back as far as 1892 and note that the financial problems experienced by Tesla later in his career would not have happened without the intervention of the banks into the affairs of his partner George Westinghouse. It was the banks that forced the reorganization of Westinghouse and the renegotiation of Tesla’s royalty contract. His honorable action in tearing up the contract, in order to save the company, cost him tens of millions of dollars, and left him vulnerable when the crisis came.
Morgan financed Edison, and when the American was eclipsed by Tesla, he dropped him as later he would drop his rival. Electrical research is an investment-heavy business. Morgan collected inventors like playing cards, and discarded them when they had served their use or something better came along.
Morgan’s response to the victory of alternating current was to drop Edison, and merge his company with Thomson-Houston to create General Electric. He approached Tesla and was rebuffed. Tesla would not sell his independence.
So Morgan set about buying up every patent and every business connected with the transmission of alternating current: manufacturers of cables, insulators, generators, everything… In a new meeting with Tesla, the banker revealed his monopoly of the entire infrastructure of power transmission, believing Tesla would have to give in and become part of his empire.
According to author Gerry Vassilatos, at that point Tesla invited Morgan up to his lab, gave him a few demonstrations, and informed him he should keep up to date with the scientific journals and not just the stock markets; that he had wasted his money and that the wire transmission of electric current was already an obsolete technology. The future lay in wireless transmission.
So his lab was burned down.
Fire consumed the entire four-storey building on South Fifth Avenue in little more than an hour. The intense, accelerated blaze started in the basement and gutted the building so completely that Tesla’s third and fourth-floor laboratories crashed through to the second floor, destroying not just his equipment but his exhibits, demonstration models, blueprints, journals and notebooks: most of his life’s work, in fact. And it destroyed the equipment for his planned test of long distance wireless transmission on the River Hudson.
It should be noted that this isn’t the first suspicious fire in the story. When Tesla and Westinghouse undercut Edison and secured the contract to light the Columbian Centennial Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, Edison refused to let them use his famous lightbulbs. The only alternative supplier, New York Lamps, was then hit by fire. It didn’t stop Tesla, however, and the Chicago Exhibition earned Westinghouse the contract to electrify Niagara Falls, the project which sealed the victory of alternating current.
The 1895 Ides of March fire aroused a great deal of suspicion. It was only by a stroke of pure good fortune that Tesla had not been in his lab at the time of the inferno. It was his habit to work through to the small hours, but on this particular evening a dinner invitation meant that he had left unexpectedly. If this was arson, then it was effectively an assassination attempt.
According to Vassilatos, Tesla took advantage of the suspicious circumstances by publicly challenging Morgan to fund the rebuilding of his lab. Fearing a public backlash, Morgan had little choice but to play the philanthropist and pay up.
The Serb turned his back on his glittering social life, and drew on deep wells of character and his photographic memory to recreate everything, rebuilding his laboratory on East Houston Street with Morgan’s money and somehow beating Marconi to the punch and securing the patent for radio in 1897. This was the second great coup of his career, and as the inventor of both alternating current and radio transmission, Tesla now had every right to think that his position was secure as one of the foremost, if not the foremost, creators of the modern age. With the wealth the radio patent would inevitably bring him, he would not have to depend on anyone to finance his work.
John J O’Neil, author of the first biography of Tesla published after his death (Prodigal Genius, 1944) states clearly that it was not Morgan but John Jacob Astor IV and others who funded Tesla’s move to Colorado in 1899 to conduct experiments in resonance and wireless transmission of electricity. He built his lab on donated land on a high mountain
plateau, where, working with 200 ft towers and 100 ft diameter transmitters, he ‘soaked the earth’ with energy and triggered great surges of energy in response. This is one of the most active lightning strike areas in the United States, and in the high desert Tesla experimented with lightning and created a standing bolt that persisted for one minute. It is this period that agents of suppression draw on to create the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype, but in fact Tesla was proceeding very cautiously and systematically, aware of the risks of causing a runaway reaction.
Strange, isn’t it? No one calls the Oppenheimer and the other Manhattan Project scientists mad, when they went ahead with the Trinity atomic bomb test fully aware that it might ignite the atmosphere, ending all life on the planet. No, poor mad Nikky Tesla is all we hear.
Already Tesla was working with the architect Charles White on the design of the 187 foot (57 meter) tall magnifying transmitter at his new experimental station which would be known as Wardenclyffe Tower, at Shoreham, Long Island, New York.
But what happened next would culminate in his bankruptcy in 1906, the failure of his greatest project, and the suppression of historical and scientific understanding of what it even meant.
By 1901, with the experimentation station nearing completion, Tesla needed more money and approached Morgan. Morgan didn’t ‘withdraw’ funding as sometimes claimed, because he wasn’t directly funding Tesla at that point, but he turned down all requests, and blanked Tesla from that moment on: as did all sources of alternative funding.
Now, the question in my mind is: why would Tesla go to Morgan? Why would he not go back to Astor and his other sponsors?
Morgan, like Tesla, cannot be seen in isolation. The fact of a “money trust” centered around Morgan was established in the report of a Congressional Inquiry convened by United States Senator Arsène Pujo and led by Samuel Untermyer in 1913. Morgan was the leader of a banking cartel that controlled the stock markets, the money markets, and sought to monopolize all sectors of the economy. It concluded that a community of influential financial leaders had gained monopolistic control not only of the financial markets but of major manufacturing, transportation, mining, and telecommunications. The report revealed that at least eighteen different major financial institutions were under the control of this cartel, led by J P Morgan, George F. Baker and James Stillman. Officers of Morgan held 341 directorships on the boards of 112 companies with a market value of 22.5 billion. This gave them manipulative control of the New York Stock Exchange and money markets. The cartel was engaged in merging corporations and consolidating major sectors of the economy into cartels or ‘trusts’, in an effort to dominate and control the entire economy.
Tesla found it impossible to find funding. Investors were suddenly sitting on their hands. According to O’Neil, rumors circulated that Morgan had been the financier behind Wardenclyffe but had pulled out because the project was not feasible; these rumors influenced other investors.
Given Tesla’s reputation, his record of achievement and his connections, it is hard to understand why he could not find investment. The only explanation is that the black ball had been drawn.
That’s why he went to Morgan.
An oligarchy, of course, must remain in control of technology, because technological change is social change. The project, as confirmed by the minutes of the AIEE, was completely feasible and had world-changing potential. Therefore it seems impossible not to conclude that the project’s world-changing potential was the problem, when it became clear what Tesla was planning to do, which was, in his words,
“…to use the Earth itself as the medium for conducting the currents, thus dispensing with wires and all other artificial conductors,” by means of “a machine which, to explain its operation in plain language, resembled a pump in its action, drawing electricity from the Earth and driving it back into the same at an enormous rate, thus creating ripples or disturbances which, spreading through the Earth as through a wire, could be detected at great distances by carefully attuned receiving circuits. In this manner I was able to transmit to a distance, not only feeble effects for the purposes of signaling, but considerable amounts of energy, and later discoveries I made convinced me that I shall ultimately succeed in conveying power without wires, for industrial purposes, with high economy, and to any distance, however great.” (1901, Collier’s Weekly).
The threat Tesla’s third-wave electrical technology posed not just to General Electric but to the artificial scarcity on which oligarchy depends is perfectly apparent. Once it was perceived as such, Tesla’s value to the oligarchy reversed. Anyone inclined to doubt that the Anglo-American financial oligarchs could act conspiratorially and cohesively at this time should consult the history of the formation of the Federal Reserve and the series of economic shocks that paved the way for it. The clear and self-confessed conspiratorial nature of the banking consolidation has been exposed by G Edward Griffin in his history of the Fed — The Creature from Jekyll Island.
When Morgan, on behalf of the oligarchy, grasped that Tesla was going use the resonance of the Earth to produce and transmit electrical energy without a prime mover, the response was entirely predictable, and the decision made without, I would imagine, a second thought. Producing limitless energy without fuel? The oligarchs would not tolerate it for a second. Tesla’s plan posed an existential threat to the economic and social system. It had to be quashed, and it was, with little fuss. This was the moment the human race — or rather, a group of bankers on behalf of the human race — aborted its future.
Ambiguity might remain if that were the end of it, but the coup de grace was to come. In 1897, despite the destruction of his lab, Tesla had out-sprinted Marconi and secured his patents for the invention of radio. From 1900, Marconi was on the scene in New York, using Tesla’s ideas to develop his own system. Tesla was tolerant, feeling secure in his position. ‘Marconi possesses more enterprise than knowledge,’ he said. ‘Let him continue. He’s using seventeen of my patents.’
A misjudgment. As soon as Marconi is ready, the next hit comes in from government. After his successful transatlantic broadcast of the letter ‘S’, Marconi lawyered up and entered an apparently pointless legal suit for the radio patents, which should have had little more than nuisance value. But then in 1904, in a stunning move, the US Patent Office stripped Tesla of his patents and awarded them to Marconi. Tesla had long since sold his AC patents to Westinghouse and renounced his royalties. Now radio, which would have made him a billionaire able to finance his own projects independently, was snatched away from him. All investment swerves to Marconi, leaving Tesla high and dry.
By 1906 Tesla was bankrupt. He had left Edison flailing in his wake, he’d overcome the fiery destruction of his life’s work, but you can’t beat the gods of money. Icarus had flown too close, not to the sun, but to Jupiter.
Tesla fought it, as far as he could in his suddenly dire financial situation. He fought it for the rest of his life, in fact.
In 1909 came another stab in the back, as the Nobel Committee awarded its prize for physics to Marconi, ensconcing his name unshakably in the public mind as the originator of radio. It was only after Tesla’s death in 1943 that the patents were finally restored to their rightful owner. By that time, Marconi had retired a billionaire.
Taking this sequence of events as a whole, it certainly appears that the oligarchy acted in concert to bury the potential of Tesla’s project and hi-jack the new century, condemning the world to a hundred years of environmental degradation, scarcity and war.
The 187 foot tower haunted the skyline for another 11 years. When it was finally brought down in 1917 by new owners of the land — with great difficulty, incidentally, because of the excellence of its construction — it was found to have an iron root system extending some three hundred feet into the ground.
Tesla spent the rest of his long life in what Dollard calls ‘internal exile’, an ironic reference to the treatment of political dissidents in the Soviet Union. He made nothing further from his inventions — the fruits went to Edison and Marconi, Westinghouse and General Electric.
Instead he spent forty years living in a cheap hotel, without the wherewithal to conduct electrical research, and died destitute. Where once he dined with royalty, now he talked – and listened – to pigeons in the park. That’s one of the governing images we’re given of the man, anyway. One of his multiplying simulacra.
Gerry Vassilatos tells a different story in his tribute to the man and the city, Tesla’s New York. Tesla was never homeless or destitute. Yes, he moved out of the Waldorf-Astoria, which he had famously made his home for a number of years. But his new home, the
New Yorker Hotel, was also luxurious and fashionable, the Art Deco hotel of New York. According to Vassilatos, Tesla rented two penthouses, one as living quarters and one as his laboratory. He kept working, perforce on smaller projects. He continued to experiment, write, lecture, and hold press conferences. He just no longer had any influence over the technological direction of society. Morgan’s wires were safe.
Ironically, the Marconi system which the establishment had landed itself with in its determination to exclude Tesla didn’t even work very well. Eventually the Navy took over all the Marconi stations, including Bolinas, and drafted in Alexanderson (and even Tesla himself according to some rumors, working under his mother’s maiden name Tervo) to tweak and patch the defective technology.
Tesla was out of the game, but the suppression of the electrical movement was just warming up. The next step was the destruction of his former partner George Westinghouse.
In 1907 came an engineered financial panic, triggered by a concerted retraction of liquidity by New York City banks — Morgan’s cartel. In a classic dialectic, Morgan personally stepped in to play the hero and stabilize the situation, highlighting the insecurities of the money supply under the Independent Treasury system. However, the crisis is now recognized to have been created by Morgan and his cartel to mobilize public opinion in their surreptitious campaign to re-institute a private central bank in the USA. 1907 was an important step to creating the Federal Reserve.
At the same time as they made progress towards the ultimate goal of a private central bank, the oligarchy was trying to consolidate the new technologies under its control. The effort to create an electrical trust was a sign of the times as the oligarchy sought to monopolize new technology as well as financial and political power. General Electric merged Edison Electric with Thomson-Houston. Westinghouse was the only remaining competitor.
Westinghouse would not co-operate.
So they called in his loans.
Westinghouse didn’t like to borrow, and was known to have a strong antipathy towards bankers, but he was overextended. Westinghouse Electric was committed to new projects all over the world, and had great need of working capital. He had built his company on the back of his life-saving invention of the railway airbrake, but was committing himself to the new field of electricity, and carrying many loans. He had invested heavily in the new East Pittsburg works, where all his progressive projects and scientific research were based.
What happened to Westinghouse wouldn’t happen today. It was a mere cashflow problem, and it should have been easy for Westinghouse to get money on the open market, but like Tesla he found it impossible to do so. Morgan’s cartel controlled the market, and he had the ability to make that decision.
So Westinghouse lost the great company he had built with Tesla’s help, and Tesla lost a possible refuge where he could have continued his work. Westinghouse Electric retained its name, as its greatest asset, but no longer would it work with its inventors and other employees to improve society. Instead it would become one of the most important tools in the engineering of a shallow, conformist consumer culture. No more ground-breaking discoveries or humanitarian projects. Instead, shiny toys for the new consumerism: cookers, washing-machines, clothes-dryers and irons, dish-washers, toasters. Sleek, aesthetic and reliable, these products cornered half the market in domestic appliances and helped set the tone for the new narcissism.
The Pujo committee’s final report on the banking trade was scathing. 1907 was engineered to damage organizations such as trust companies which rivaled the banks, and to effect various mergers and take-overs. Westinghouse was the prize scalp. It was the biggest mercantile failure the US had ever witnessed. George Westinghouse was bitterly certain that the bankers had forced him out of business. Meanwhile, the Hearst papers trampled all over him, blaming him for the loss of his beloved company and trashing his name.
Morgan’s aura of a savior evaporated quickly, replaced by a growing public concern over the danger of a plutocracy.
In 1913, in poor health, he had to endure several grueling days of public questioning by Samuel Untermyer, and the ordeal of the hearings may have contributed to his failing health and death the same year.
By the end of 1913, after the secret meeting on Jekyll Island and the inquorate vote in the Senate on Christmas Eve, the bankers got what they wanted: private central banking in the form of the Federal Reserve.
The following year, war broken out in Europe.
As a side note, at the time of his death George Westinghouse was designing an electric wheelchair.
It would be forty years and two world wars later, in 1953, that the first electric wheelchair, designed by George Klein for the National Research Council of Canada, finally went into production.
In the same year as the destruction of Wardenclyffe Tower, the Marconi station at Bolinas was ‘upgraded’ to strip out the elements of Tesla technology that had been in use from 1912. The Navy took over all the Marconi stations, and then in 1919, it instituted the Radio Corporation of America to exert a monopoly over all radio patents. After the war, at the instigation of Franklin D Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, legislation was passed to make all private possession of radio technology illegal.
And that was the end of electrical science. Once machinery had been made to run and city lights to shine, nothing else was required from seers like Tesla. The tech was good enough to dazzle the masses, and from that point onwards research was confined to the circumvention of patents, rather than the circumvention of space.
There were extensive sweeping up operations to be conducted, a socio-psychological change to be managed, but this — Tesla’s plan to transmit unlimited power to any point in the world — quite simply wasn’t going to happen. The blood-soaked, oil-mired twentieth century beckoned — a very different century than the one the great imaginer had visualized.
Like its builder, the tower itself wasn’t just demolished once, but over and over again inits simulacra. In 1910, Edison Studios released a silent version of the Frankenstein story, in which some critics saw a parody of Tesla lurking in the character of Dr Frankenstein. By 1931, in James Whale’s version, the doctor has acquired a laboratory full of wildly arcing electrical equipment, and is working in an abandoned watchtower. None of these elements are found in the source novel. Not only that, he has acquired a hunch-backed dwarf — ‘Fritz’ — as his assistant, and this must represent Steinmetz.
The hunchbacked assistant is a fixture in screen adaptations of Frankenstein from 1931 onwards, as were lightning storms and discharging equipment; soon Frankenstein’s tower will be torched, just as Tesla’s lab was in 1895, and his tower dynamited in 1917.
And then there were the successive War of the Worlds book covers, spin-offs and eventually movies, the portrayal of the tall Martian tripods strikingly reminiscent of Wardenclyffe Tower itself with its great round head. An unauthorized sequel to Wells’ novel, bizarrely, even featured Thomas Edison as the hero, the famous inventor leading a counter-attack against the Martians on their own soil.
In 1941, Max Fleischer’s very first ‘Superman’ animation featured an antagonist without a name, known only by the soubriquet ‘Mad Scientist’, who plans to destroy New York with his death ray. This is Tesla, public enemy #1.
The backlash against Tesla was full spectrum warfare, financial, legal and cultural, sometimes taking forms as strange and hyperbolic as Edison’s ridiculous and cruel charades. Whatever Tesla came to represent, it terrified American capital. It wasn’t enough just to steal his patents and cast him into internal exile; his reputation must be undermined; his persona traduced; his science abolished and replaced.
This is not about Morgan. It’s not about Westinghouse. It’s not about Tesla. We should not get hung up on these individuals with their various mustaches and personal quirks. It was systemic: a spasm of the oligarchical system to expel a foreign body – but what, exactly, was being expelled? A revulsion against ethical capitalism of Westinghouse and the idealism of Tesla? Or something deeper?
In Dollard’s view, it’s not even about the technology at this stage. It’s about an understanding that is not desired to exist.
This was scorched earth.