Nicola Tesla is a pivotal figure in the history of science. Tesla conceived of nuclear weapons, particle beams, and ballistic missiles years before they existed. He is known for practical inventions and bizarre experiments. Today some people have made him into a "science mystic" of sorts giving him a cult-like following even naming an electric car after him. When I wrote this he had not achieve that notoriety. However, I wanted to put this essay back in play as it seems to me that it is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago.
This piece is essentially a perennialist analysis of the twentieth century as seen through the life of pioneering electrical engineer, inventor, and media icon Nicola Tesla (1856-1943). As a cultural history it visits the last century: a dark age of mass murder and destruction brought on by the rise of materialism.
The original essay published under the title “The Last Wizard” appeared in the European journal of the Proustist Society, Global Times, in the July/August issue of 1998. Then an expanded version was published on the website The Fireeater in September 2005. The first edition is in a print magazine which is difficult to come by and the second is archived.
The one that appears here contains some new material as well as new artwork.
A slender man with dark handsome features stood atop a mountain in Colorado and witnessed the fruits of his labors play out against the cold Rocky Mountain sky. As bolts of man-made lightening slashed the darkness, echoes of thunder cascaded back and forth between the peaks. The deafening sounds were heard fifteen miles away at Colorado Springs. Flash after flash of unfocused electron energy spewed forth from a 200 foot tower that stood atop a primitive high-potential electric generating station. Streamers of electricity over 100 feet long turned the blackness into blue phosphorescence as bolt after bolt arced skyward. The man seized by the enormity of the event was frozen with excitement. He was the only person on the planet to comprehend the principles of this work. In the flashes of energy he stood on the brink an age that would dwarf all history for the horrors it would bring to humanity.
Was this a description of a new science fiction movie? The latest piece of fantasy churned out on the Internet? An advertisement for a rerun of the "X-Files"? Not at all; the equipment used to generate this incredible scene is today considered antiquated. The man was not the product of M.I.T. or some other government particle physics research team. Nor was he the slick result of a billion dollar science bureaucracy.
The man was Nikola Tesla. The event sometimes called "Tesla's lightening experiments" happened in July of 1899 over one hundred years ago. The centennial of his great work came and went and there weren’t any global ceremonies or re-enactments of this accomplishment. To my knowledge that feat along with several other tricks that he alone mastered has never been reproduced.
Tesla was born in the village of Smiljan in rural Croatia at midnight on 10July 1856. Part of the Serbian minority this deeply religious family was headed by his father a Serbian Orthodox priest. From an early age he built machines and small inventions. He was curious, a fast study in most things, obviously intelligent, a quick wit, and had a nearly photographic memory. Yet one trait stood out. He had a peculiar ability to envision the plans for a complicated invention in his minds eye, draw the plans, and if the parts were available; make the thing work. Another less desirable quirk was a habit of compulsively calculating in his head the cubic volume of all the bowls and serving pieces on the dinner table and periodically announcing his findings.
Although he attended local schools getting what might today be a high school education with the addition of a year or so of technical training, this largely self-taught man had always been a dreamer and visionary. The gift of vision was to benefit and plague him throughout his life. As a young man he thought of a machine that would hover in a stationary fashion above the earth. People could board this device and then allow the planet to move underneath them in a natural rotation traveling great distances effortlessly. Unfortunately, at the time the technology was not available to accomplish his plans: a situation that remains today. However, the scope of this kind of thinking would color his relations with business and fire the imaginations of the public.
His senses and emotions were always hair-trigger acute. He claimed to have extraordinary sight and hearing and was even credited with what might be called para-normal abilities at times. Yet this heightened acuity often left him edgy, restless, and frustrated.
In his mid-twenties he had what might be characterized as a "nervous breakdown" of sorts where he claimed to hear faint noises at great distances, became extremely nervous, and sometimes his heart would inexplicably race to over 200 beats per minute. During one of these "fits" something remarkable happened. He had another of his visions except this time it was for the basic principles of alternating-current electricity (AC) and the machines needed to supply it, support it, and utilize it. This invention has shaped nearly every aspect of our life today.
During a period of several months the visions and drawings continued as a shower of ideas flooded his life. Not only inventions but theoretical work issued forth from the busy pen of Nikola. Design problems that had plagued him for years were resolved in this period of activity. Obstacles of science and technology seemed to succumb to an almost paranormal flood of inspiration. These peculiar states of creativity would visit him throughout his life.
Tesla, however, was no mystic. It is problematic whether or not he was spiritual at all. Some say as his life went on he became an agnostic or atheist. Certainly his belief in the proposition that all phenomena could be explained by science and utilized by technology flew in the face of religious thought.
His father had been a priest and at one time Nikola was being groomed to follow his footsteps. This prospect was loathsome to Tesla and it seemed he did whatever he could to avoid the priesthood and pursue a completely materialistic path.
Of course he was not alone in his beliefs. The era he was born into was an age of growing doubt with spirituality and the worldview it had spawned. The old spritual order was faltering under the weight of bureaucracy, patronage, and the bickering of its elites. Powerful secular republics like France and the United States were waxing on the horizon. A new profane order of wealthy mercantile interests and global exploitation had created a voracious appetite for technology that would concentrate riches. A "new scientist" was emerging to satisfy that craving and Tesla was right on the cusp of an era. The old image of scientist as natural historian studying nature for the good of Man was fading like a tintype image in the Sun.
The Modern Dawn
Although materialist thinking has been around for a long time the arrival of its present incarnation was cooked up a generation or so earlier. A new paradigm arising out of Cartesian dualism and the Religion of Humanity founded by Auguste Compte was gaining the ascendancy.
Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) famous dictum, "I think therefore I am" became the bumper sticker slogan of a whole school of philosophers. It enabled a disconnect in Western thought to go wild and the mind/body split ensued establishing the supremacy of the intellect over the heart in European thought. Although many truly brilliant people including the Italian jurist Giovanni Vico (1668-1744) totally exploded Descartes’ work it had a nice commercial ring and it implications neatly fit into the domination theories of the new elites. Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy", was one of their darlings.
Following Descartes came another French philosopher, Auguste Compte (1798-1857) whose name is not nearly as well known today yet his thinking more than any other has shaped the modern world with his new wrinkle on materialism. The founder of the school of "positivism" Compte believed that the only things that existed in the universe were those things that could be measured. In other words, any thing that is without quantity does not exist and is unimportant. Furthermore, he believed that in the future scientists would usher in the final stage of human evolution by finding "positive" truth through observation. This cult would then establish a religion and Priesthood of Science that would supersede all other religions and dominate the world for the good of humanity.
With the power of an expanding industrial elite bringing huge sums of money into the picture and a growing vacuum of leadership from the decaying Hapsburg order the scene was set for positivists like Tesla. His ability to intuit the mechanical workings of the natural world and then abstract principles that could be applied to a wide spectrum of problems seem tailored to the agenda of the new secular order. Going to the United States appeared to be a logical move where his talent would be welcomed with status, money, and power. At first his plan would work for him but there were problems down the road.
For a time his genius was hailed and breakthrough after breakthrough in electrical engineering made his presence welcome with the industrialists of the time. Taming the vast potential of electromagnetic forces seemed in the public mind to be god-like and his fame grew. He worked tirelessly on problems of power transmission and distribution so as to make electricity more available. Keeping centrally generated power in the hands of business interests while making household electricity widely available was one of his priorities as was the use of radio signal to transmit instructions to machines and ultimately broadcast the human voice. These projects consumed much of his time as he went from tycoon to tycoon pitching his ideas and getting money to develop them.
Without doubt the "lightening experiments" were of this sort. Collecting money from John Jacob Astor and other robber barons of the time Tesla was attempting to transmit electrical energy directly through the atmosphere without the use of wires. His success was mighty. High potential electric power filled the air in Colorado on those fateful nights. When he had his generators turned on it is said that at a distance of more than a mile away local residents could pull a six inch arc of blue flame electricity from a barb wire fence or any other piece of metal.
News of his extraordinary experiments mixed with his own fanciful pronouncements flashed across newspaper pages. Yet as much as his wizardry astonished the press and inspired the public many of his projects were too extravagant for his backers. The “lightening" experiments fell in this category. To compound the problem he was as bad at managing money as he was with interpersonal relations. He had a reputation as a temperamental and haughty genius with a penchant for meddling in the affairs of supervisors often attempting to micro-manage projects based on his ideas and plans.
In 1884 Nikola abandoned Thomas Edison's laboratory in a pique of anger mostly because he could not work under the direction of anyone except himself. A few years later he had evidently invented radio transmission before Marconi. But due to inattention to documentation and plain disdain for people's opinion he somehow allowed Marconi to get the credit. A bitter legal battle followed lasting the rest of his life for the recognition he deserved from the invention of wireless communication. It was not until after his death that the dispute was resolved. Edison would brand Tesla "...a poet of science" with ideas "...magnificent but utterly impractical". As that flawed notoriety grew it would become a kiss of death for his business ambitions.
Using radio waves and other inventions he built robots and even remote controlled submarines before the Spanish-American War. These developments caught the attention of the U.S. War Department and the British Admiralty. The application of advancements in physics and chemistry had become a top priority with the military of the Great Powers. Reports of his inventions and Tesla's proclamations in the press caught their attention.
His work in the arena of mechanical resonance spawned the idea of crumbling matter with energy. He bragged that if he could engineer a simple sequence of vibrations on various points of the earth and could set in motion as resonance that would "destroy the world". He talked about flying machines carrying bombs and projectiles operated by remote radio control that would obliterate an enemy a continent away. He foresaw the arrival of energy weapons and predicted that in the future the world would be cleansed by a titanic "war of science" foreshadowing the dark age of carnage that would be known as the Twentieth Century.
The military and the emerging industrial elites needed a vision of how they could accomplish their own dreams of domination and control. The growing new secular order in the institutions would do their best to erase the past and its importance from the textbooks and establish the modernist intellectual hegemony. Politicians surfing a wave of money would abandon principle and embrace relativism. But it would take shot and powder to actually install secular materialism and science as the new weltanschauung (worldview). A lasting alliance between industry and the military would soon be forged and the new scientist was the bridge. The prophecies of Auguste Compte whose speculations about the supremacy of science was now close to becoming a reality.
The bureaucratic institutions that developed from this rich soup of money, influence, and intellectual horsepower would fill the growing vacuum of authority left in the wake of declining Christian and other religious thought. The materialists of the time were not dummies. Many could see that their moment had come both to continue their studies and to enrich themselves by creating a new order of control and dependency to replace the old ideas of faith and self sufficiency.
Thus the stage was set and one secular prince of after another would plunge the planet into the black night of World Wars. The ensuing century of carnage, holocaust, and human deprivation paralleled the rise of positivist science. Nobel’s high explosives begat the machine gun, airplanes enabled aerial bombardments, electrolytic chemistry gave us poison gas, Einstein’s clever scribbling became the Atomic Bomb, and as each scientific breakthrough fostered another weapon system the fortunes of the “new scientist” continued to blossom under the dark skies of modernism.
The Last Wizard
Not trained at a prestigious university, not being born in one of the Great Power countries, and unsupported by a tweedy network of colleagues; Tesla had problems. As the twentieth century unfolded professional images continued to morph and a new and improved model of the scientist gained favor. At first men like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Plank, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard came to power in government and university sponsored research. Many were disciples of Ernst Mach the hard core ideologue of materialism whose simplistic views on phenomenology appealed to these people. Then men such as Robert Oppenheimer and Edward “Fritz” Teller of nuclear weapons fame came along who would finally eclipse them all. These were organization men who understood the clubby world of international conferences, professional journals, national alliances, and most of all grant money. These improved scientists could be integrated more easily than renegade wizards like Tesla.
The victor and the vanquished in the great wars of the twentieth century shared one thing in common. They worshipped the scientist for the cornucopia of technology that he delivered to his benefactors. Capitalist, communist, or Nazi all agreed that the way to power was through the temple of positivism. No other single ideology so profoundly shaped a time than this materialistic system. It could both produce and destroy with comparable effectiveness. Trussing “big science” up in bureaucracy and slathering its practitioner’s with money would ensure a steady flow of ideas and goods. In the new reality of administrative charts and state power the pliable genius would become a seamless part of the establishment power structure.
The populace would stand in awe as one “miracle” after another rolled off the assembly lines of technology. Supplying food and entertainment while dangling new weapons of control over the common man’s head the secular princes could manage the unruly with credible threats of annihilation while basking in the sallow glow of power.
Nikola Tesla the man who called his body a "meat machine" may have been just the kind of disconnected genius to utter the spell that would send generations of physicists to court planetary extinction through thermo-nuclear holocaust. But he wasn't alone. From his grandiose speculations inspiration was stimulated in others whose intentions were not nearly as ambiguous as Tesla's.
Branding him as evil misses the point. Although the Jeckle and Hyde dichotomy in science is well known, its negative embodiment is probably not at its zenith with Tesla. Even though Einstein might later be caricatured as the bureaucrat of theory, in the nuclear age it was Oppenheimer who would ply the river Styx and surely it would be Teller who sought to inhabit the dark throne; not Tesla.
Yet the implications that issued forth from Tesla’s words and actions militated strongly towards the camp of Ernst Mach whose ultra-materialism and outright disdain for religion left little room for difficult concepts like ethics, morality, and the law. Soon this omission allowed an amorality to grow that enabled an era of unprecedented industrialized murder to bloom.
When the physical abominations caused by the apparatus of ruin were not enough; weapons of mass cultural destruction would become legitimate. Using government policy, the Media, and the courts social scientists from the Frankfurt School like Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse attack the entire belief structure of traditional society. Like a virus in a computer the program these positivistists created known as “political correctness” continues to grind forward and the mind control that it enabled would become an epidemic. By the dawn of the twentieth-first century literally nothing was sacred.
Insulated from history and moral critique the devastation wrought by materialism-gone-wild is overlooked by most of its devotees. While indulging their nebulous “creative urges”, engaging in the work of "invention", and the exploiting of phenomena; today's scientist/priest seeks to master nature and deliver its bounty to those who might preside over the domain of Earth. Apart from that the modern scientist pleads absolution from responsibility in the name of the unexamined concept of “discovery”.
When examining the products of Tesla’s unrestrained genius and self promotion a judgment must take into account his lack of understanding about the venue that he stumbled into. But those who came along in the wake of him knew exactly what they were doing. Claiming forgiveness on the grounds they are innocent from understanding the consequences of their actions is ludicrous. Something akin to a thief claiming he didn’t know that the things he stole were valuable. Even the Soviet-materialist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov in his essay “The Metaphysics of Positivism” understood that scientists are inherently irresponsible.
Tesla was genius and stumblebum at the same time. His nineteenth century rural Eastern European personality had not caught up to the bourgeoning secular world he found himself in. He could envision the mechanisms of electro-motive forces and make them manifest but cared little for anything except what fame and fortune it might bring him. Not knowing that the exaltation of creativity was also the worship of one’s personal ego never occurred to him or any of his colleagues to this day. Caught in between two worlds he prophesized the trappings of a new material age without understanding the society it implied thereby helping to install a program which doomed it to tragedy.
As the failures of modern materialist technological society mound up a sad legacy surrounds us. Massive engineering failures, mega-systems management blunders, atmospheric anomalies, overcrowding, iatrogenic disease, traffic, fuel cost gyrations, the evaporation of privacy, and a world of other problems have been handed us since the first light of positivism dazzled the world. It is a long road from the heady days when man-made lightening ripped the skies over the Colorado Rockies
David S. Reif