A few weeks ago I mentioned that an eminently qualified historian of technology has written a biography of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the inventor of the eponymous Tesla coil, the induction motor, and numerous other ingenious contraptions. While Tesla has been the subject of numerous popular biographies and even a film or two, earlier treatments tended to play up the sensational and mysterious aspects of his career, while neglecting the deeper context of his times and the significance of his actual technical contributions. By contrast, University of Virginia historian W. Bernard Carlson has shown how Tesla flashed upon the scene of early electrical technology rather like a spark from one of his own coils, only to fade out almost as fast into relative obscurity after about 1910. What is more, Carlson traces the reason for Tesla’s failure to live up to his potential on a conflict between ideal and illusion. When illusion took over, Tesla lost credibility, first with the technical community, then with the public, and most seriously for his career, with his financial backers.
Possessed of a rare type of imagination which allowed him to controllably visualize complex structures and scenes so real to him that he sometimes lost sight of reality while contemplating them, Tesla always worked primarily in the realm of the ideal—the perfect mental construct that performed his every bidding. This is how he envisioned what was arguably his most significant invention: the alternating-current induction motor. While Tesla would later claim that the idea came complete and finished to him in an instantaneous flash of insight in Budapest in 1882, the reality was that it took him years of development and experimentation to present the idea to the world in patentable form. Another historian of technology named John Staudenmaier likes to assess the importance of a technology by asking what the world would be like if the technology in question disappeared overnight. Some idea of the importance of Tesla’s invention can be grasped by realizing that if all induction motors suffered some kind of mechanical rapture one day and vanished off the face of the earth, we would virtually all be without running water, most factories and plants of all kinds would stop working, we’d have no air conditioning, no elevators, and, well, we would be in quite a pickle all told.
Once the Westinghouse interests bought Tesla’s induction-motor patents and made him fairly wealthy, the inventor moved on to other things: high-frequency currents, the nascent field of radio, and his grandest vision: the worldwide distribution of electric power without wires. It was to test this last idea that he built what was probably the world’s largest Tesla coil in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1899, using the bulk of the town’s power plant output late at night to run it. In doing this, he was following a vision of how his technology would supersede the high-tension transmission lines and distribution networks that at the time were just beginning to spread the blessings of electricity to the public.
Tesla’s work in Colorado Springs was documented not with detailed published papers or plans for developing profitable technology. He had always enjoyed playing the showman by dazzling nineteenth-century audiences with high-voltage displays that even today attract the attention of jaded twenty-first century audiences, and giving interviews to newspapers that made him sound more like a magician than a sober scientist or engineer. Most of what Tesla brought back from Colorado was pretty photographs, including the famous one that shows him calmly sitting in a chair reading while many megavolts of lightning flashes above his head. In distributing the photograph, Tesla was forthright about the fact that it was a double exposure: first the sparks were photographed with no one nearby, and then the machine was turned off while Tesla seated himself near it and the photographer set off a flash charge. But the illusory message the picture conveyed probably overpowered any disclaimers, and in the years afterwards, Tesla’s career would increasingly be characterized by visionary claims and promises of fantastic results followed by broken promises and missed deadlines.
Tesla’s letters of this period to the financier J. P. Morgan pleading for funds make for painful reading. When Morgan finally turned him down once and for all, Tesla lapsed into an obscurity from which he occasionally emerged to give interviews laced with hints of militarily useful marvels such as death rays and supremely powerful explosives. These hints were taken seriously enough that following Tesla’s death in 1943, the FBI prompted the wartime Office of the Alien Property Custodian to confiscate Tesla’s papers and obtained the services of a radar expert to see if there was anything worth keeping secret for government use. There wasn’t. But the record of Tesla’s interviews over the years inspired a small cult following that continues to this day to put out the idea that when he died, he took secrets with him that we have not yet discovered on our own.
Promising a little more than you can deliver at the time is a time-honored tradition in technical enterprises, and has given rise to words such as “vaporware,” meaning software that somehow is always going to be released in the next few months but never actually arrives at the customer’s doorstep. But too much of this sort of thing can land individuals such as Tesla, firms, or entire industries in so much trouble that they can never recover. Vision—the ability to conceive and express novel ideas that attract the participation of others—is a necessary part of the engineering enterprise. New ventures always contain a measure of the unknown, and visionaries lead the rest of us—financiers, organizers, managers, and customers—to assist in turning their visions into reality. As historian Carlson points out, if Tesla deceived people, it was with their cooperation, much as an actor deceives a willing audience. But ultimately, Tesla found himself in a world where illusion was expected to be followed by useful, profitable hardware. And when he could no longer deliver things that the real world of 1910 needed, he turned instead to mystical utterances that attracted attention, but no money. Tesla’s life is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to understand what the right mix of technical prowess, vision, and hard work can do—and what happens when illusion overwhelms ideals.
Sources: I used W. Bernard Carlson’s new biography Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013) as my main source of material for this post. The famous photo of Tesla and his million-volt coil can be viewed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tesla_colorado_adjusted.jpg. One of these days I will write up the story of how a psychology grad student from New York and a ten-year-old Texas boy built a Tesla coil (the boy was me).
This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.