If ever an inventor satisfied the romantic requirements of a Jules Verne novel it was Nikola Tesla. Communicating with Mars, plucking heat units out of the atmosphere to run engines, using the whole earth as an electrical resonator so that a man in China could communicate wirelessly with another in South America, transmitting power through space–it was to such possibilities that he devoted the last forty years of his long life. His practical achievements were limited to the short period that began in 1886 and ended in 1903.
And what achievements they were! Polyphase currents and alternating engineering, applied against the opposition of Lord Kelvin and Edison in the first hydroelectric plant of Niagara Falls, the induction motor, the use of oil in transformers, remarkable work in wireless at a time when Marconi had yet to make his mark, electric arcs fed by direct current in a magnetic field, later applied by Poulsen in the first radio telephone, gas-discharge lamps which were in some respects the forerunners of the neon lights that now shine on every Main Street, the medical application of high-frequency currents in what he called ‘electrical massage’–those crucial seven years of his youth were crowded with triumphs out of which came the whole modern apparatus of high-voltage engineering.
Yet all of this he affected to regard as of minor importance. It was the Jules Verne future that engrossed him, for which reason the last half of his life was spent in the isolation of a recluse. For forty years he lived and worked in a world of fantasy crackling with electric sparks, packed with strange towers to receive and emit energy and dreamy contrivances to give utopian man complete control of nature. It was a lonely life.
There was a solid scientific basis at the bottom of all this romanticism. For he was no tinkerer, but a first-class mathematician and physicist whose blueprints were plausible, even though they were far ahead of the technical resources of his day. He belongs to the passing age of heroic invention of which Edison was the most distinguished exemplar–the age of technical poets who expressed themselves in generators, inductance coils and high-voltages rather than in drama and verse and were the real architects of this culture. If that abused word ‘genius’ ever was applicable to any man it was him.