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Tesla, Nikola

(1856-1943) Croatian-born (though of Serbian origin) inventor, engineer and futurist, in the US from 1884, where he was immediately hired by Thomas Alva Edison for the Edison Machine Works. The association with Edison would benefit and plague both men for the rest of their lives: Edison the pragmatic (and sometimes unscrupulous) inventor as entrepreneur; Tesla the visionary (and sometimes nearly demented) inventor as Mad Scientist and/or prophet – though the first novel to feature him – Weldon J Cobb's To Mars with Tesla; Or, the Mystery of the Hidden World (1901) – treats him as another Edison, with an emphasis on the Technology of invention. Tesla's own far-reaching Inventions, both real and hypothetical, and the autodidactic outsider intensity of his personality, combine to give an image of the man as both despised prophet and secret magus in tune with the music of the spheres – certainly if that music is powered by electricity. As exile and potential Secret Master, he has unsurprisingly become a natural underlier figure for creators of Fantastika, a figure who seems, in his own right, to require an Alternate History of the world to explain him.

More specifically, if Edison is an indisputable paradigm figure for the Edisonade, and appears on occasion under his own name in examples of the form, then Tesla is almost as convincingly central as an Icon to the form of alternate history known as Steampunk, appearing or variously incarnating in works of genre interest as diverse as Marcianus F Rossi's A Trip to Mars (1920 chap), Spider Robinson's Callahan sequence, Thomas McMahon's Loving Little Egypt (1987), Paul Auster's Moon Palace (1989), Lewis Shiner's "The White City" (June 1990 Asimov's), Christopher Priest's The Prestige (1995), in whose film adaptation The Prestige (2006) Tesla is played by David Bowie, Howard V Chaykin's Barnum! In Secret Service to the USA (graph 2003) with David Tischman and illustrated by Niko Henrichon, Robert Rankin's The Witches of Chiswick (2003), Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006), Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else (2008), Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio (2009), Scott Westerfeld's Goliath (2011), Walter Jon Williams's The Boolean Gate (2012), a novella based on the friendship between him and Mark Twain in New York, an historical friendship made use of in Comics and other works, David Gerrold's "The Great Pan American Airship Mystery; Or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley" (July 2015 Asimov's), set upon a vast Airship in a 1930s Alternate Universe, K K Pérez's The Tesla Legacy (2019) – there are many further titles. Terry Gilliam was involved with a planned 1990s biographical film about Tesla, but this project died.

Tesla's Inventions – some claimed, mostly real – were copious, and often controversial. His devising of an alternating current (AC) transmission system for electricity, which he developed with the Westinghouse Company, proved clearly superior to the direct current (DC) system insisted upon by Edison past all reason (as late as the 1960s, the New York Consolidated Edison company was still supplying DC current to some neighbourhoods), and was triumphantly demonstrated at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago (where Pynchon's Against the Day begins). Tesla experimented productively with X-rays; developed a form of wireless energy transmission in the 1890s; built a form of radio transmitter, filing a radio patent in 1897; suggested that the electrical conductivity of the earth itself could be exploited for the transmission of energy; invented the spark plug. After Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) won a Nobel Prize for his work in the invention and exploitation of radio, Tesla engaged in fruitless disputes with him over priorities and rights; just as he had with Edison in earlier years. That he was arguably correct in his assertions of priority did not, perhaps because of his tempestuous mystagogical character, win the day.

Around 1900, he moved briefly to Colorado, where he experimented in more ambitious and perhaps dangerous experiments, some successful; around this time he also claimed to have found evidence of Extraterrestrial Communications, perhaps coming from Mars; and predicted, sometimes in detail, future developments like television and broadcast power (see Power Sources). His later years were occluded by psychological disorders and lack of funding; but he remained famous and his actual Inventions – he gained a patent in 1928 for a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft – continued to startle, though the Death Ray he announced near his death was never demonstrated. He was formally honoured by the scientific community in 1960, when the SI unit of magnetic flux density was named the tesla.

The literature on Tesla's life and works is large – a very small selection can be found below – and includes numerous occult speculations and fictionalized texts like Daniel Blair Stewart's Tesla: The Modern Sorcerer (1999); none of these are listed. [JC]

see also: Command & Conquer; Titanic; Urban Legends; Warehouse 13; Worlds of Ultima.

Nikola Tesla

born Smiljan, Austro-Hungarian Empire [now Croatia]: 10 July 1856

died New York: 7 January 1943

further reading


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 22:45 pm on 21 June 2024.