Child of the Light

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Child of the Light

The blazing genius and crippling obsessions of inventor, Nikola Tesla

 

"He will be a child of the storm," the midwife predicted as she observed the raging flashes of lightning during the child's birth.  "No," his mother prophetically countered, "Of the light."  The baby they were discussing that 1856 summer night would one day envision three-dimensional diagrams of complex inventions, as he later reflected, "in blinding flashes of light." His inventions would illuminate the world with the concepts of alternating current, wireless transmitting, fluorescent lighting, the induction electric motor, remote control, and a host of other world-altering innovations. 

One of those flashes occurred in 1881 when Tesla was walking with a friend in a Budapest park.  An inspiration, he later recalled, "came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed."  Tesla grabbed a stick and began to sketch a diagram in the sand, of the image that had invaded his mind. His friend watched in wonder as Nikola frantically drew the design of an invention that would later change the world – the alternating current induction electric motor.  It has been credited for sparking the industrial revolution and remains the most commonly used type of electrical motor. That would be the first of many lightning visions that Tesla said appeared in his imagination in a complete three-dimension form. 

Nikola Tesla was inarguably a mastermind.  He could memorize entire books verbatim and fluently speak eight languages.  His frequent displays of bizarre behavior, though, often raised the eyebrows of even his most ardent admirers.He had such a deep-seated aversion to lady's pearl earrings and necklaces that he refused to stay around women who were wearing them.  Not only did he demonize jewelry but much of his life was ruled by the number three.  He stayed only at hotel rooms with a number divisible by three and would often circle the block of a building three times before entering. He demanded that 18 fresh towels were delivered to his room every morning.  Prior to eating, he would determine the precise cubic mass of his serving in order to calculate the exact number of jaw movements required to chew it.

Tesla's predilection toward genius seems to have come from his mother, Duka.  Like him, she could memorize epic poems.  In addition, she shared his creative abilities, inventing various electrical appliances through­out her life, including the mechanical egg beater.  It is not difficult to pinpoint the origin of the quirkier side of his personality.  Nikola's father, Milutin, was an Eastern Orthodox priest who was more than a little peculiar.  He would regularly burst into intense arguments with himself, carried out by a variety of diverse internal personalities.  The mixture of the parents' character traits in their son seems to furnish living proof that genius and insanity are often separated by a very fine line.  Nikola appears to have been able to skip back and forth across that line with abandon.

Born to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia, Tesla showed his abilities in school by performing integral calculus in his head.  His teachers at first were convinced he was cheating.  Finishing his four-year high school in three years, he became fascinated with demonstrations of electricity presented by his physics professor.  Despite his son's interest, his father was determined Nikola should follow him into the priesthood.  Before long, though, their disagreement was dissolved by a disease.  Nikola contacted a severe case of cholera and remained bedridden for nine months during which he lingered near death several times.  His father, striving to lift his child's spirits, promised to send him to engineering school if he recovered.

After he did, Nikola enrolled at Austrian Poly­technic on a scholarship.The dean once wrote his father, saying his son was "a star of the first rank."  Tesla later revealed that he worked from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the week.  In fact, one of his professors noted that the youngster was in danger of "dying through overwork".  This burst of academic energy ended, however, during his second year when Nikola succumbed to a gambling addiction.  The next year he would drop out and never graduate.After that, he severed relations with many of his friends to hide the fact he had quit college.  He floated the rumor that he had drowned in the nearby Mur River.

Following a couple unproductive years, he moved to Budapest, Hungary where his interest in electricity was revived.  Procuring a job as chief electrician at the Budapest Telephone Exchange, he set about making rapid improvements to their equipment.  He continued in the electrical field with a move to Paris to sign up with the Continental Edison Company.  Management soon noticed his abilities and assigned Telsa to designing and building improved versions of their dynamos and motors.  Before long, the Edison Company sent him to troubleshoot at their French and German branches.

In 1884, the company's Paris plant manager was called back to the United States to manage their New York property, and later arranged to have Tesla join him there.  In June of that year, Tesla emigrated and, as in Europe, began troubleshooting and improving dynamos and motors.  His work brought him into contact with Edison himself on several occasions.  Once, Tesla stayed up all night repairing equipment on an ocean liner the company had outfitted with electric lights.  When Edison learned this, he turned to Tesla's manager, proclaiming, "This is a damned good man!"

That assessment would continue and Tesla soon worked side-by-side with Edison, making improvements to his direct current based inventions.  Cracks in their working relationship began to form over their divergent opinions about the effectiveness of Edison's use of direct current.  Tesla realized that lamps using that method were weak and the power could only be transported a couple miles before another power station was required to boost its potency.  He felt his concept of alternating current had much more practical potential.  Edison, however, was not interested in converting his plants to A.C. power since he had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in D.C. equipment. 

As this fracture festered, it would eventually become widely known as the "War of the Currents."  Testa left Edison after a few months and managed to raise money for his own corporation, the Tesla Electric Light Company.  Sadly, his business acumen didn't match his inventive skills.  He devised a beautiful and efficient arc lamp, but nearly all the profits flowed to his investors.  Fortunately, after drumming up another investor, Tesla began building and distributing his innovative alternating current motor.  His fortunes would further improve when Pittsburgh industrialist, George Westinghouse, incorporated Tesla and his A.C. concepts into his growing corporation.

Eventually, after each side waged a bitter propaganda battle against the other's methods, the more practical alternating current won the favor of the world.  Tesla, with Westinghouse's financial support, wowed the world with the "City of Lights" illumination of Chicago's Columbian Exposition.  In November of 1896, their massive Niagara Falls' power plant electrified New York's Broadway nights, proving the case for Tesla's alternating current concept.  During the years to follow, the genius of Nikola Tesla beamed across the world. 

Unfortunately, that light turned out to be as transitory as the lightning flashes that accompanied his birth.  Partially due to his increasingly peculiar behavior and public announcements, many of his backers withdrew their financial support.  Tesla announced that he had built a "death beam," which could split the world in half.In 1912, he crafted a plan to "make dull students bright" by saturating a school room with infinitesimal electric rays.  By the time of his death, the once world-renowned inventor who had brought lightning down to earth lived in poverty and near seclusion.  The "child of the light" had sadly faded into the shadows.

 


Submitted: January 28, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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