Tesla was genius working well before his time

John Pepin

“A good friend of mine follows the stars, Venus and Mars are alright tonight.” — Paul McCartney

In this magical existence we have inherited, one can never know where or when the wonders of the natural world will inspire the next great inventor, musician, astronomer, magician, architect or artist.

However, from the dark silence, a spark will invariably snap somewhere, somehow and the light of creativity, ingenuity and discovery will certainly emerge.

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.”

From the mysterious purple-blue snap and sparkle of electricity comes “A Story of Youth Told by Age.”

In a tiny house, nestled between the Velebit Mountains of Yugoslavia and the Adriatic Sea, a 3-year-old boy with a hyper-receptivity to light sat watching passersby who were walking through the immaculate white snow and dry cold characteristic of that region.

This evening was particularly dry, sparking static electricity.

“People walking in the snow left a luminous trail behind them and a snowball thrown against an obstacle gave a flare of light like a loaf of sugar cut with a knife,” the boy would recall 80 years later.

As evening shadows crept into the home and grew around the boy, he stroked the back of his pet black cat, Macak.

“I saw a miracle that made me speechless with amazement,” he wrote. “Macak’s back was a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house.”

The boy asked his father, a learned man, about the phenomenon.

“Well,” his father replied. “This is nothing but electricity, the same thing you see through the trees in a storm.”

The boy’s mother told him to stop playing with the cat, “He might start a fire.”

The memorable experience prompted the precocious young boy to think abstractly and philosophize, asking himself whether nature was “a gigantic cat.”

“If so, who strokes its back,” the young boy mused. “It can only be God.”

Years later, this boy named Nikola Tesla would grow to become a wizard of electricity, a mysterious and eccentric genius who harnessed the hydroelectric power of Niagara Falls, pioneered radio, radar, remote control and X-ray technology, invented the first alternating current motor and developed AC generation and transmission technology.

“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration,” Tesla said. “I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

The height of Tesla’s historical importance, wealth of his imagination and breadth of his quests to realize the future we largely enjoy today are too vast to detail here.

I encourage readers to learn more about this enigmatic genius who soared to great notoriety and died discounted and impoverished at age 86 in a New York hotel room in 1943.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, Tesla spent two years experimenting with wireless technology, guided in his thinking by his fascination with the area’s intense lightning displays, which led him to conclude the earth was “literally alive with electrical vibrations.”

Some reports said Tesla was able to use electromagnetic induction for wireless electric transmission, lighting light bulbs several miles away by merely sticking them into the ground.

From his barn laboratory, he was able to produce lightning 130 feet long that produced a tremendous clap of thunder and blew out the town’s electric powerhouse. In famous double exposure photographs, Tesla was pictured in his lab reading calmly while lightning sputtered and crackled around the room above him.

At work one night on his powerful radio receiver, he detected rhythmic sounds he said were neither from the sun nor the earth. Likely hearing radio waves from stars, Tesla said he thought the sounds were coming from Mars and he hoped to develop a way to communicate back to the red planet. He was widely derided for this view.

The truth of exactly what Tesla — who was intensely secretive about his work — was able to achieve during his months of experiments in Colorado remains unclear.

Tesla was a slave to numerous odd compulsive behaviors, like calculating the cubic contents of the food and serving dishes before eating, counting steps as he walked, scrunching his toes together a precise number of times each night before bed to stimulate thinking and staying only in hotel rooms whose numbers were divisible by three.

He also harbored strong aversions to seeing women’s earrings and peaches or touching people’s hair. To avoid shaking hands he claimed he was injured in a laboratory accident.

Tesla was known to have had a photographic memory, able to easily memorize entire books. He slept rarely, suffered from nightmares and developed a deep affection for pigeons later in his life, which some analysts think was tied to his childhood experiences with animals, including his beloved cat.

At age 78, Tesla revealed plans for a “death beam,” a weapon said to send concentrated beams of particles through the air able to bring down a flight of 10,000 enemy warplanes from 250 miles away.

The aging inventor hoped the weapon, which he never fully developed, would provide a technological means to end war forever. Tesla said the technology would offer all the countries of the world an “invisible Chinese wall,” making warfare impossible.

Through wireless transmission, Tesla had hoped to provide free electricity to people worldwide. Tesla was an extraordinary visionary who could see his inventions and how to build them in his mind. To some, he was a weird, mad scientist.

Film director Christopher Nolan begged pop music icon David Bowie to play Tesla in a cameo role in his 2006 film, “The Prestige,” which tells the story of two competing stage magicians trying to create the ultimate illusion.

Bowie ultimately agreed.

In the movie, one magician visits Tesla at his workshop in Colorado Springs, where the film shows a field of lighted bulbs stuck into the ground, lit from a generator located miles away.

The magician asks Tesla to build an illusion for him saying, “I need something impossible.” Tesla says nothing is impossible and then warns the magician against pursuing his obsession.

“Well, hasn’t good come from your obsessions,” the magician asks.

“At first, but I followed them too long,” Tesla replies. “I am their slave and one day they will choose to destroy me.”

In 1969 — the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon — Bowie released his classic song “Space Oddity,” which details the ill-fated space voyage of “Major Tom.”

This is Major Tom to Ground Control

I’m stepping through the door

And I’m floating in a most peculiar way

And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can

Far above the world

Planet Earth is blue

And there’s nothing I can do

Last week, the world’s most powerful rocket blasted into space on a mission aimed at proving private company SpaceX was able to deliver heavy payloads. CEO Elon Musk controls SpaceX and Tesla Motors, a company named in homage of the great inventor.

So instead of carrying a cement block to simulate a heavy cargo, Musk opted for a midnight cherry red Tesla Roadstar.

The flashy car — complete with a space-suited mannequin “driver” and an endless music loop playing Bowie’s “Space Oddity” — was launched toward a billion-year orbit of Mars — the ruddy red planet Tesla thought was communicating with earth.

Back in his childhood home, in the candlelight Telsa saw his statically-charged cat walking through the room, shaking his paws as though he was treading on wet ground. The cat’s body appeared to be surrounded by a halo of light.

“I cannot exaggerate the effect of this marvelous night on my childish imagination,” Tesla wrote. “Day after day, I have asked myself, ‘What is electricity?’ and found no answer.

“Eighty years have gone by since that time and I still ask the same question, unable to answer it. Some pseudo-scientist, of whom there are only too many, may tell you that he can, but do not believe him.”

Presumably, Tesla followed his lifelong search for that answer back into the great mysterious universe from whence he came.

Like the lightning and electricity that fascinated him so profoundly, Tesla appeared mysteriously, burned brightly with a crackling light, weakened and then disappeared into a frozen January night.

He took the workings behind many of his secrets and as-yet-unrealized inventions with him back into the dazzling Great Beyond — gone.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.