Monday, July 30, 2012

A fascination with Tesla

Over the last couple of weeks I've been getting junk email trying to sell me a Tesla generator. Usually, junk mail of any kind is just plain annoying, but I got some amusement from this.

But it made me think that Nikola Tesla is a figure who shows up so much in pulp fiction. In Sanctuary, he's a vampire. In the Leviathan trilogy he's pretty much his historical, mad scientist self, trying to build super weapons to end war forever.

He also shows up in H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon and in Spider Robinson's Callahan series. Like quite a few intriguing characters, he's a comic book character, showing up in DC Elseworlds and, of course, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. More recently, he's shown up in Marvel, associated with SHIELD.

Tesla is all over the place and even when he doesn't show up, things built by him do (he designed Warehouse 13 with Thomas Edison and M.C. Escher), gave his name to the high school in Eureka, and inspired a slew of antagonists).

Which brings me to another thing. Most of the time, when Tesla shows up in fiction, he's the bad guy. He was a brilliant inventor who was born in Serbia and moved to America. He pioneered modern electrical engineering, demonstrated wireless electricity transfer in 1891, demonstrated radio in 1894, and tried to change the world for the better. So, why is he the bad guy?

Tesla went from promising young scientist to serious eccentric. He may have had obsessive compulsive disorder and he both said weird things and tried to build stuff that was so far ahead of its time it had no chance of working. His dream was global wireless transmission of electricity (did not happen) and radio (well, cell phone coverage isn't that good yet). He built bladeless turbines (now being seriously worked on and, of course, bladeless fans are available). In August 1917 he did the first work on radar.

Tesla was brilliant and eccentric, but he is remembered not as a guy who did much for our modern world, but as the eccentric mad scientist who built death rays and heard aliens. It's now believed that Tesla's 'signals from outer space' were probably real - radio noise from Jupiter. But that, sadly, is how he's remembered - as the bad guy. Which he wasn't, but the appeal of a completely eccentric, completely brilliant guy who tried to build the impossible remains.