PBS documentary shines a light on Nikola Tesla as the hero of a geek tragedy

Alan Boyle
GeekWire
Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

The writer and producer behind tonight’s documentary about Nikola Tesla admits that he didn’t even know who the inventor was when he was first contacted about creating a video biography for PBS’ “American Experience” series.

“I thought it was the car,” said veteran filmmaker David Grubin, referring to Tesla Motors, Elon Musk’s electric car company.

Since then, Grubin has learned a lot about the original Tesla and his appeal, particularly to geeks.

Geek Madness: Why Tesla was the greatest geek ever

“Tesla was like your garage geek,” Grubin told GeekWire. “He was figuring it out on his own. … He was the Mozart of scientists. His ideas came out fully formed. That is his genius.”

Grubin’s hourlong “Tesla” documentary explores Tesla’s genius, leading with his insight that alternating current rather than direct current was the way to go for electrical grids. But that’s not all: More than 100 years ago, Tesla anticipated the age of wireless communication and wireless power transmission.

“He had the mind of a scientist, but he had the voice of a prophet,” Grubin said.

 

“Tesla” tracks the immigrant inventor’s rise and fall in America: When he came to the New York from his native Serbia in 1884, supposedly with 4 cents in his pocket, the 28-year-old made a beeline to the office of his hero with a strong letter of recommendation from a mutual acquaintance.

“My Dear Edison,” the letter read, “I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”

Edison hired Tesla virtually on the spot, but within several months, the two had a falling out over a pay dispute. (Edison claimed that his promise to pay Tesla $50,000 for redesigning DC power systems was just an “American joke.”)

Tesla turned to a new backer, George Westinghouse, who boosted AC power systems in opposition to Edison’s insistence on direct current. AC eventually won out over Edison’s DC, due to its higher efficiency. The physics of all that is demonstrated in “Tesla” using clever cartoons and an artful merry-go-round metaphor.

Tesla also pioneered the technology for fluorescent lighting, which he called “cold light.” During demonstrations, the inventor brandished his glowing tubes with the showmanship of a lightsaber-wielding Jedi master.

 

But many of Tesla’s other ideas ended up going in weird directions, or nowhere at all. The 187-foot-high Wardenclyffe Tower that Tesla arranged to have built on New York’s Long Island was supposed to demonstrate wireless power transmission, but it turned into a monumental white elephant for the inventor’s financial backers.

Tesla talked about receiving wireless messages from Mars (or maybe Venus), and about perfecting a “death ray” device that could shoot thousands of airplanes out of the skies from hundreds of miles away. Needless to say, those claims didn’t conform to reality, although some fans suspect that Tesla actually did tinker with particle-beam weapons.

The inventor also had personal quirks, ranging from his fear of touching someone’s hair to his obsession with the number 3. He insisted on staying only in hotel rooms with numbers that were divisible by three.

Most unfortunately, Tesla lacked the business smarts to profit from his genius.

 

“Part of creativity is getting the creative idea out to the world,” Grubin said. “Tesla was good at getting the idea, but not so great at turning the idea into a reality.”

Grubin suspects that Tesla’s bright genius and his dark side were bound together in his ideosyncratic way of seeing the world. For the writer-producer, one of the most interesting facets of Tesla’s story had to do with accounts of his youth: Tesla said visions from his imagination popped into his mind, sometimes in disturbing detail.

“It was a counter-reality that he created,” Grubin said.

As Tesla grew up, he learned to harness his imagination for the purpose of creating his inventions – but his life story suggests that being Tesla’s kind of visionary can carry heavy costs. The man who came to America with 4 cents, and essentially foresaw the future, died alone and bankrupt in 1943 in the Hotel New Yorker, in Room 3327. Divisible by three.

“Tesla” premieres on KCTS and other PBS television stations tonight. Check local listings for times, and watch for the show’s availability online via the “American Experience” website and PBS apps.

More from GeekWire:

What to Read Next