Monday, July 10, 2006

Happy birthday, Nikola Tesla

I've been distracted with work and almost forgot -- but thanks to Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock, I'm reminded that today is Nikola Tesla's 150th birthday. Check out his post for a treasure trove of links to information about this fascinating figure, who is being celebrated all over the world in many ways this anniversary year -- and who will be played by David Bowie in "The Prestige," a film directed by Christopher Nolan, who made "Memento." If you don't know much about Tesla, the link to this story in the Globe and Mail will give you a quick overview.

My own associations with Tesla go back to childhood, when electricity itself held the fascination for kids (or at least some kids) that computers and the Internet do today. That's when I made strange electrical devices out of kits and odds and ends and dreamed about this Serbian-American giant (today claimed as a favorite son by both Serbia and Croatia, which makes him a unifying force in the strife-torn Balkans), who invented alternating current, without which the modern world would scarcely move, or do anything. (He had worked for Edison, but they had their great falling-out over this. Edison hated alternating current and favored direct current, which he had invented the electric chair to publicize.) Tesla also invented radio, but lost the credit, the patent and the Nobel Prize to Marconi.

More recently, I encountered Tesla in a charming and thoughtful novel , "Loving Little Egypt," by the late Thomas McMahon. The book (published in 1988 and reissued in 2003 in paperback) is partly a technology fable, partly a magical evocation of a time earlier in the last century when the equivalents of today's computer hackers were self-taught telephone hackers, and partly a populist critique of monopoly capitalism, with some of the issues it raises surprisingly relevant today.
It's about a young man named Mourly Vold, a nearly blind physics prodigy who in the early 1920s discovers a way to tap into the long-distance telephone lines and set up a communications network with other blind people nationwide — to the horror of William Randolph Hearst (who believes they're part of a Mexican anarchist plot to infiltrate the U.S.) and with the blessing of Alexander Graham Bell (who with his deaf wife, Mable, becomes a kind of mentor and foster father to Mourly).

How Mourly falls into, and then escapes, the clutches of the robber barons who control the telephone system; how he decides, regretfully, to renounce the haven of the Bells' Cape Breton retreat and strike out on his own; how he finds love on a bus through West Virginia; how he and his motley crew join forces with the eccentric, pigeon-fancying physicist Nikola Tesla to outwit Hearst and his crony Thomas Edison, and exact a fitting vengeance from them — all this, and more, forms an enthralling tale that is made even more alluring by McMahon's blending of narrative with scientific and philosophical insight and trivia, and by the frequent intrusions of "real" historical characters like the Bells, Edison, Hearst, Einstein, Sarah Bernhardt, and others.
"The eccentric, pigeon-fancying physicist" -- that's from late in Tesla's difficult life, which ended in poverty and ridicule by the scientific establishment of the time. But he's portrayed with great sympathy by McMahon, a highly regarded professor of mechanics and biology at Harvard who wrote three fascinating science-related novels (see cross references to the other two at the link) who died of heart failure on Valentine's Day in 1999 at the all-too-young age of 55.

Happy birthday, Nikola! (You'd probably be happy that, as T. reminds me, we have a Tesla Terrace named after you here in Madison. Sorry about the fact that it's adjacent to Marconi Street. It must have been somebody's idea of compromising on that radio credit.)

1 comment:

Nadine said...

There are actually three parallel streets named after inventors in that part of Madison: Tesla Terrace, Marconi Street, and Belin Street. In 1907, Édouard Belin (1876-1963) an engineer and experimenter used the telefacsimilie (fax) machine he invented to send a photograph from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux and back to Paris, the first time a fax was sent between cities.