Excerpt from the editorial inThe Journal of New Historical Perspectives, Vol. 3, #4, 2011:
On the night of July 15, 1903, Nikola Tesla powered up his 190-foot tower in Wardenclyffe on Long Island's north shore.The bolts of energy radiating from the apical dome were visible as far away as New Haven, Connecticut.This was the first and last time anyone would witness such a display.Three years later, broke and unable to secure further funding, Tesla abandoned the Wardenclyffe tower and his dream of worldwide wireless power.He returned to Manhattan where he promptly suffered a nervous breakdown.
So say the history books.
But new evidence has surfaced that a shadowy fraternal order stepped in and provided generous funding after J. P. Morgan reneged.Witnesses state that testing of the tower continued but only on foggy days when the discharges would not be noticed.The final test took place on April 18, 1906.Around dawn, in heavy fog, the tower was charged to maximum capacity; across the Atlantic, inAbereiddy,Wales, two copper prongs attached to a 50-watt lightbulb were thrust into the ground.The bulb lit. Tesla had proved that worldwide wireless power was possible.
Why then, at the moment of his greatest vindication, did Nikola Tesla abandon his project?What could possibly have transpired at Wardenclyffe that day to so rattle him that he would deny the world his transformative technology? We may never know.
October 12, 1937
As I watched for him to exit the New Yorker, I wondered if he still blamed himself for all those deaths in San Francisco.
I hadn't wanted to call up from front the desk or be associated with him in any way – for both our sakes. So I loitered outside the hotel where he'd lived for the past three years and waited, leaning against an Eighth Avenue lamppost and reading the Herald Tribune.
None of the news was good. What the world was calling the Great Depression had seemed to be easing last year, but government "adjustments" had ratcheted unemployment back up to 17 percent, creating an Even Greater Depression. The international scene looked worse. As a former British citizen, I was distressed by the news that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had boarded a train in Paris for a trip to Nazi Germany. The Nazis repulsed me as much as I would repulse them.
And then a story about the Lindberghs making their second visit to the Nazis. What was wrong with these people?
The stories and their implications absorbed me to the point where I almost missed him. I might have missed him anyway, considering how he'd changed.
Well, what did I expect? Three decades had passed. The twentieth century was still in its infancy when we'd last stood face to face. Of course I'd seen him on the cover of Time in celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday. Even then he'd looked quite different from the man I'd known, though he'd still sported that thick mustache and much of his hair had retained its dark color.
But this gaunt, sunken-cheeked, white-haired gent with the clean-shaven face… could it really be? He wore a dark gray three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a black tie. He used to wear spats when I knew him, but not today. Probably not for a long time. He'd always liked to stay in style and spats were long passé. He glanced at me with no sign of recognition, but I knew those dark eyes and that strong nose.
He walked with a limp and used a cane, and that made me sad. But again, what did I expect? The man was eighty-one after all.
The looming tower of the Empire State Building jutted into the sky ahead as I followed him two blocks west on 34th Street. Along the way we passed a sad array of shabby men holding signs begging for jobs. I counted myself so lucky to still have one. I worked for Chicago and the city needed electricity to light its offices and run the trains around the Loop. As an electrical engineer, I'd been kept on while so many others had been let go. My heart went out to all of them.
The man ahead of me seemed oblivious. Just as he'd been oblivious all those years ago to the doom he'd allowed into this world. I'd managed to seal off those memories… the horror gushing from the ground and climbing toward the stars… but seeing him again in the flesh caused a stirring behind the walls.
He turned downtown on Sixth Avenue; after one block he angled between a pair of granite columns topped with black iron eagles and entered a tiny, roughly triangular park. Wrought iron rails fenced it off from the sidewalks. A large statue of a seated man – Horace Greeley, according to the plaque – dominated the center, so I imagined the space carried his name. I trailed him to an empty bench where he pulled out a bag of seed and began feeding the pigeons.
After a moment's hesitation, I settled next to him. "Nikola Tesla, I presume?"
He gave me a quick up and down. "You presume correctly." His voice had aged too, raspy now, but his Serbian accent remained the same. "I am not giving interviews today."
"Don't you recognize me?"
He looked again, giving me a long squint, then shook his head. "Sorry, I cannot say that I do."
"It's Charles…Charles Atkinson."
A longer squint, and then a look of concern. "Charles! Is that really you?"
"I didn't recognize you. You…you have a mustache! You could never grow one!"
I smoothed the dark silky strands along my upper lip. I was perhaps inordinately proud of the growth.
"I was a much younger man back then – just barely twenty-five, remember? I'm middle fifties now."
A look of alarm flattened his features. He lowered his voice. "But why are you here? Is it about…you know?"
I assumed he was referring to that night in 1906, the details of which we'd sworn to carry to our graves.
"No-no," I said quickly. "Nothing like that."
"You shouldn't be here. Please don't look around when I say this, but I am being watched."
It took every fiber of my will not to do just that. "Are you sure?"
"It's been going on for years. They haven't contacted you?"
I had no idea whom he meant. "No one's contacted me. I'm here from Chicago on business."
His expression relaxed. "Then do not trouble yourself."
"Why would the government contact me?"
"It is nothing." His sudden smile looked forced. "Here on business, you say? Who do you work for?"
I'd been dreading this question. "Don't be angry: Commonwealth Edison."
He looked away and shook his head. "That name remains everywhere. Just last year New York Edison changed its name – to Consolidated Edison. Edison, Edison, Edison! He's long dead and yet all these companies make millions upon millions under his name using my current!"
I laid a gentle hand on his shoulder – he was all bone beneath the fabric – and let him stew a moment. Finally he reached up and patted my hand.
"You are an electrical engineer, Charles. I realize it is almost impossible to work in your field without being connected to that name. But why Chicago?"
Now we came to the reason I'd sought him out.
"Well, because after you shut down the project, we agreed to separate and keep a low profile. Which is exactly what I did. However, I fear I cannot say the same for you."
"I tried," he said. "Oh, how I tried. I declared bankruptcy and feigned a nervous breakdown after Wardenclyffe. I even moved to Chicago myself for a year – with no idea you were there – but I hated it. I thought I'd succeeded in finding obscurity when they dragged me out to receive the Edison Medal, of all things." His mouth twisted as though he'd bitten into something rotten. "The Edison Medal."
Yes. How that must have rankled.
I reminded him, "It's perhaps the highest honor in our field."
"I know, I know. I would have seemed petty had I refused it. But after that, the spotlight kept falling on me. So I decided to hide in plain sight."
"I don't see how saying you'd been contacted by beings from space and talking of death rays and such is hiding. And thought cameras, maestro? Thought cameras?"
He started to laugh but it cut off as he winced and pressed a hand to the side of his chest. "Please don't make me laugh."
This couldn't be good. "What's wrong?"
"A few weeks ago I was struck by a cab crossing the street. My fault entirely. Many bruises and a number of broken ribs."
"Did you see a doctor?" I knew how he felt about doctors.
"Of course not. What were they going to do? Strap my chest? I did that myself."
I could only shake my head. "Same old stubborn Serb."
He got a sly look. "No, not the same, not the same at all. I've seen to it that I'm now the world's best known mad scientist. That's why I publicly obsess on the number three, why I demand eighteen napkins at each meal. One cannot take a man like that seriously." He pounded his fist on his knee to emphasize each word. "Which is just what I want."
"But your legacy–"
"Is quite secure. That won't go away. The electric power that lights all these buildings and moves the subways running beneath our feet – that is mine. I no longer earn a penny from it, but the fact that I invented it cannot be changed. The man named Nikola Tesla made an enormous contribution to human civilization. Using direct current, humanity could not be where it is now. Alternating current got us here. And I invented it."
Well, there he was, chuffed as ever about his accomplishments. I was glad to see his ego had not suffered from all his financial and professional setbacks since last we met. He'd dwindled physically, but two defining facets of his personality – his stubbornness and his self-regard – remained unchanged from our Wardenclyffe days.
"But I have another legacy, do I not," he added with a haunted expression.
I guessed where this was going. "You're not still blaming–?"
"Thousands of lives, Charles. Three thousand of them, all on my conscience."
"Has that anything to do with your mad-scientist charade?"
He leaned back and seemed to deflate. "I fear the day when my mind starts to slip. What if I begin talking about all that happened? The consequences–"
"Will be nil," I said. "What happened is beyond the wildest imagination. Who in their right mind would believe?"
"They would believe Nikola Tesla, the great thinker, the brilliant scientist and inventor."
I nodded, seeing where he was going. "But they won't believe a mad scientist."
"Exactly. But I have a greater fear: What if someone convinces me to change the circuit diagrams back to their original configurations?"
"Why would anyone do that?"
"If they figure out why they were revised."
"You mean these government men you mentioned – our government, I assume?" Nazi agents were rumored to be infiltrating the States.
"They seem to be. But there are others. That secret society wants to collect on a debt."
"The money they advanced me to keep Wardenclyffe going."
That did it. The walls crumbled and the memories came back in a rush, thundering loose and flooding around me.