(Photo credit: Nikola Tesla memorial, Niagara Falls State Park, NY, courtesy Tesla 314, Flickr Creative Commons)
In June 2012, when my wife and I visited the U.S. side of Niagara Falls for the first time, I was surprised to see a large bronze statue of 19th century inventor Nikola Tesla in the Niagara Falls State Park (run by the state of New York). At first blush it seemed a little incongruous, standing in gray solemnity among all the bright and colorful tourist amusements on the park’s Goat Island, alongside the massive falls. Most among the crowds of tourists paid little attention to it, even though it looks as if it deserves attention. The statue dates back to 1976. It was a gift from the government of Yugoslavia, whose territory incorporated Tesla’s home in Serbia, which was not an independent country at the time. Now Yugoslavia is no more, Serbia is back, and Tesla, today described as a Serbian-American, is “back” too.
I admit I’ve never been too well informed about Tesla. I’m also one of these people whose knowledge of electrical energy is fuzzy at best, though of course I’m very glad we have it at our disposal. Still, the name is familiar, and it all has something to do with electricity, right? OK, I guess I knew he invented and/or promoted alternating current as an efficient means of delivering electrical power for public use, and that he had an inventor’s spat with Thomas Edison over that. On reflection it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to come across a statue of the man sitting in the midst of one of the largest electricity-producing regions in the world. But this large, somewhat austere memorial still caught me off guard.
Tesla’s knowledge of electricity was not fuzzy. He was born in Serbia but moved to the States as an adult to work for Thomas Edison. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1891.) He soon broke with Edison in a dispute over pay, started his own company, and later worked with Edison rival George Westinghouse. In a brilliant career in America, Tesla developed not only the alternating current (AC) electrical supply system but also the Tesla induction motor, the Tesla Coil (a type of transformer circuit), fluorescent lighting, and more. He was also a decent self-publicist, so he was able to secure broader fame by promoting his inventions to millions of ordinary people who (like me) knew little about how electricity actually works. In his time, Tesla became as famous as Edison, perhaps even more so.
Tesla, together with Westinghouse, built the first hydro-electric power plant in 1895 at Niagara Falls, right next to the site of the current monument; that’s why it’s there today. In fact the monument stands in front of the entrance arch to that power plant, which is now long gone. The statue itself is quite arresting in its oddness. It depicts Tesla sitting on a chair in long, plain overalls, with some sort of large chart draped across his lap. Even seated, the figure seems tall and gaunt, reflecting Tesla’s stature—he was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed only a little more than 140 pounds through most of his life. By all accounts Tesla was a dashing, urbane man; maybe the memorial’s gray austerity reflects the values of its communist-controlled state of origin more than the man himself.
I don’t remember ever learning anything about Tesla in school. I think my oldest recollection of the name was from the mid-1980s track “Tesla Girls,” by British New Wave group Orchestral Movements in the Dark. It was a weird name for a pop song, even for the ’80s. The music video didn’t seem to have much to do with electricity, though the lyrics did say something about “electric chairs and dynamos.” And OMD were heavily into synthesizers; so there’s a connection. Still, it was all a bit vague. Anything about Tesla’s life I know today I learned in later years.
My schoolboy ignorance of Tesla might have had something to do with the relative obscurity Tesla’s name fell into after his death in 1943. But beginning in the 1990s, his reputation began to be rehabilitated. He’s become a bit of a pop culture cult figure since then, with an explosion of cultural references in books, comics, films, television, and Internet that have given him a strong measure of “geek cred.” The most memorable cultural reference that sticks with me, however, is a clip I first saw on YouTube about three or four years ago, culled from the HBO series Funny or Die, called “Drunk History.” This is where Tesla’s life is played out for laughs in a 6-minute video.
If you’ve never seen these videos, they work like this: A regular person is filmed getting very drunk in front of the camera and then tries to relate the story of some person from history. A group of famous actors reenact scenes that are synchronized with the drunk person’s story—right down to lip-synching his or her drunken words and incorporating them into the scene. In this case John C. Reilly plays Tesla and Crispin Glover plays Tesla’s “arch enemy,” Thomas Edison. The video plays up the Tesla-Edison rivalry over rival systems of power generation: Tesla’s AC system versus Edison’s DC system. It’s very funny if you like that sort of thing. (I do.)
In addition to the audiovisual stuff, there have been a whole slew of plaques and other memorials devoted to Tesla’s memory in North America and Europe—Wikipedia lists six, and there are probably more. One of these is a more recent statue, from 2006, that stands just a mile away, on the Canadian side of the falls, in Queen Victoria Park. But the American Niagara Falls monument was, I believe, the first to be built in this continent. Perhaps, as his reputation continues to flourish, more and more of the revelers from around the world who make the trip to Niagara Falls will take a minute or two and stop to check it out.
A. Bowdoin Van Riper (2011). A Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists and Inventors in American Film and TV since 1930. Scarecrow Press.
John O’Neill (2007). Prodigal genius: The life of Nikola Tesla.