It seems odd to me, as I walk around the museum in Belgrade and learn more about the life of Nikola Tesla, that he is not a household name. It’s especially odd since his inventions are in every single household – powering everything from your hairdryer to your fridge. But at the heart of the Tesla story and the controversy of his legacy is an intriguing mix of patriotic propaganda, economic warfare, unbridled vision and a thin grasp of sanity.
What is agreed unanimously is that Nikola Tesla was a genius ahead of his time. He was born a Serb (although in modern day Croatia) but did most of his work in the USA after emigrating there at the age of 28.
Although he could probably not have had the support to do his research anywhere else, it was working in America that was the first nail in the coffin of his legacy. By working alongside greats like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, the media and writers of history were always going to favour their own sons. In fact, the Americans are often given far more credit for work which was essentially that of Tesla. Things like motors, power transmission, and energy generation.
Another invention Nikola Tesla has never been given proper recognition for is a little thing called radio. Although Guglielmo Marconi is generally considered to be its creator, it was something Tesla was actually further advanced on. In fact, Marconi had to use 17 of Tesla’s patents to make his system work but the general view these days is that, despite legal challenges, Marconi was given the credit because of his links to big financial interests in the US.
Nikola Tesla was also the inventor of remote control, X-ray, the electric motor, lasers, and (in a broad sense) robotics. Oh yeah – just a few little things. This was all at the turn of the 20th century, more than a hundred years ago, and they were advancements that people found hard to believe. In fact, when he first demonstrated remote control with a small boat on a lake, many witnesses believed he was controlling it with his mind!
But these are, in some ways, the boring nitty gritty of the everyday inventions. The true genius of Tesla came in his big ideas. He looked beyond the ordinary and sought to harness the power of the earth and the atmosphere above us. Quite literally. This great inventor believed that he could transmit electricity through the air across great distances, no need for powerlines.
He tried to test his most ambitious project from a station he built on Long Island in New York. But, to cut a long story short, the project ran out of money before he was able to prove if it was possible or not. There were various reasons why his backers were not willing to invest more – but one theory is that they lost interest when they realised what he was building could essentially provide free energy. There would be no way to charge people for how much they used, and that wasn’t a popular idea for men who used their power to make money from power.
The experiment was scrapped and it’s still not known today whether he would ever have been able to make it happen. It is an interesting notion, though, particularly considering so many of his other radical ideas proved to be completely correct and have changed the way the world works. The problem was that he was becoming increasingly eccentric in his old age, living alone in hotels and speaking to pigeons. He was, himself, very confident of how the future would judge him, though.
“All that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combated, suppressed – only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle,” Tesla once wrote.
“Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs, the future, for which I really worked, is mine.”
Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade, Serbia
So, what did the years since his death hold for Nikola Tesla? It’s something I wonder as I look at the exhibits about his life and work in this museum in central Belgrade. Although the scientist died in New York, all his possessions were sent back to Serbia and some have been displayed here. A guide will walk around with you and demonstrate some of his inventions – including the famous Tesla coil that can light up fluorescent tubes remotely.
But the government keeps many of his papers shielded from the public, hidden away just for researchers trying to unlock more secrets from the mind of one of the greatest inventors and scientists to ever live. Is there more he can teach us? Will we find one day that a man who has already changed so much in the world has a few more surprises tucked away for humanity?
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