Nikola Tesla is among the 20th Century’s greatest forgotten heroes – a European by birth, and an adopted U.S. citizen who radically changed our world. In spite of that, our American culture promptly made it a point to forget him. First he was destroyed by conspiracies, then he was obscured to history.
Working alone, he invented the entire technology to build electrical generators under Niagara Falls and designed the entire Western world's electrical grid. Still, if you were educated in the U.S., it's likely you weren't taught that little fact and were further instructed that the invention of radio was done by the Italian, Marconi, over in Europe. Not only is that not the case, but six months after Tesla died in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tesla's patent preceded Marconi's, and that he was the true father of modern radio.
Yet for decades in the United States, the Marconi story was told to school children and preached as historical fact. If you didn't answer that way on a test you got a lowered mark. If you answered that an obscure Serbian immigrant named Nikola Tesla actually invented radio and not Marconi, you may have even been forced to write the school's incorrect answer on the blackboard many times over.
Even though he was briefly wealthy in his early adulthood and later was revered by author Mark Twain, he died too poor to pay his own light bill, cheated by the robber barons of his day: Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan, and George Westinghouse. Tesla was robbed of millions by George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison portrayed him as a lunatic in an attempt to suppress his inventions, and J.P. Morgan manipulated his funding to prevent him from completing his Universal Power System.
So why was he so easily dismissed and forgotten?
For one thing, his eccentricities made it easy to ridicule him while sitting under the lights of his alternating current system. And more than anything else, it is his humility that caused him to be forgotten. Not that he shied away from publicity during his time, but because he had no ambition to cheat anybody out of anything, in an era where cheating in business was the expected behavior. In the Age of the Robber Baron, Nikola Tesla believed in the power of a simple handshake and thought that anyone gifted as he, Edison, and the others had been was morally obligated to deal straight and keep their word.
Worldwide System of Free Electrical Energy
The very notion of such a thing is ridiculed by today's scientists, but it bears note that of his seven hundred patents, Tesla never set out to design anything that he didn't go ahead and build. All his inventions worked as intended because of his extreme ability to visualize details in his imagination.
His overarching lifelong goal was to solve the problem of how to supply free, unlimited electricity to the entire planet. He knew that universal power could end poverty forever. So today, while we all know about the current energy crises, we are only repeating concerns that preoccupied him at a time when such things caused him to be laughed at.
Nevertheless, Tesla swore prior to World War II that he had already solved the Universal Power problem. And this came from a man who never invented anything that failed to work exactly as he predicted it would. Still, he found to his great dismay that capitalists had no interest in helping to supply anything to the world for free. It is a known fact that the U.S. Secret Service raided Tesla’s New York hotel room and confiscated all of his papers on the day he died -- before his body was even removed. Those papers remain unaccounted for today.
Nearly everything written about Tesla has been nonfiction, for a simple reason that Tesla’s solitary life makes him hard to dramatize. And so there has been no definitive treatment of his life story as taken from the point of view of the handsome Serbian scientist himself.
On top of working to help set the record straight about this generous and productive naturalized citizen and loyal American, I have used the fictional form to go after the question: what was it like to be Nikola Tesla, to live inside his mind?
While the answers in the book are fictional, I believe the lie of fiction can here be more honest than fact. And because Tesla was nearly buried and forgotten before our new age began to waken to his gifts, his inscrutable character becomes clear and sympathetic not via biographies, but instead through the device of his Muse in fiction. She allows us to enter the mystery of his solitary life.
So, then - why the devise of his Muse? The book Prodigal Genius by John J. O'Neill is the only Tesla biography authored by a writer who actually knew the subject. O’Neill interviewed Tesla on more than one occasion. Significantly, O’Neill is the writer Tesla tried to tell about his Muse in real life, only to have O’Neill refuse to print Tesla’s claims. O’Neill later lamented that decision in the pages of his book, and although the decision was made while he was editor at Collier’s Magazine, and in his book he made it clear that he would not have made the same choice again.
Tesla’s story about the source of his inspirations was never believed during his life, and my book simply takes him at his word about the driving force of his incredible inventive imagination.
So you have a genius protagonist who spent his life trying to give the world's poor the best chance anyone could provide them by offering free power for lights, the digging of wells, and the running of irrigation pumps, who ended his days in a tiny double room at the Hotel New Yorker after years of subsisting on crackers and milk. He was kept alive by a pittance pension, not from his adopted company where he accomplished so much and was so badly treated in return, but by the home country he left to spend his life here.
I believe it's clear to anyone who becomes familiar with this astounding life that among the many glittering individuals who turn out to be made of fool's gold, he's one American too important not to know, and the fictional form's "lie of truth" is the key to meeting the real man.
Anthony Flacco is an author of five nonfiction books and three historical novels, all released by major publishers. He holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. He was selected for the Walt Disney Studios Screenwriting Fellowship, and spent a year writing for the Touchstone Pictures division. His first nonfiction book, A Checklist for Murder, was acquired in auction by Dell Books and turned in solid sales. Anthony adapted his book as a two-hour television movie script and sold it to NBC Studios for a movie of the week.