American’s often forget the genius godfather of the modern electrical age–Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. In my first novel, The Altered States of Hector Haveck, I did my best to incorporate Tesla into the modern storyline, via a series of flashbacks.
Most of the story arc of Nikola Tesla, the world’s greatest yet most unrecognized inventor, is based on true events. His innumerable contributions to society are generally unnoticed or worse, attributed to others who worked from his patents and ideas.
Immediately after his death in 1943, the U.S. Government, embroiled in World Word II, seized his assets and for security reasons, correctly fearing many of his unfinished plans might be stolen and put to use by the foreign enemies.
Much of Tesla’s groundbreaking work is still not entirely understood or able to be duplicated even today. Even more of it is right under our noses, taken for granted…or in the experimental laboratories of untold agents within the military/industrial complex.
Excerpt from the short story, “The Electrical Man.”
The Offices of Nikola Tesla,
1898, New York, USA
There were men who respected him and others who thought he was “off his chump.” But pigeons never judged and Tesla loved them for it. Several waited outside his windowsills for seeds, but he was at a crucial point in his work and begged their patience.
“Wait, my angelic friends, I’m on the verge of cracking the planet in half…”
He smirked at his own hyperbole…but it was true, he was indeed puzzling out the resonant frequency of the Earth. He turned an air pressure value and monitored its corresponding gauge, the pressure powering the pneumatic piston of his tiny electro-mechanical oscillator. He observed the piston then tweaked the pressure a little more, and again, obsessive about accuracy. Such was the nature of his business. “Close enough” wasn’t in his vocabulary.
Tesla straightened his midnight black suit jacket, his appearance always a priority, even over his own body’s well-being. A brief flash of electric blue clouded his view, a vision he knew would not be banished. So he worked past it, through it, as he had done with the others. Operating on just six hours of sleep over a span of three days, he fleetingly entertained the thought of brewing coffee, though he’d long abstained from caffeine for the health of his heart. That heart—his Achilles heel, and although he often proclaimed his plan to live to one hundred and fifty years, he suspected his heart might betray him before then.
Lethargy was shoved aside while the pigeons, emboldened by hunger, pecked the panes. Streaks of feathery lightening spiderwebbed the room, but they’d seen it all before.
“Patience. You will not starve!”
The effects of endless days of toil returned, and he sat, undershirt damp with sweat. Satisfied the seven-inch oscillator, firmly attached to one of the iron building supports, was tuned up to specs, he left it unattended a few moments. Via an armature vibrating within a sturdy casing, the tiny steam-powered mechanism began to resonate with the building’s frequency. Using a mere five pounds of pressure to operate, within the casing the pressure soared to an 400psi, putting the pocket-sized device under enormous strain. Incredibly, it had the potential to shake the office apart if left to its course. Tesla didn’t notice.
A tickle of sweat dripped into his bloodshot eye. He blinked away the sting rather than soil his pristine handkerchief, and decided to simply close his eyes to rest them. Outside the relatively calm confines of 46 E. Houston Street, Staten Island had started to shake.
The Houston street laboratory quaked slightly, a ship encountering a minor swell. Plaster dropped from the ceiling to his shoulder, rousing him. He wrinkled his brow and resumed his monitoring. All the key schematics of his designs were locked away in the voluminous cabinets of his mind, a practice he’d long held, but a few sketches of his machines had been drawn up, technical diagrams for the reference of his employees or for the patent office. Some were mounted to the walls and a second quake pulled a sketch of a turbine down. The thing caught fire when a random burst of electricity leapt from his so-called “Tesla coil” and struck it repeatedly. Next, the wall itself crumbled.
The angry birds flew off in want of less volatile settings, unwilling to die for a handful of sunflower seeds.
Meanwhile, the tremors didn’t stop, so it was time to shut down the device, his point proven well enough. Turning off the air pressure, he frowned when the violent quakes stubbornly refused to subside. A half dozen windows shattered, fallen shards dancing on the floor with each successive rumble. A cool breeze entered but found no speck of dust to stir in the immaculate office.
Tesla stood in awe of his creation, a virtual earthquake machine with a mind of its own! As always, he’d first constructed and calculated the resonator and the entire range of its possible effects all in his head. And he was never wrong. Yet those effects should have stopped when the rebellious little machine was shut down. Instead, like the demon snowball of his childhood, the ripples were growing exponentially.
“Well, this is unexpected.”
The coil in the corner tipped off its stand and crashed down, spouting a stream of haphazard current directly into the floor, electrifying it. His cork-soled shoes protected him, but he had to be careful of what he touched. He slipped one hand into his pocket and reached to take hold of the oscillator itself…and was zapped when a blue bolt shot out at his fingertips. His arm jerked back and he plunged it back toward the device, grasping in an attempt to wrench it loose even as the current rambled up his arm and down his leg. If he’d touched the thing with both hands his heart would’ve been stopped! Still, he was nearly knocked off his feet, with no reward for his effort. The vibrations grew.
From other rooms Tesla heard excited shouting; the residents and workers were in a panic.
“It’s the madman!” someone yelled. (for the world knew his name and the town knew his offices…and his reputation amongst his close neighbors was not quite on par with his international standing).
There is no recourse, he thought, running to snatch up a pair of rubber gloves then dashing to the closet to retrieve a sledgehammer. Destroy the building or the baby.
Raising the hammer in trembling arms, he grinned as fiercely as Saint Michael putting downing the Devil. Yes, he was about to wreck weeks of hard work, but now he knew—and could prove—his principles were sound.
The office door burst down as three policemen broke into the room, jumping as the current from the electrified floor found their feet.
“What the devil?” one exclaimed as they hopped back out.
“Afraid you’ve missed it, gentlemen!” Tesla shouted in his trademark showman fashion. “This experiment’s over!”
Raising the hammer high, he pounded the device over and over, for its casing was strong. At last he noted the tremors stopped, even though his own sleep-deprived body quivered from the combination of adrenaline, exhaustion…and pride. The sledgehammer slipped with a thud as the room fell silent, save for the zap of the toppled coil firing lazily in the corner.
Past the verge of a nervous breakdown, the inventor slumped to the floor, breath ragged. Behind him, an officer ventured to douse the burning turbine sketch using his own service jacket. Tesla assessed the damage with an objective eye. It was severe, and costly. After moments of explanation and a jovial invite to the officers (to come ‘round next week for another performance…which they enthusiastically declined), the inventor was escorted downstairs. The entrance to the building had been knocked crooked from its frame, so he gingerly pushed the door, which hung precariously on a single hinge. Bitter realization slapped Tesla in the face. Being at the epicenter of the vibrations, his lab had taken the least of it.
Safely in the eye of the storm Alas, no one will ever believe this if they didn’t see it.
The punishing waves had circled out, through the substructure of the city; that much he’d anticipated to a small extent, but the degree of destruction, he’d utterly failed to predict. Now he was forced to look upon his works. A heavily cracked sidewalk was the path he hesitantly stepped onto as he peered up the road with dawning guilt at a jagged web of fault lines crisscrossing the pavement. Even the buildings lining the street showed signs of structural distress.
“I am, ah… I’m—”
A man across the street saw him and pointed, the great scientist decked out in his regalia, coming out to witness the neighborhood chaos. Men yelled, women cried, children did both, or just laughed in that gleeful appreciation of wanton destruction that only the young are tolerated to openly relish. It was the laughing which unsettled him most, until he caught sight of a Croatian baker he knew. The weight of the fat old man irritated the inventor, but otherwise, the balding baker was a good person. Tesla offered greeting to his countryman.
“You see this, Niko?” the baker asked in their native tongue. “Is God trying to destroy this city? My shop is ruined!”
“Your shop? But…how bad is the damage?”
“Ruined, I said. Come see!”
So Tesla, in his tall cork shoes and accompanied by police escort, walked with the old immigrant to his establishment, down the end of the block and left on Mulberry. None spoke, too distraught at what they saw along the way. None save him understood the origin of the disaster, for even though the policemen had seen it, they couldn’t believe. The smashed device had been less than the size of a breadbox. Still, the chief of police later grasped enough to warn Mr. Tesla against any further disturbances anywhere near Houston Street, scientific or otherwise.
A conclusion was reached, to an earlier philosophical thesis of his. People were distracted by the outside world and spent no time in examining the minutia of their existences. He realized he’d been equally guilty, but of an opposite crime. So caught up in his world of technological invention, he’d failed to honestly weigh the consequences of his work’s capacity for devastation. Since childhood he wanted to help people, yet in his hubris he never learned to temper his goals. Now, inadvertently, he’d caused harm.
Guilt-ridden, he skipped his nightly dinner at Delmonico’s in favor of a tin of crackers and debated his next move…
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