It is blazing hot outside at Logan Square and the noon sun forces people to put on shades, but here in the Electricity section the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia the air conditioning keeps an ambient temperature and the lights are dimmed. I observe my daughter gingerly step on the Sustainable Dance Floor, which generates energy to illuminate itself. Nothing happens. She gets bolder and jumps up and down. At last, the floor lights up under her feet. I walk to the Floor myself and step on. It works better for me. Those extra pounds I have are finally put to a good use. Perhaps there is something good about them and I can delay the diet I was planning on and get a hamburger later on.
My musing about bright prospects for energy future in a fast food-centered country are interrupted by a question:
“You said that thing is going to shoot light.”
I raise my eyes. That “thing”hangs from the ceiling and is bigger than an average person. It looks like a mushroom. A giant metal snake wraps around the top of its smooth stalk.
“You will have to try harder,” I say. “This Tesla Coil needs more energy before it produces a bolt of lightning.
“What is Tesla?”
OK, so I asked for it, but at least she does not demand I dance at the floor like it
says in a guide. I am willing to do a lot to entertain my children but there is
a limit. “Not what –a who,” I say. “Nikola Tesla is, or was a person, you should know that.” Then I guiltily flash back to my childhood in Czechoslovakia and remember our family vacuum. It carried a little label that said Tesla. For a long time I was convinced that Tesla is simply a different name for electricity. When I graduated from the middle school, I knew better.“Tesla,” I formulate my answer slowly, “was an inventor. He worked so we can now plug our computer, your toys - and TV, I wince – into a wall outlet and they work.”
“You mean he invented electricity?” asks my underestimated scholar.
“Not really,” I say. “But you could say he brought us the electricity. Tesla invented and built a lot of stuff that uses electric energy and he helped to bring
electricity to our homes in the form of alternating current.” I stop, expecting
the inevitable. If she calls me on my high school physics, I am in trouble.
“Is he around here?” she asks instead. “Can we say hi to him?”
“No,” I say with an unexpected sadness. “He died seventy years ago. In a few days, on July 10, he would have his birthday.” She loses interest, momentarily distracted by the nearby display of a circuit board.
What makes us to turn again and again to a man that was born 157 years ago? There were other giants that contributed to our world. Few of them keep the hold on their fans as much as Tesla does. Perhaps it is our admiration for a lone wolf, for a lone man that takes on the world. Tesla was the essence of him. A young Serbian boy, born in a village as a son of a priest, he worked his way up. The only concern his teachers had was that he will kill himself working so
He had 700 inventions to his name. He won the war of currents with Edison and so we use the alternating instead of the direct current. It helped that the alternating current, championed by Tesla, is a better vehicle to transmit energy. He invented the alternating current motor, which we depend on to run appliances in our homes.He made extraordinary claims and proposed machines so powerful that enthusiasts try to build them even now, and The MythBusters TV series felt compelled to test one of his machines to see if it can really generate earthquakes. Fortunately it did not. Even a genius can be wrong from time to time.
Westinghouse paid him handsomely for his inventions, yet he died penniless. He put the money he made back into his research. The company called Tesla that I remembered splintered into many, but they still carry the Tesla name. Of course, by now they are overshadowed by the new kid on the bloc called Tesla Motors. The Tesla laboratory at Wardenclyffe was recently bought by Tesla enthusiasts and will be renovated. The legend of Tesla will live on and continue to inspire.
“This looks simple,” says my daughter, her attention back to the giant
“Yes, but it can do wonderful things,” I say.
“Can I make things like Tesla?” she asks.
“Perhaps,” I say, “If you work hard."
“Can everybody be like Tesla?”
“No, not everybody. But everybody should try.”