Nikola Tesla: Mad scientist or genius inventor?
Ten days after his 158th birthday, eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla made a surprise appearance at a celebration in his honor at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum July 20. Squinting up at the lights, he asked host Sanden Totten, “Are you still using AC current?”
The joke, for those not in the know, is that alternating current (AC), one of Tesla’s biggest contributions to the world, is omnipresent today. It’s what brought electricity to the masses, since the DC (direct) current, championed by Tesla’s one-time boss and rival, Thomas Edison, was far less efficient over long distances and much more expensive and dangerous.
Tesla’s vision was to make electricity free to everyone, like breathing air. That part didn’t work out—although one can imagine him being a huge proponent of free worldwide wifi if he lived today.
As Totten and his guests noted on July 20, business and profit were never Tesla’s strong suit—he died broke and alone in a Manhattan hotel room in 1943, at the age of 86. It would seem his inventor’s brain was filled with too many other visions, such as the induction motor, x-rays, radio, remote control, lasers, neon lights, fluorescent bulbs and, of course, the loud, lightning-sparking Tesla coil.
You can watch our entire 70-minute celebration with Totten, KPCC's science reporter and co-producer of Brains On!, with guests Chaka Jaliwa, outreach coordinator from the California Science Center Foundation, Bill Grueneberg, museum guide from the Griffith Observatory, and, of course, Tesla himself, as portrayed by cartoonist David Malki, creator of Wondermark.com.
1:57 KPCC science reporter and Brains On! co-producer Sanden Totten asks and answers the question, “Who was Tesla?”
4:02 Totten explains how Tesla’s cat literally sparked his interest in electricity
5:00 Totten describes Tesla’s early interest in electrical engineering, his fanatical study habits, his brilliant problem solving and the extraordinary letter of recommendation that got him a job with Thomas Edison.
6:50 In his bright purple bow tie, Chaka Jaliwa, California Science Center outreach coordinator, takes the stage to explain why he loves electricity.
25:35 The current wars: How Tesla’s AC current prevailed, per a short video from PBS New Voyage Communication.
29:15 Totten describes Tesla’s extraordinary visual thinking and vivid imagination
33:25 Tesla’s dream to create wireless electricity, with a video demonstrating the sparks and arcs produced by the Tesla coil built by Southern California Public Radio’s chief engineer Lance Harper. (You can view that video here):
36:45 Bill Grueneberg, museum guide for the Griffith Observatory, dishes on the Tesla coil and Tesla’s vision of electricity for everybody.
50:25 Totten describes Tesla’s hair-raising experiments, death-ray explorations and his many strange quirks.
53:10 Tesla’s love for pigeons, his death on Jan. 7, 1943, and the moving radio tribute read by NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
55:25 Nikola Tesla (as played by Malki) enters the Crawford Family Forum shouting, “Tesla is alive! I come from the future….wait, what year is it? Uh, I come from the past…”