Nikola Tesla - "Man of the Future" - An interview by Curtis Brown in 1894 - An Engineer's Aspect


Home Top Ad

Responsive Ads Here

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nikola Tesla - "Man of the Future" - An interview by Curtis Brown in 1894

Curtis Brown interviewed Nikola Tesla in 1894. The story and its accompanying illustrations were published in several newspapers in October of 1894. I found this article in the Newspaper Archives. It seems to be very thorough and I felt the author was trying to portray an accurate picture of the man, Nikola Tesla, and his visions for the future.

The Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Texas, page 10. Sunday, October 21, 1894.

A Genius Who Loves America and
Has Added to Its Present
Once a Newspaper Man, Now the Greatest of
Electrical Seers--When We Can Tele-
graph Messages Without Wires.
For the News--Copyright.

It is a most difficult thing to interview Nikola Tesla, but to sit down and talk with him, man to man, ah, that is a different matter, and if one has had that privilege he will be glad to remember it in years to come, and to tell his grandchildren about it, for it is quite likely that they will know very well who Nikola Tesla was.

This brilliant young electrician, who undoubtedly is the foremost thinker of the world in his chosen field, is honestly and sincerely modest. No writer who has tried to get him to talk for publication has any doubts on that score. "It is an embarrassment to me," he says, "that my work has attracted much public attention, not only because I believe that an earnest man who loves science more than all else should let his work speak for him, if it will, but because I am afraid that some of the scientists, whose friendship I value very much, suspect me of encouraging newspaper notoriety." Mr. Tesla reverted to this matter several times in the course of two conversations, and is evidently sensitive about it. Therefore the portions of this article that come from him should be regarded as a special concession, particularly as he has never talked so freely before. Bogus interviews with him have been published of late, but this is genuine.
Mr. Tesla spends his days on the fourth floor of a machine shop at No. 33 South Fifth avenue. His name does not appear anywhere on the building, and there is nothing about the place to indicate that it is one of the world's centers of electrical interest. The whole floor is occupied by Mr. Tesla's laboratory, except that one corner is partitioned off into the plainest of little offices containing principally a modest desk for the inventor, a yet more modest desk for his bookkeeper, a book case largely devoted to the "Official Gazette of the patent office," and a small blackboard which hangs on the wall and bears evidence of hard usage. The black is worn from this board in several spots, and the rest of it is covered with figures and cabalistic signs. No doubt the science of electricity would have been notably poorer but for some of the problems worked out on that shabby blackboard, for when the inventor is puzzled he goes to it and works away on it nervously with a stubby piece of chalk.

The laboratory itself looks commonplace to the uninitiated. It is filled with machinery and electrical appliances, and a stranger prowling about the building at will would surely mistake its fourth floor for a part of the machine shops below. One who is not an electrician would find in the Tesla workshop none of the marvels that make Edison's laboratory better than a circus for the sightseer. An electrician, however, would find secrets there with which he could make and break colossal fortunes on the stock market, for reasons that will appear further on.

But Mr. Tesla's half dozen employes are tried and trusted men, and the would-be visitor would find it an extremely difficult matter to get into this laboratory. If he did get in he would be more than likely to find the inventor there working over some bit of machinery with a handkerchief tied about his throat in lieu of a collar, yet dressed in clothes of fashionable cut, and generally looking very neat and clean. Unlike Mr. Edison, the younger inventor has some regard for his personal appearance.
One rarely meets a man more free from affectations and self-consciousness than Nikola Tesla. He does not like to talk of himself, and when that subject comes up he is sure to steer away from it as quickly as possible. He has bachelor quarters at the Gerlach on West Twenty-seventh street, but he can be found at Delmonico's nearly always at breakfast and dinner time.
With due apologies to Mr. Tesla for so much personality, it may be said that he has the same cast of countenance as Ignance Jan Paderewski--long and thin, with fine, clean-cut features, low forehead, and a certain gleam of the eye that denotes wheat might be called spirituality. He is an idealist, and one who has created an ideal of him from the fame that he has won will not be disappointed in him upon seeing him for the first time. He is fully six feet tall, very slender, very dark of complexion, nervous and wiry. Impressionable maidens would fall in love with him at sight, but he has no time to think of impressionable maidens. Day and night he is working away at deep problems that fascinate him, and anyone who talks with him for even a few minutes will get the impression that science is his only mistress and that he cares more for her than for money or fame.

Any one who has met Paderewski and has been able to speak German or French with sufficient fluency to enjoy a conversation with him, and who has also had the pleasure of a talk with Tesla across one of Delmonico's tables, will feel instinctively that the Polish pianist and the Servian electrician have much in common, and that it is a great pity they have never met. Some philanthropist could do both of them a service by bringing them together when Paderewski comes to this country again next December. They could at least find a common ground of interest in Slavic literature, with which both have a wide acquaintance.

Speaking of love for science, Mr. Tesla said the other day in one of the rare moments when he could be induced to talk of himself: "Wherever I am I can not help working at problems that present themselves to me and seem so important that I can not help but try to solve them. I spend so many hours at my laboratory at times that my friends become alarmed and threaten to lock the place up and hide the key. Seriously," he continued, with earnest face and eyes fairly ablaze, "if they tried to do that I should shoot them. I would, indeed. It makes no difference to a man's health how long he works, so long as he loves his work, for his affection is like the oil in the lamp which keeps the wick burning without consuming the wick itself. When the oil is gone, then it is that the wick goes fast. If at any moment I lost my eagerness and enthusiasm, then very likely I would go to pieces.
"That was what would have happened to me if I had continued to be a journalist. You never knew that I was once a member of your profession? Well, I was. The trouble with me was that I wrote too carefully, and, as it seems to me, too thoughtfully. When I wrote an article of which I was particularly proud, my friends would say: 'Tesla, that was a masterpiece!' But the editor would say: 'Why don't you write something more lively? Not half a dozen people will read that stuff.' No, journalism is the hardest work in the world for the man who wishes to be thoughtful. My heart was not in it, and it would have worn me out soon, like the wick without any oil. Even as it is now, I get worn out sometimes, but it is a great comfort to be one's own master and to feel that there is nothing to prevent one's dropping all work at any moment and starting for Europe or somewhere else for as long a rest as one wants.

"I have noticed a queer thing about my mental operation, and that is that my mind seems to work in two halves, each independently of the other, so that when I talk, or even when I sleep, only half of my mind appears to be thus engaged, the other half goes on steadily with whatever I have on my mind, or may be I ought to say with whatever it has on its mind. My friends say, 'You will kill yourself.' I say, 'Nonsense.' I used to be an athlete once and I recuperate very quickly. See me now." He held up his hands as if they were trustworthy indicators of his physical condition. They were long and thin and nervous. They trembled a little and the conclusion naturally to be drawn from them was that their possessor was a man whose tremendous energy, although under good control, was likely to use him up if run at such high pressure much longer.
Mr. Tesla is only 37 years old, and he looks even younger. He was born at a town called Smiljan in Servia, on the borderland of Austro-Hungary. His family was an old one, cultured and highly respected. His father was an eloquent preacher of the Greek church and his mother was a woman of remarkable ingenuity. He had an inherited taste for mechanics, and it is her blood that made Tesla what he is. His father wanted him to enter the church, but he could not be kept away from experiments in magnetism and electricity, in which he was deeply interested by the time he was 16. He was finally permitted to go to a polytechnic school with the idea of becoming a professor of mathematics and physics. He was making inventions of improvements for the telephone before he was 25 years old. He secured employment in Paris as an electrical engineer and then came to America early in the '80s, not because he had any definite employment in view, but because he became convinced that the United States was the best country in the world for an inventor, because new ideas were more quickly and more highly appreciated here than anywhere else.

The day he arrived here he went to work for Mr. Edison, for whom he had and has yet the strongest admiration. He left the wizard of Menlo park in order to join a company organized to sell some of his inventions in arc lighting.

Much of Mr. Tesla's spare time during his first five years in this country was devoted to experiments with what is known as the rotating field for use with the alternating current. In 1837 Prof. Anthony proved that the young electrician had produced an alternating current motor of an efficiency equal to that of direct current motors, yet dispensing with the brushes and commutator which had added materially to the cost and inconvenience of manufacturing electricity.
He pushed on eagerly in the field he had opened, experimenting with alternate currents of extraordinary high potentials and frequencies. The results of his experiments were laid before the public in a lecture delivered before the American Institute of engineers in May, 1891. Before that time he had been known only to electricians. By the hour the reports of that lecture had found their way to the public he was famous. The brilliant gathering of scientists before whom the lecture was delivered was taken by storm with his theories and his remarkable experiments in verification of them. Soon after another lecture was delivered before the most notable body of electricians in Europe, the institute of electrical engineers in London, and his reception by them was as enthusiastic as it had been in America. A day later, by special request, he repeated his experiments before the royal institution, and soon after responded to an urgent call from the two foremost societies in France. In 1893 he delivered lectures in Philadelphia and Europe which served to intensify public interest in him.
One of his experiments on these two occasions was spectacular in the extreme. Finding an audience of some 5000 persons, he passed through his body a current of 200,000 volts, causing streams of light to pour from his body and break forth from his finger tips, whereas a current of a hundredth part of that energy would have killed him instantly, thus proving that the amount of electric energy that may be passed into the human body depends on the strength and frequency of the current, and that the higher these are the less harm they do the body. Mr. Tesla said at the time that the only inconvenience he felt from thus making an electric light of himself was a slight prickling as of a needle and a burning sensation at the finger tips.
The most important work on which Mr. Tesla is now engaged, and which bids fair to bring him more fame than anything he has done before this, is a machine by which a heretofore unheard of steam pressure can be applied to the generation of electricity, reducing the waste, of the current, and, what is of supreme importance, reducing the cost of electricity.

It is easy to see that any device by which the cost of electric power is brought below the cost of steam power will bring a revolution in the processes of manufacturing more sudden and startling than was brought about by the introduction of steam. The economical transmission of electricity generated by water power, as at Niagara Falls, has already brought a promise of this revolution, and if Mr. Tesla's machine will bring a corresponding reduction in the cost of electricity to cities too far away to derive benefit from water power like that at Niagara, then, indeed, the revolution will be complete. Electric motors will everywhere take the place of costly and wasteful shafting in mills and factories, and the day when private houses will be lighted and heated, and to some extent run by electricity, will be brought almost as near to other cities as it now is to Buffalo, which will receive its first installment of power from Niagara Falls in a few weeks at a price promised to be somewhere near a fourth cheaper than that now paid for the work done by steam.

This much may be said positively, and the statement is here made public for the first time: If the wonderful machine on which Mr. Tesla is now putting the finishing touches, works as well elsewhere as it has worked already in the Tesla laboratory, it will bring the extraordinary advantages suggested above. The inventor himself refuses to make any definite statement as to what his engine will do. "I know," he says, "that it will accomplish in my laboratory results that can not but be considered important, and that certainly open up a new field for high-pressure boilers. It is now in operation and has succeeded absolutely, but of course I must not predict from laboratory results what a machine will accomplish when applied to public uses. It may take two or three years to prepare for placing it on the market. I have, of course, a pretty definite idea as to the reduction it will make in the cost of electricity, but there are many reasons why it would not be well to give the figures."
The young inventor endeavors to speak very conservatively of this new machine of his, but it is quite probable that he believes he has solved one of the most important practical problems within reach of the electrical science of the present day.
Any one who is familiar with the mathematics of the steam engine will appreciate one phase of his device when it is stated that it is now run with a steam pressure of 375 pounds, the highest that was ever put to practical use. The pressure generally used is about 175 pounds. The boiler which supplies this steam pressure in the Tesla laboratory is said to be the most powerful ever constructed. It was built for the inventor by Babcock & Wilcox, and so far has responded to the amazing test to which it has been put. The machine to which this unprecedented pressure has been applied has to run almost without friction; that is the kernel of Mr. Tesla's discovery. He tells me that he would dare apply a steam pressure of 1000 pounds to his machine, and would do so if he could get a boiler that could supply the pressure. Engineers who read this statement will conclude, unless they know Mr. Tesla personally, that he is crazy.

One technical value of this new discovery for utilizing steam at high pressure is in the saving that it makes in the cost of heat for producing the steam, because it is a queer freak of nature that requires proportionately much less heat to produce steam at high pressure than to produce it at low pressure. For instance, it takes an increase of only 56 deg. Fahrenheit to raise steam pressure from 12 pounds up to 250 pounds.
There are other electricians who say of Mr. Tesla that he is not a particularly great man as a practical, working electrician, and that his machines are not always as valuable in practice as they are in theory, but most of them admit willingly that he has no peer as a theorist and investigator, a dreamer of the dreams that will come true. His talk of the future is worth thinking about. He is very confident that great things are coming soon through the utilization of the electrostatic or magnetic condition of the earth itself. "Some time," he says, "electricity will be taken from all about us and used for light, heat, and motive power. We will reach down to the earth and tap the current anywhere, getting all we want without expense. It is interesting to sit down somewhere away from all interruption and think out what that would mean. It seems hardly possible that these wonders can be far away, because the process by which they can be realized is so simple. Expressed roughly, all that would have to be done would be to set the earth's electricity to vibrating, and adjust a machine to these vibrations wherever the force was required. It is something as if the earth were a rubber bag. Shake it in one place and you feel the vibrations in another place. You and I could not feel the electrical vibrations, but I have in mind a machine that will. If nothing else is transmitted by these vibrations, intelligence surely will be. I have the best of reasons for predicting that messages will be transmitted through the earth in this way without wires, like a pulse through a human being. It seems surprising that his has not been done before.

"It is reasonable to suppose that the earth's electricity is generated by the atoms of which all things are composed. We and our world are not only whirling through space with a terrific speed, but every little atom in the world is whirling, too. Now there is good reason to believe that the molecules and their atoms are really little worlds that revolve and move in their orbits like stars, causing the ether about them to spin with them, thus generating electricity, or affording the conditions suitable to its generation.
"While electricity could hardly be called the ether itself, it is probable that the effects of dynamic electricity and electro-magnetism are the effects of ether in motion, and the effects of static electricity are the effects of ether under a strain. The discovery of a method of utilizing this practically exhaustless force that lies so close at hand, would uncover what are surely some of the greatest secrets of the universe. It would be the greatest discovery since the creation, and would bring about a total revolution in all life."
Mr. Tesla's enthusiasm is of the kind that kindles quickly, and the great electrical work now going on at Niagara Falls is one of the subjects that is most likely to arouse it. "Some day all wood and coal will be used up," he said, when this subject was introduced, "and, so far as I can see, we will freeze and starve to death unless electricity is used to transmit the exhaustless energy of water power to any distance, wherever man has his habitation, and turn it into light, heat and power for him. But now that transmission of energy by means of electricity has become not only possible but practical, there need be no more unpleasant speculations about what will happen to us after the world's supply of fuel has been exhausted. The operations at Niagara are a promise to us of this insurance against what the future may have in store for us. The work there is inspiring of confidence, too, for the future of electricity."
He believes it is possible to deliver electricity generated at the Falls to the doors of New York cheaper than steam power is generated here. He was explicit on this point and had evidently given careful thought to the subject at some previous time. He said: "If you have 150,000 horse power to transmit in one bulk you can send it 500 miles and yet compete with steam generated on the spot for the engines now in use. But if you send only 10,000, for instance, then in any estimation it can not be sent to compete with steam to a distance of much more than fifty miles. It should be added, however, that while this statement is true according to the results of laboratory practice, it may not apply exactly to the actual operation where all the differences of conditions from those in the laboratory can not be fully discounted beforehand."

A fellow electrician who is in a position to judge of Mr. Tesla with friendly impartiality gives this opinion of him--and it is an opinion that probably will be found to have the approval of most of the scientists who have come in contact with this wonderful young man: "He is a scientist who is in advance of his time, a seer, a genuine poet of electricity, a man whose eye is focused to the great things of science, and whose mind is fitted by nature to deal with them better than the commonplace things that the most of us are obliged to busy ourselves with. He has been charged with being a visionary, but it seems to me that the charge is misleading, for though Tesla undoubtedly saw visions that other scientists had not seen, some of them were based on reasoning rather than on imagination unaided by facts, as was proved by the circumstance that the other scientists saw the same visions after Tesla had pointed out the way to look for them. They were visions that opened rich new fields for scientific exploration and that will bring practical benefits to every household. Tesla is young and strong and his head is not turned. He is as eager as ever and there is no reason to suppose that the most brilliant and useful part of his life is not yet before him."

Mr. Tesla is going to Europe very soon, but not to stay--not by any manner of means--he is too thorough going an American for that. He believes the United States is the most progressive, enlightened and liberal land on earth, and of all the reasons he has for satisfaction with life he holds one of the greatest to be the decision that brought him to this country ten years ago.

I said to him a week ago on bidding him goodby: "You're sure you are thoroughly Americanized now; that you'll never hunger after any other titles than that of a citizen of this United States?" And this was the memorable saying with which he made an enthusiastic answer:

"You bet."