Understanding Nikola Tesla, A Letter from Dexter Marshall - 1899 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Friday, January 17, 2014

Understanding Nikola Tesla, A Letter from Dexter Marshall - 1899

Happy Friday! Today I'm sharing a letter to the editor, trying to help the general public understand Nikola Tesla, from Dexter Marshall in 1899.

Dexter Marshall was a long-time newspaper man, managing editor of the Philadelphia Press and later of the McClure Newspaper Syndicate (Electrical World, Volume 64). He probably had many occasions to interview Nikola Tesla and felt that Tesla's public perception was not correct.

The Waterloo Daily Courier, Waterloo, Iowa, April 6, 1899, Page 2.


Whether Genius or Charlatan, He Is
One of the Most Thoroughly Misun-
derstood Men Now Living on All
This Green Earth.

NEW YORK, April 6,--[Special.]--There is perhaps no one in all this town who is more completely misunderstood than Nikola Tesla, the electrical student and inventor, and there is probably no one who cares less whether he is misunderstood or not than this same tall, nervous, intense native of southern Europe.

This does not mean that Mr. Tesla is callously indifferent to the opinion of his fellows or that he is unduly puffed up over what he has done. On the contrary, he is very human in his desire for approbation, and his mental attitutde concerning his work is that he has only made a beginning in the field of electrical discoveries. But he realizes that the real results of his labors are not in any sense dependent upon the estimation in which he is held personally, that the test of time alone can determine the value of his discoveries and that his best course is to go ahead with his investigations regardless of what any one says of either himself or his many achievements.

Tesla and His Work.

Having said this much, it is only fair to say that Tesla is possessed of a most luxuriant imagination and that some of his outgivings to his friends of the press may have seemed ill advised to certain persons because of apparent extravagance. Tesla is completely wrapped up in the study of the mystic current. He firmly believes that in its complete subjection by man lies the solution of most problems with which humanity is vexed.

Fully understood and harnessed, he believes electricity will furnish the population of this earth with food, warmth, light and power at nominal cost. Social distinctions and differences of rank may, in his opinion, disappear when it is fully and properly utilized, because, as he sees it, all these distinctions and differences are created by and are directly and indirectly dependent upon financial inequalities which must vanish like the mists of dawn before the noonday sun whenever the boundless bounties of nature are made free to all who wish to take them through the mysterious, elusive agency which he is investigating.

Mr. Tesla does not say this remarkable development is likely soon to take place, nor does he believe the world is yet ready for it. He holds, indeed, that down to the present time electrical discovery and development have been almost too rapid, and that in contemporary human conditions there is great danger that more rapid development would tend to increase rather than decrease existing inequalities. For this reason he tells his friends he does not attempt to put his more daring electrical conceptions into concrete form or to realize the utmost from his more sensational electrical discoveries. He explained the principles of wireless telegraphy in print and on the lecture platform several years ago, besides experimentally proving the correctness of his notions satisfactorily to himself, but he has never set out to prove this to the satisfaction of the world or to make telegraphing without a metallic conductor a practical thing. Now that Marconi, the Anglo-Italian, claims to be doing these things Tesla's enemies and even some of his friends, most of whom understand him as little as those who sneer at him, are asking why he has never done this. His enemies indeed say the answer to this question is "because he is visionary and impractical in spite of his reputation," while his friends hold their breath and half admit that this answer may be the true one.

Tesla's Practical Inventions.

But those who believe Tesla wholly visionary and deem none of his work practical fly very wide of the truth. It is true that the cherished "oscillator," of which he is known to expect almost unthinkable things, and half a dozen other inventions and discoveries of which he has from time to time allowed the world to get a glimpse have not yet been made practical, but it is also true that the trolley cars of today, which have revolutionized the methods of intramural transit in every city and sizable town in the United States, could not be operated profitably had he not discovered what electricians term the "rotating field."

It is furthermore true that the scheme for conducting high tension currents long distances over wires is his and that without it the dream of electrically utilizing the power of Niagara falls could never have come true. The bare mention of these two practical achievements by Nikola Tesla ought to silence all talk that his inventions have no utilitarian value, to say nothing of the many other industrial and commercial applications of electricity which he has devised, but of which the outside world has heard nothing at all. The cold facts are that Mr. Tesla is at this time under a large yearly salary guaranteed by one of the two largest electrical manufacturing corporations in the United States, that he is frequently asked to solve the most thoroughly practical problems for this corporation and that much of the work done in his laboratory here is of this sort.

How He Uses His Income.

His big income is mainly spent by Mr. Tesla in making such experiments and investigations as he thinks will tend not to the immediate increase of electricity's practical utilization, but such as in his opinion will help most in the mystic current's ultimate subjection. This is the work he likes most to do. It is indeed the only work he would ever turn his hand to were it not necessary to have an income to carry this on. It may be that he overestimates both the ultimate possibilities of electrical development and his own power in this regard, but of his sincerity in the premises there is not the slightest doubt in the minds of those who know him well.

His chief weakness--if it be a weakness, and there are plenty who will not concede that it is--lies in allowing announce-ments to be put out periodically concerning progress made along his favorite lines. Taken by themselves and couched as they often are in the crude phraseology of writers unfamiliar with electricity and the real scope of his aspirations and intentions, some of these announcements--perhaps most of them--are not easy of assimilation by the public.

In closing this letter it is only right to say that it has been written entirely without Mr. Tesla's knowledge and with the full understanding that he is more likely to resent it than otherwise if it seems in any way to assume to defend him or his work.