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Tesla Time

Nikola Tesla, a scientist and inventor who died friendless and penniless almost 70 years ago, is re-emerging as "geek god"of "hip techies," reports Daniel Michaels in the Wall Street Journal (1/14/10). Tesla, as you might recall, "achieved fame and fortune in the 1880s for figuring out how to make alternating current (AC) work on a grand scale … He created the first major hydroelectric dam, at Niagara Falls … His inventions helped Guglielmo Marconi develop radio." Tesla started out working for Thomas Edison, but "quit in a spat over pay" and the two became rivals — with Edison advocating direct current (DC) versus Tesla’s AC.

Tesla eventually sold his AC patents to George Westinghouse for lots of money, but "burned through much of his fortune testing radio transmissions." He also "stumbled upon — but didn’t pursue — lasers and X-rays, years before their recognized discoveries … He sketched out robots and a death ray he hoped would end all wars." But while Edison racked up some 1,093 patents in his lifetime, "Tesla left few completed blueprints." All of this has created a certain "geek mystique" about Tesla among some, like director Terry Gilliam, who sees him as "more of an artist than a scientist in some strange way."

In 2006, David Bowie played Tesla in a Gilliam film, "The Prestige," and 1984, was featured in an OMD song called "Tesla Girls." Today, his name brands an electric roadster (link) and is being used for a videogame "character who could understand alien spaceships." Edison, meanwhile, is maybe less "current" (sorry) these days, with his phonograph and motion-picture camera "becoming historical curios," and even the incandescent bulb losing favor to compact fluorescents. OMD’s Andy McCluskey calls Tesla "a romantic ‘failure’ figure," and says, "I can’t imagine writing a song about Edison … too boringly rich, entrepreneurial and successful!"