Tesla, and The Danger of Mythos
The idea that Telsa worked on some anti-gravity technology now lost is a myth. He also didn’t invent the three-phase electrical distribution he’s so often credited for. That was Mikhail Doliva Dobrovolsky, a Russian engineer working in Germany, who was the first to demonstrate polyphase power when he used it to transmit hydroelectric power many kilometers to power an 1891 exhibition in Frankfurt am Main, in Germany.
At around the same time, Tesla patented a polyphase motor, which he later agreed was identical to Dobrovolsky’s, who did not patent his discoveries out of a (perhaps misguided) sense of civil duty.
Tesla, though, was working for Westinghouse, who was keen to hold him up as the great genius behind the new electric age, while Dobrovolsky, a Russian working in Germany at a time of growing tensions between the two, was championed by no one. So the myth of Tesla grew in the American press, and today millions think of him as a cult-like figure, the great American misunderstood lone inventor when the reality is very different.
Tesla was a great inventor and engineer and contributed mightily to the early 20th-century explosion of electrical infrastructure, but he was one of many, many such contributors, and he was rather less successful in his pure scientific pursuits, where his focus on practical experiment and lack of theoretical grounding led him to waste energy on all sorts of unworkable nonsense like through-the-air power transmission and death rays that even at the time could have been shown to be impossible along the lines he envisioned.
Edison was not the lone wolf who invented the light bulb, nor Bell the telephone, nor Tesla polyphase power. And while Tesla never worked on anti-gravity as far as we know, he did apparently spend much of his adult life tinkering on his own “Dynamic Theory of Gravity,” which in a letter written at 81 years of age, he claimed would “put an end to idle speculations and false conceptions, as that of curved space” and he said it was “worked out in all details” and he would “soon give it to the world.”
He was claiming to have refuted Einstein, which would have been quite an achievement, but Einstein has been experimentally confirmed to precisions Tesla could not have dreamt of, and Tesla’s theory, if it ever truly existed, managed to vanish utterly from his papers.
I say all this not to denigrate Tesla or his contributions, but to point out that history tends to lionize the most visible faces behind significant events and gloss over the many others who invariably make the events possible, the societal influences and interchanges behind them, and indeed, the substance of the contributors.
Tesla also said,
man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct … The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
If this statement were your only guide to the man’s character, you might well judge him with Hitler. But he also spoke out in favor of women’s equality, and during the second world war, sought to develop a death ray in support of the allies.
Tesla was not a God-like genius, stifled by a society unprepared to accept his magical inventions. He was a human being born of his times and situation, as are we all, and to buy too deeply into his myth betrays not only the memory of the lesser-knowns, but the very pursuit of truth to which he seems to have been genuinely committed.