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Bernard Finn
Curator, Division of Electricity and Modern Physics
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution
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Tesla and the Electrical Age

Tesla was a fascinating person. He was clearly a genius. He had a mind that functioned, if we are to believe him at all, in some very remarkable ways, and had insights that were also quite remarkable.

He was also peculiar. I mean he had idiosyncrasies that were bizarre at best, especially later in life. And that really adds to the mystique.

To me, as a historian, I find Tesla interesting because it was Tesla and five or six other people who, if you like, created the electrical age, the power age, and then lived on within it. ...In the mid to late 1870's, all of a sudden, high power became available, the self-excited dynamo was invented, and now we had something that could give us lots of electricity and therefore the opportunity to use this in some way. The way you used, it, primarily, was motors, and then lighting, and this is what happened at the beginning of the '80's... So now you had an electric power industry, and there was Edison and there was Elihu Thompson and there was Nikola Tesla, and a couple of other people... who through their efforts created this new industry.

Here's a comparison of Edison and Tesla that I think is very interesting. Edison, in living on into this new age, couldn't deal with radio and certain other things; he didn't want to retool. So he kept on with the old technology, he improved the phonograph, he put his efforts into the battery, he did things that were mechanical/electrical, that he knew well, and he continued to contribute in these ways.

Tesla was coming into this new age that he helped to create. One of the features of this new age was it was an age of large laboratories, industrial laboratories, of the engineering schools and so forth, a new breed coming in. I think one of Tesla's difficulties in dealing with this new age is that this was not the way he operated. When he goes to the Westinghouse laboratories to help introduce his motor, he simply doesn't get along with these fellows. He can't cope in this kind of an environment, he works best alone, or with a single assistant, where he sets the agenda... His genius was such that it was very difficult, maybe impossible, for him to engage in the sort of give and take with others that I think would have made an enormous difference.

Tesla and History

I think Nikola Tesla deserves to be known better by scholars and by ordinary people. I think his place in the development of electrical technology was significant, important. But I think the reason to know him transcends that. Among the inventors of his generation, (at) a terribly critical time for electricity in particular and for industrialization in this country, he was special, unique. He was unusual in all sorts of ways. If we are to understand our own creativity, our own ability to invent, whether it's the brilliant breakthroughs of civilization or just those daily inventions and ways of coping with life that we all face, it helps enormously to understand the full range of invention and creativity. Tesla's was unique enough that I think there's an awful lot to be learned by studying the way in which he created. We can't visualize the way Tesla did, but we all have our own visualization. We all look at things and see them in certain ways. So to understand how he took that ability he had and transformed it into an invention maybe helps us to understand how we can take our more limited gifts and translate them... You take this all together and you understand how science, technology and invention fit into the structure of society, fit into American history.

...Our history is of people. It's not just inventions and developments. Edison is interesting not just because he invented... but beyond that, how did he do it? What was it about society that allowed him to do it? How did he interact with society? And in the same way, what was it about America that allowed and encouraged a person like Nikola Tesla to come here, to thrive here, to interact with bankers and others?... How could he be this lone inventor and still contribute in various ways? That's the way we should understand him, within that broader context.

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