How are you planning to spend your Nikola Tesla Day?
As it happens, it would not be uncommon for you to answer that question with, “Wait, spend my who day?”
I mean, unfortunately, Tesla’s name has largely been shoved out of the common vernacular in this country. Aside from an offhand reference to the 80’s hair band (who, incidentally makes an brief appearance later in this story) or the occasional mention of a Tesla Coil, there isn’t much out there to draw our attention to this incredible, mind-bending scientist. Oh wait. There was that movie The Prestige, but how many of us actually thought that mad scientist out west was actually based on a real man? The man, who as it turns out, lassoed the power of Niagara Falls and will forever be associated with the robotic ship?
I suppose a more accurate title for this article would be, “How will you celebrate the functioning electricity you enjoy today?” or “How will you be acknowledging the power that we take for granted that enables us to move forward with nearly all life-advancing technologies?” Subtitles could range anywhere from, “Nikola Tesla: The man who gave power to the people” to “Tesla: brilliant scientist who changed the very nature of our lives who died penniless and alone.” A bit too wordy I know, but it needs to be said, and when I was listening to President Obama’s speech on immigration the other day and he mentioned the great inventions of Nikola Tesla, it reinvigorated my interest in the man and his work.
Born in 1856 in what is now Serbia, Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884 and gained American citizenship. The work he did here would go on to change the entire way we communicate and operate globally, and yet many people have never even heard of him. Part of this is due to the fact that Tesla, unlike some other scientists of the day, was not one to showboat or pursue profit in place of working to prove his theories and create real, functioning electricity that could be brought large-scale to the people. He died in 1943 alone, riddled with depression and destitute. In fact, the circumstances in which he died could not provide a starker contrast to the richness and life that his work breathed into our scientific world.
It is one of the greater intellectual crimes of history that the father of polyphase alternating current (AC, the power that brings life to our computers, power stations and has influenced all of modern electrical science) and the father of radio, Nikola Tesla, continues to largely fade into the shadows of the annals of science education and appreciation in modern society.
A simple Google search revealed that in some places in the world, there is a Nikola Tesla Day, celebrated every year on his birthday, July 10. I thought, “Perfect. Now I just need to find a timely link to Ann Arbor so that I can write about it.” As it turns out, I didn’t have to look that far. You may be interested to know that our very own Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum has an exhibit of Tesla’s “Egg of Columbus” on display, a recreation of a model that Tesla had constructed to showcase his discovery of the rotating magnetic field principle at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
However, once I jumped into the Tesla rabbit hole, I discovered a lot more. It turns out that the predominant champion for bringing Tesla into elementary education and the man who has spearheaded a campaign against the Smithsonian Institution for not properly recognizing Tesla in their displays and publications on the history of electricity lives in, of all places, our fair town of Ann Arbor.
I was also in luck, because he was happy to make time for an interview with me.
What struck me first is that John W. Wagner is first and foremost an educator. What struck me as an immediate second was the fact that he is easily one of the most passionate people I have encountered in researching Tesla. In fact, his website is one of the most comprehensive sources around for Tesla’s life history and his contributions to modern electrical science. Wagner is very clear in giving credit where it is due to the other scientists who have contributed to electrical science, such as Oersted and Faraday, and is just as clear about exposing the often unpopular truth about Edison and others such as Marconi, who, though they made contributions, appear to have been much more concerned with capitalizing and monetizing their (and others’) work than they were with bringing these life-altering technologies to the common people. In fact, after years in court over patent battles, the court finally ruled in Tesla’s favor over Marconi, but the ruling was bittersweet, as Tesla had already passed away.
I asked John several questions, but mostly I just listened. The man is wealth of knowledge on the subject. As a third grade teacher required to teach his students how to write in cursive, Wagner not only drilled the students in how to master fine penmanship but also harnessed their imaginations and unbridled sense of youthful curiosity and justice.
In a letter writing and t-shirt selling campaign that lasted many years, Wagner and his students raised money for bronze busts sculpted by a former student’s father to be placed in universities all over the country. In fact, if you feel like seeing one in person, the University of Michigan has one on display in the Atrium in their EECS building. At this point in time there are 19 donated bronze busts of Tesla in universities all over the United States. In fact, at the time on a tip from his younger son, Wagner contacted the band Tesla, and they ended up donating $1,800 to the cause.
Notably, one of the first places Wagner went to donate a bronze bust of Tesla was The Henry Ford Museum, but was told that they “had no use for it at the “Edison Institute.” Wagner ran into a similar situation with the Smithsonian Institution. After offering a bust to the Smithsonian, accompanied by a student letter, a week later they got a letter back saying “Sorry, we have no use for it.” In spring 1989 they went to Washington, and saw that there was a bust of Edison sitting right next to an exhibit of one of Tesla’s inventions with no mention of Tesla, even though his patent number was right on it. If anything, it’s snubs like these that seemed to have spurned Wagner to work all the harder to bring education about Tesla to young students.
In fact, one of the things that I found most interesting about Wagner’s work involving Tesla awareness in elementary-age students are the two children’s books he has written about the inventor. The first one is already out, complete with a wide array of color illustrations, and the second book is due out later this summer. These books are the culmination of 27 years devoted to making knowledge about Nikola Tesla easily accessible to young minds. In 2002, Wagner was awarded a lifetime achievement award for his work in education of Tesla at the Telluride Technical Festival.
According to Wagner, in 1896 when Tesla electrified the power of Niagara Falls, the “ world exploded with progress and [then] the world promptly forgot about Tesla because they had gotten what they wanted people don’t realize how important polyphase electric current rotating until they don’t have it.” Essentially, we take it for granted until the power goes out.
Do you like the fact that your laptop works and you can Skype with your friends overseas? Thank Tesla.
Are you a fan of the Information Super-Highway? Thank Tesla.
Do you love (as I do) your NPR “driveway moments?” Thank Tesla.
At it most elemental, Tesla harnessed the power to make all of those things possible for us to enjoy. He created the stepping stone into the 20th and 21st century of technological discovery, all powered by an imagination and understanding of the world and how it works that comes along once in a lifetime.
Tesla was a unique human being, and one who was also deeply plagued with depression, severe obsessive compulsive disorder and a fight for his life and discoveries against far more well-funded opponents seeking to capitalize off of new scientific discoveries (think Thomas Edison) that chased him essentially all the way to his grave. On his Web site, John Wagner describes Tesla as the man “who invented tomorrow.”
So, the last question I asked John Wagner was, “How will you be spending Nikola Tesla Day?"
His answer was this:
“ I consider everyday of the year Nikola Tesla Day. In short, July 10 for me is no different than any other day because I am 'on the job' celebrating and promoting him everyday.”
You can't really hope for a better celebration than that.
Elizabeth Palmer is the Customer Advocate at AnnArbor.com as well as a contributor. She writes about food and food traditions, sustainable development and her experiences as a curvy girl. She has a bachelor’s degree in photography and is finishing her masters in historic preservation. Elizabeth also teaches a course on sustainable development at Eastern Michigan University.You can contact Elizabeth by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.