The copper-coiled tower that rose before me was simultaneously fascinating and frightening. I knew the enormous Tesla Coil had the ability to create lightning bolts that could fry a person. Our guide eased my nervousness, explaining that we would be perfectly safe, as electricity channeled through the coil would seek the highest conductive point in the room, a large metal ball suspended directly above the coil. My unease returned, however, when he began handing out long fluorescent light tubes to those in the front row. “This is for the doubters among you,” he said. “When I turn on the electricity, your bodies will become conductors and the fluorescent tubes will light up, but please don’t raise them too high or you will become the highest point in the room.”
I was visiting the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, the city that claims Tesla as its native son. Born in the Austrian Empire 1856, in what would become present-day Croatia, Tesla was an ethnic Serb. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1884, to work for Thomas Edison, later entering into a long partnership with George Westinghouse. Tesla spent the rest of his life inventing technologies that today pervade our lives, including the polyphase induction motor, alternating current, and radio wave transmissions, among others.
Despite having been awarded around 300 patents during his lifetime, nine of which allowed Westinghouse to win the contract to build the first ever hydroelectric generating plant in the U.S. at Niagara Falls, Tesla is not a household name in America. Throughout his life he struggled to raise enough money to conduct his experiments. His Tesla Coil was a stunning visual demonstration of the power of electricity, and one that he used effectively as he stumped around the country in search of funding. It is said that he could create lightning bolts with a span of more than 120 feet.
Late in his career, Tesla claimed to have discovered a way to generate renewable electricity by using the natural current of the planet, which would have made access to electricity free for the masses. As a result, he was blackballed by the moguls of the petroleum industry who had funded much of his research over the years. For them, free electricity would have been ruinous. Their subsequent smear campaign painted Tesla as a fool and a quack.
With his public reputation in shreds and no remaining prospects for funding, the inventor turned to the only client who would have him: the U.S. government. At the time of his death in 1943, he was working for the U.S. military, perfecting a “death beam” he claimed to have developed in 1915. The public at large may have considered Tesla nothing more than a “mad scientist,” but the government took him more seriously. The day after his death, Tesla’s nephew, Sava Kosanovic, went to his uncle’s room at the New Yorker Hotel and discovered that many technical papers and a black book kept by the inventor had gone missing. The following day, representatives from the U.S. government Office of Alien Property seized all remaining documents from Tesla’s room.
I waited with more than a little trepidation for our guide to demonstrate the smaller version of the Tesla Coil in the museum. Would my hair stand on end? Would I be shocked? Would the surge of electricity damage my new camera? After one last pass in front of the gathered spectators to make sure no one was holding their fluorescent tubes too high, he flipped the switch. The air crackled and a lightning blot split the air, morphing from orange to gold to blue-white as it reached for the metal ball suspended above our heads. In the darkened room, the fluorescent bulbs glowed blue and green, proof that electricity was flowing through the air as well. I felt nothing at all. Except astonishment.
Today the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade is the repository of the inventor’s original and personal inheritance, including thousands of his original documents, book, journals, historical technical exhibits, photos, plans, and drawings, but it required a long court battle to acquire it. In 1951, an American court declared Tesla’s nephew the only rightful heir. In accordance with Tesla’s last wish, Kosanovic transferred Tesla’s personal belongings to the museum, however to this day rumors persist that many of his most important documents, including some missing patents, are still being secretly held by the U.S. government. For those documents that do exist, it seems only fitting that Tesla’s legacy is being preserved and promoted by a museum located in Serbia, where he is revered, rather than in a country where he is virtually unknown.