Tesla: Master of Lightning

Synopsis: Nikola Tesla invented or developed many of the electrical technologies which form the basis of modern life, including: alternating-current (AC) power transmission and electric motors; high-frequency (HF) communications, the basis for radio and television; neon lighting; remote radio-control; and X-rays. But his visionary genius and technical skill was countered by his lack of business acumen and eccentric personality. After dying penniless in 1943, his "missing papers" regarding the construction of a 'death ray' became the focus of international intrigue. His research on particle beam weapons led to several American and Soviet military research programs, including the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as SDI or "Star Wars".
Director(s): Robert Uth
Production: PBS Home Video
87 min

When you think of electricity

you think of Edison.

When you think of radio

you think of Marconi.

But there is one electrical

genius who is nearly forgotten,

a man who dreamed of giving the

world an unlimited supply of energy.

His name was Nikola Tesla

and he was the master of lightning.

This program was made possible

by contributions

to your PBS station from

viewers like you.

Thank You.

The progressive development of man

is vitally dependent on invention.

Its ultimate purpose is

the complete mastery of mind

over the material world,

the harnessing of the forces

of nature to human needs.

Nikola Tesla, 1919

This is the story of a modern Prometheus

who changed the world with electricity.

It was Nikola Tesla who captured

the power of Niagara Falls

with his alternating current system

and made it possible

to transmit electricity

to all of America and the world.

It was Tesla who patented the

technology for wireless communications

that is used in all radio

and television broadcasting.

His incredible legacy can be seen

in everything from remote control

to neon and fluorescent lighting


guided missiles

and even the Strategic

Defense Initiative.

Yet somehow history has

overlooked this remarkable man.

Tesla was indeed a genius

of the first magnitude.

He was a technological visionary.

He could envision great

things and make them work.

He was a foreigner,

an immigrant who arrived in

America with only his dreams.

A proud and sometimes arrogant man,

he worked and locked horns with some

of the most powerful people of his day.

Thomas Edison, who resented his ideas

Guglielmo Marconi, who

capitalized on his inventions

George Westinghouse, who created

the Westinghouse Electric Company

with Tesla's patents

and the great financier,

J. Pierpont Morgan,

who supported and then abandoned him.

At the height of his career, Tesla was one

of the most famous men in the world.

His inventions helped America grow

into a powerful industrial nation.

His ideas created

billion-dollar corporations.

But Tesla was not a practical man.

Always driven toward the

next great breakthrough

he failed to protect his

commercial interests.

In the end, others made fortunes

with his inventions

and he wound up

penniless and rejected.

Money does not mean to me

what it does to other men.

All my money has been

invested in inventions

to make man's life a little easier.

He was a visionary genius.

There aren't many of them,

and he was willing to give

his life to his visions.

We have to evolve means

for obtaining energy from stores

that are forever inexhaustible.

What I intend to show you now,


is how I finally reached my dream.

This is the house in which,

by coincidence bizarre,

I was born on the stroke of midnight

between July 9 and 10, 1856.

A fierce electrical storm

raged that night.

Nikola Tesla was born of Serbian

parents on the eastern edge

of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

in what is today Croatia.

His father, Milutin, was an

Orthodox priest

who expected his son to follow

him in the clergy.

There were only two choices

for children in those days

one being to go in the army and

the other being to become a priest.

Tesla was not attracted by

either of them,

which was very distressing

to his father.

My father was a very erudite man.

The training he gave me comprised

of guessing one another's thoughts

and repeating long passages of verse.

My mother descended from one of the

oldest Serbian families in the country.

She invented and constructed

all kinds of tools and devices

and wove the finest designs

from thread.

Her fingers were nimble enough

to tie three knots in an eyelash.

Early on, Tesla began to demonstrate

an extraordinary imagination.

In my boyhood I suffered from

a peculiar affliction

due to the appearance of images

often accompanied by

strong flashes of light.

I was quite unable to

distinguish whether what

I saw was tangible or not.

To give an example, I was

fascinated by a description of Niagara

and I pictured in my imagination

a big wheel run by the falls.

I told my uncle that one day

I would go to America

and carry out this scheme.

Then, at the age of 17, while

preparing for the seminary,

Tesla contracted cholera and a brush

with death changed his life forever.

In one of the spells, which

was thought to be my last,

my father rushed into the room.

Perhaps, I said, I may get well if

you will let me study engineering.

You will go to the best technical

institution in the world,

he solemnly said.

I came to life,

like another Lazarus,

to the utter amazement

of everyone.

In 1877, at the age of 21,

I travelled to Graz, Austria

to begin my college education.

Here I quickly became obsessed

with the science of electricity.

I wanted to know more of

this wonderful force.

Every spark produced a

thousand echoes in my brain.

In 1831, in England,

Michael Faraday had discovered the

principal of electro-magnetic induction,

which made it possible to

generate electricity.

Faraday discovered that if

you have an electric circuit

in a changing magnetic field,

it would induce an electric

current to run in the wire.

So this was the invention of the

method of inducing, of creating,

oscillating or AC electric currents.

And it was that invention that Tesla

later harnessed into the electrical

system that drives our civilization.

Early electric motors operated

on direct current electricity

but required a system of

sparking connections to induce

a rotary effect in the machine.

I remarked to my professor that

the design of generators and motors

could be greatly improved by

using currents that alternated.

He embarrassed me, greatly,

in front of my classmates saying:

Mr. Tesla will never accomplish this,

it is a perpetual-motion scheme.

Meanwhile, in America,

Thomas Alva Edison

had begun to experiment

with vacuum tubes,

producing the first commercial

incandescent light bulb in 1878.

Edison and Tesla would soon cross paths

in a gargantuan technological struggle

between direct and alternating

current electricity.

In 1880 Tesla moved to Budapest

where he found employment with

the central telegraph office.

Here his idea for an AC

motor began to haunt him.

In my room, I could hear the

ticking of a watch

with three rooms between

me and the timepiece.

A carriage passing at a distance of a

few miles fairly shook my whole body.

The whistle of a distant locomotive

vibrated so strongly in my ears

that the pain was unbearable.

To recover from these attacks, I

took long walks in the city park.

One afternoon, which is ever-

present in my recollection,

the sun was just setting

and reminded me of Goethe's

glorious passage:

The glow retreats

done is the day of toil...

Upon its track to follow

follow soaring.

As I uttered these inspiring

words, the idea came to me

like a lightning flash.

I felt to my knees

and drew a diagram

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Robert Uth

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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