Last night I had a dream. In an ancient port city I stood on a boardwalk of stone, looking out across the ocean in the fading, rusty light of day. Flying low across the water at high speed was an ultra-light aircraft with what appeared to be clipped wings. The fuselage was angular with a wide, sloped wind shield. As it approached I braced myself, expecting exhaust, jet engine cacophany and draft. The craft came to a quick halt mere feet from where I stood, without a sound. Of course, I realized in hindsight. It’s electric. It’s noiseless. Elon himself stepped out of the two-seater and was greeted by a businessman, right there near the beach of this ancient town with stone battlements. They walked off, not giving me the time of day. Figures. For them it was just another day in Tesla world.
Tesla has been on my mind, the original Nikola Tesla. I’ve known his name since my electrical engineering classes in college, long before the name Tesla had its contemporary commercial connotation. Thus, when we found ourselves planning our day in Belgrade, Serbia, visiting Tesla’s house museum was our first priority. Indeed, I booked our Airbnb in close proximity to ensure our pilgrimage would be as seamless as possible. That trip was two years ago, the same year Graham Moore published The Last Days of Night. Replete with intrigue, deception and financial high stakes, with a gentle romance thrown in, this historical fiction greatly illuminated my understanding of Tesla and his contemporaries, Edison and Westinghouse. Having just finished the book, my thoughts are filled with Gilded Age inventions and images of a man passionate about his creations. And there were many, some of which are on display in Belgrade.
Tesla invented alternating current (A/C), laying the foundation for the second industrial revolution. According to Moore’s portrayal, Tesla was not happy unless he was tinkering. His tinkerings led to the invention of radio transmission, ship propulsion and radar, to name a paltry few. The musings of his mind translated into practical innovations that touch every aspect of our daily lives, whether you live in urban Chicago or rural Mongolia. At the time of his inventions, his ideas seemed like science fiction, laughably absurd. But he lived to see their positive impact on people’s daily lives. There’s a very good reason Musk chose Tesla as his company’s moniker. With his mind always set on future scientific innovations, Tesla would most certainly not be shocked to see a man hover up in an electric flying machine, step out in a business suit, and go on his merry way.
From The Last Days of Night:
Paul took a hesitant step into the black room. Tesla’s laboratory could contain quite literally anything. This was not a place one wanted to wander blind.
“Nikola? Is there a light in here?”
There were a few more creaks in the distance before Paul heard Tesla’s nasal voice.
“I shall not illuminate you with mere light, Mr. Paul Cravath. I shall instead do so by electrical storm.”
Suddenly the heaves themselves split open and a divine lightning cleaved the room. Or so it seemed to Paul as he employed his coat sleeve to shield his eyes. He shut them to find scars of bright reds and purples imprinted on his vision.
A horrible noise accompanied the display. A spitting and sizzling violently loud; it was as if the air were being ripped apart by elemental forces. (125)