Nikola Tesla: A SoHo story

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The building that housed Tesla's East Houston Laboratory, September 26, 1929. New York Historical Society

Now here’s a different sort of SoHo story. Tesla. Not the car company. Not the heavy metal band. The inventor Nikola Tesla.

Back in the 1880’s and ‘90s when SoHo was descending from its prosperous heights, a young man from a village in Croatia, in his mid-20s, had three laboratories located in the SoHo: one at 175 Grand, one at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue (now called LaGuardia Place), and another at 46 East Houston Street.

Nikola Tesla at the Age of 23.

Nikola Tesla was obsessed with electricity. He came to the New York in 1884 to work with Thomas Edison at Edison’s laboratory on the Lower East Side.

The two men did not get on well. They did not see eye-to-eye despite their mutual interests. At the center of their disagreements was their separate views about what the standard of electrical distribution should be. Mr. Edison had already put his money on a direct current system (DC). Young Tesla — Edison was in his late 30s; a mature man in those days — believed a system of alternating current (AC) was dangerous.

Edison was evidently unaware that his direct current system was not only dangerous but even deadly. All household electricity today is delivered via AC.

Tesla was a visionary. After his experience with Edison, he moved on to his own laboratory on Grand Street. He became known in the community for his vision when he developed the high-voltage, high-frequency transformer known as the Tesla Coil. In his lab on South Fifth Avenue he also experimented with wireless lighting. Presenting demonstrations brought him more attention including close friendships with Stanford White and with Mark Twain.

There was another Tesla innovation that resulted in his friendship with Twain who became a close friend. Twain had chronic constipation and Tesla provided a cure for it by having Twain stand on an electric plate while Tesla ran an electric charge through his body.

Tesla holding a gas-filled phosphor coated wireless light bulb which he developed, 1898.
Mark Twain and Joseph (“Jo”) Jefferson in Tesla’s South Fifth Avenue laboratory, 1894, with blurred image of Tesla between.

Tesla also came up with an “X-ray”. He and Twain were said to have taken turns aiming Tesla’s X-ray “gun” at each other, making enormous x-rays of each other’s bodies and skulls in sheets of undeveloped film taped to the wall.

In 1895 a fire gutted Tesla’s lab which left him deeply depressed. He used his coils to give himself electro-shock treatments to overcome the depression. Friends raised funds for him to open a new lab on Houston Street, where he began developing a wireless system for transmitting power around the world.

One of the earliest x-ray photographs, this one of Tesla’s hand.

A further invention was a wireless radio wave transmission, as well as the preliminary design of a handheld receiver that could receive news, telephone messages, and telegrams. This was in the late 19th century, long before the digital era. Coincidentally, the Apple Store on Prince Street, in the land of the iPhone, is located just a few blocks from where Tesla conceived of the idea.

Tesla on the cover of Time Magazine, 1931.

Nikola Tesla was a “mad scientist” to most. His inventions appeared as fully formed visions that came to him.  Unlike his former employer Mr. Edison, he was not a capitalist, however, often failing to protect his patents, often failing to get credit for his ideas.

Nevertheless, he was the leader. At the beginning of the 20th century, he is quoted as observing “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” He also said that “Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.”

Nikola Tesla inside his Colorado Springs Oscillator. This tesla coil snuffed out the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken in 1899. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.
Tesla in 1916 pointing to a discharge in the photograph above.
Tesla in his Houston Street laboratory. Caption for this photo in Electrical Review, March 29, 1899 reads: “The operator’s body, in this experiment, is charged to a high potential by means of a coil responsive to the waves transmitted to it from a distant oscillator.”
Tesla working in his office at 8 West 40th Street.

He was also a man plagued with extreme phobias and obsessions. He was a germaphobe and had a peculiar aversion to pearls. At times he would suddenly become immobile, freezing up unable to move or speak. Despite his brilliance and inventions that moved our civilization along, in his 87th year, Nikola Tesla died in January 1943, in his sleep, alone and penniless.

His influence is present each time we turn on our lights, yet official history left him forgotten, unlike his peers, such as Edison, now known as the father of electricity, and Guglielmo Marconi, known as the inventor of radio.

In recent years, Tesla fans have attempted to right this wrong. The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is raising funds to develop Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory in Shoreham, NY into a science and technology center. There is also an exhibition “Tesla’s Wonderful World of Electricity” on view at the New York Hall of Science.

On Tuesday, October 18th, PBS’s “American Experience” will spotlight Nikola Tesla which may rouse interest in this genius whose predictions for the future made more than a century ago shaped the wireless networks of the 21st century.

Tesla’s Funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1943.

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