Nikola Tesla deserves better from Hollywood. The Current War, recently released by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, gives the victor of that battle for the future of electricity less than 15 minutes on the screen, and during that time portrays him as a quirky futurist.
Tesla, in fact, developed the electric motor and long-distance power transmission that support our modern economy, yet Hollywood seems most fascinated with Thomas Edison, whose direct-current approach failed to bring electricity to the masses. No doubt Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was colorful and iconic for his work on incandescent bulbs, phonographs, and motion pictures, but it was Tesla, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, who was a scientific star in the late 19th century who bedazzled audiences with electric sparks from his fingertips and glowing bulbs and light sabers not connected to wires.
No doubt Tesla was quirky. He despised jewelry, got a fever by looking at a peach, and counted his steps to ensure they were divisible by three or he would do his journey all over again. Yet in addition to his electricity-based accomplishments, he invented radio, robots, and remote control. According to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, “Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our towns would be dark.”
Even long after his death, Tesla’s visions continued to inspire great minds. He foresaw cellphones, radar, laser weapons, artificial intelligence, and vertical-lift airplanes. Consider radar. About a century ago, Tesla drew plans to send out signals and to receive their reflections on a fluorescent screen. According to Emile Girardeau, the French scientist credited with developing radar some 20 years later: His work used “precisely apparatuses conceived according to the Principles stated by Tesla.” Girardeau added that Tesla “may have been dreaming, since he had at his disposal no means of carrying them out, but one must add that if he was dreaming, at least he was dreaming correctly.”
In earlier films, Hollywood also portrayed Tesla as an odd magician or the focus of grand conspiracies. In The Prestige (2006), for instance, David Bowie, playing the inventor, plugs hundreds of lightbulbs into the ground and makes a field glow; the reality, amazing in its own right, is Tesla lit three bulbs by sending a lightning bolt into the ground, suggesting a new approach to delivering electric power that would not require wires. Crash Point 2000 (2001) and Fragments from Olympus (2011) dramatize unproven plots to capture or suppress Tesla’s plans for a “death ray” that supposedly could shoot down ten thousand planes from 250 miles away.
Part of Tesla’s image problem is that his inventions tended to be fundamental and outside a typical person’s view. His electric motors, for instance, run everything from refrigerators to elevators, but we never notice them. Edison, in contrast, gave us products that consumers can see and hold.
Being an immigrant is another part of the problem. Although sophisticated and able to speak eight languages, Tesla was an outsider with a slight accent who repeatedly got taken advantage of financially. Edison, for instance, promised Tesla a bonus if he would improve the performance of Edison’s electric generator. Tesla, after working late evenings and long weekends for about six months, tripled the equipment’s output. Yet in one of the cruelest slights to an immigrant, the Wizard of Menlo Park mocked the young engineer, saying the monetary offer had been made in jest, declaring, “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.”
Tesla’s personal life also provides drama that Hollywood fails to convey. He was born during a lightning storm exactly at midnight. His “blissful” early years were shattered when he was 7 and the family’s Arabian stallion bolted and threw Nikola’s older brother to the ground. Young Nikola witnessed the terrible scene, and on that dismal night with torrential rains, his mother forced him to get out of bed and kiss his dead brother goodbye. Even 55 years later, Tesla wrote, “My visual impression of [my brother’s death] has lost none of its force.”
You might have thought the parents would turn toward their remaining son, but they, particularly his father, increasingly idolized the dead boy’s talents and consistently projected accomplishments if he had lived. Nikola simply could not compete with such an ideal, and he wrote, “Anything I did that was creditable merely caused my parents to feel their loss more keenly. I grew up with little confidence in myself.”
Tesla’s father demanded that Nikola follow his footsteps and become an Orthodox priest, and relented only when, dying of cholera, he cleverly pleaded that he could recover only if allowed to attend university and study engineering. Yet after two stellar years at school, still looking for his father’s never-to-be-offered approval, Tesla dropped out, took up gambling and billiards, moved secretly to a different town, got arrested for vagrancy, and was brought back to his parents’ home by the police.
After helping to install Edison phone systems in Budapest and Paris, Tesla traveled to New York to work with the Wizard of Menlo Park, but he soon ventured off on his own. As his fame grew, he befriended a mix of celebrated friends, including writer Mark Twain, naturalist John Muir, and architect Stanford White.
Tesla operated as a curiosity-driven inventor, motivated by idealism. While Edison followed the American entrepreneurial path and developed new products in order to make money, Tesla believed that technology transcended the marketplace and that invention should not be tied to profits. Tesla, for instance, worked tirelessly to offer electric power freely to the world and to build robots that would reduce life’s drudgery. We are the better for it, and Hollywood should tell that story.
Richard Munson is the author of Tesla: Inventor of the Modern.