Pittsburgh filmmaker uncovers some truths about Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla sparred with Thomas Edison, rubbed J.P. Morgan the wrong way and counted the likes of Mark Twain and George Westinghouse as close friends. His inventions came so fast and furiously that people began to doubt they were even real. Throughout history, he's been described as everything from “The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” to the “True Father of the Electric Age” to, simply stated, a “Badass.”
Tesla, the man, the myth, the legend, is the subject of a biopic being written and directed by Pittsburgh's Michael Anton. Once cameras start rolling, filming will take place here, as well as in Belgrade, Serbia. During the course of his research, Anton found himself doing what a lot of people do once they get to know the eccentricity of this so-called “mad scientist”: crushing on Tesla. It's easy to do. The quirks of the Serbian-born genius have a way of making you fall in love with him.
Although fans will have to wait for the release of the film (projected as sometime late 2014), a red carpet event Oct. 18 at 301 Fifth Ave., Downtown, will promote the project and raise awareness of the life and works of the mad scientist via a “mini-Tesla museum.” (Tickets are available via Showclix.com).
Anton will be a featured guest at the ComiCon event being held at the Monroeville Convention Center from Sept. 27 through 29.
Question: Nikola Tesla has been dubbed the “True Father of the Electric Age” by many, yet he didn't seem to achieve the notoriety that Edison did. Why?
Answer: I always say you end up going through a process, when you start researching Tesla, of realizing that you really aren't taught everything there is to know about science and about who really invented different aspects of the 21st century. It's quite fascinating … and that was my passion going into the film — having the same burden as most Tesla supporters of “Why doesn't anyone know this guy?”
The truth is, it has a lot to do with disassociation. He wasn't from here. The first person he worked for was Edison. I would put it under the preface of basically picking a fight with a rock star. At the time, Edison was significantly tied with politics, he was one of the most powerful men in the world and he happened to be doing something that was what everyone wanted to see and that was invention. At that point in time, what was in the papers was what new invention would come out, what was the hottest thing, and Tesla threatened that. And also, he was not one to really boast. He was definitely out there and could be relatively eccentric in that he would just say what he was thinking. In the war of currents, Tesla won, but he lost in the court of public opinion. He was such an unbelievable person in regards to what he created that people just stopped believing in him. That's really what happened. … It's kind of amazing.
Q: How intense did the Edison-Tesla rivalry become?
A: It was absolutely ruthless. I understand where Edison was coming from. At the time, he invested his entire life savings in direct current and that is what he focused on. He had, obviously, the monopoly on that. So, basically, in my opinion, (Edison) was trying to protect the empire he created. And because of that, he tried to make (Tesla's) alternating current illegal. He tried to say it was dangerous. The very first electrocution in the electric chair in the United States was a failure. Not a lot of people talk about it. Although Edison and H.P. Brown were the ones that helped build and design that chair, they were using alternating current, and I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it took seven minutes for the first execution, for the person to eventually die. So basically, he was burning and cooking from the inside, and Edison utilized that. And no one blamed Edison, who helped design the chair . They ended up blaming George Westinghouse, and they ended up blaming Tesla. So, it was nasty. It was a nasty battle.
Q: Was Tesla his own worst enemy when it came to promoting his ideas with the world?
A: Absolutely. He was unreserved, and he was honest. But he was honest about what he felt of the potential of things. He talked about the idea of us being able to communicate, send a message to Mars. Of course, that turned into, “Tesla speaks to man on Mars.” The way people look at him now and compare it to what we're used to in modern-day society, we would have absolutely loved him. We would have loved him for his quirks and for his honesty — he would have been a great interview. And he still was, he was a very articulate man, and people really did respect him. But, when he was angry or upset, he would let you know it, and he wasn't afraid to challenge anyone and everything. And J.P. Morgan was one of those. And when you challenge Edison, that's one thing, and that's a battle that was nearly impossible to win. But, when you challenge J.P. Morgan, it's another.
Q: Was there something about Tesla that surprised even you?
A: I think the relationship with Mark Twain and also Westinghouse. Tesla was very loyal, and I always thought that he was this loner, and he really wasn't. He really coveted his friendships. And these are such unique characters. I talk about Tesla and the project, and what's been fascinating to me is the amount of passion people have for Tesla, who've known about him, who start to learn about him. You start to understand in researching how people could fall in love with Tesla because he really is so unique.
Q: He's been called everything from “The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” to “Mad Scientist” to a “Badass.” What would you call him?
A: “Father of the 20th Century.” I like that one the most because it's so true. If you go down the list of what he created … it's amazing. He shaped the 20th century. He even talked about text messaging, obviously, before we even had that option.
Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-8515.