I grew up hearing a lot about Nikola Tesla. My family heritage is Serbian, and Tesla, son of a Serbian Orthodox priest, was spoken of in tones of reverence. ‘He was a genius,’ was closely followed by words to the effect of ‘he really got screwed around.’
As kids, when we shared our freshly learned knowledge that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, we were quickly re-educated. We were told that Tesla, inspired by his mother, a gifted inventor herself, had made a lightbulb that was far superior to those we have today, as it never needed changing. Edison meanwhile, worked with those who could make them disposable, hence profitable. (It seems neither man invented the lightbulb, and online forums are rife with arguments about who should be credited with it, naming Englishman Joseph Swan among others.)
Another dinner table contention was that when he relocated to America, Tesla was swiftly swindled by not only Edison but others. They didn’t like the fact that his inventions and ideas didn’t necessarily present opportunities to make big corporate money.
These contentions, among others, are picked up in five-part series The Tesla Files, now airing on SBS Viceland and streaming at SBS On Demand. My father told me about the show. In it, tireless Tesla biographer Marc Seifer tells us thousands of Tesla’s files mysteriously disappeared shortly after his death in 1943. Just what was in those files, and where have they gone? Seifer, along with astrophysicist Travis Taylor and journalist and former Marine, Jason Stapleton, investigate, and attempt to piece together the truth.
Tesla, who was born during an electrical storm in 1856, arrived in the US in June 1884 at the height of the electricity boom. Not finding any luck in Europe, he thought his ideas would gain some interest and therefore investment to continue his research in America. For a while, he worked for Edison’s company, then began patenting his own inventions and ideas. For a man credited with ‘inventing the modern world’, very little is known about him; his own apparent secrecy and tendency toward suspicion played a role.
But as Taylor ponders, why is it that to this day ‘very few people have actually done detailed, rigorous scientific evaluations of his ideas’? With a team of electrical engineers and assistants, Taylor and Stapleton travel to Colorado Springs – where Tesla conducted (pardon the pun) many experiments with electricity – to do just that. In their research, they confirm the truth of many of his claims, considered wild at the time, such as the possibility of transmitting electricity wirelessly.
Among his many achievements, Tesla designed the alternating current electrical system which is still the worldwide standard today, and the Tesla coil, which is the ‘heart of an electrical circuit’ and used in radio technology to this day. He was also an early pioneer in designing the induction motor and methods of wireless radio transmission, among other innovations.
The running theme through this series is that all signs point to a government cover-up of Tesla’s work. There is evidence that trunks full of his papers have vanished, and the three core investigators, Seifer, Taylor and Stapleton, seem baffled as to where they’ve gone and why they’ve disappeared.
My family would tell you it’s because the discoveries he made, including that Earth was surrounded by an energy field that he figured out how to harness – what we later came to know as the ionosphere – meant humans wouldn’t have to pay for access to electricity. As for their claim regarding a lightbulb that doesn’t need replacing, see the team’s recreated experiments in episode 2. Wild stuff, indeed.
If you can get past the series’ tendency to repeat information and the sometimes melodramatic voiceover and music, there is plenty of information to unpack. Perhaps now is just the right time for Tesla and his discoveries to come to light.
Five-part series The Tesla Files airs on Sunday nights at 7.40pm on SBS Viceland. Episodes stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast:
A note about Tesla’s background and ethnicity: Nikola Tesla was born in a town called Smiljan. Then, Smiljan was part of the Austrian Empire; it is now in Croatia. Tesla is ethnically Serbian.