Episode #1304

Nikola Tesla: Strange Genius

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Nikola Tesla in front of the spiral coil of his high-frequency transformer in New York. Nikola Tesla in front of the spiral coil of his high-frequency transformer in New York. (Courtesy of Wikipedia/Wikipedia Commons)

The astounding mad scientist life of Nikola Tesla. Just who was this pioneer of radio, radar, and wireless communication? We discover his legacy in the work of today’s scientists and artists. Samantha Hunt’s novel The Invention of Everything Else is a fictional portrait of Tesla. Monologist Mike Daisey tells us how Tesla X-rayed Mark Twain’s head. And across the country, garage inventors toil in obscurity at the next breakthrough that will change the world.

(Originally aired: January 25, 2008)

Introducing Nikola Tesla

Part visionary, part mad scientist, and absolute genius, Tesla should be as famous as Edison — but he’s been largely forgotten. Kurt talks with Samantha Hunt about her novel The Inve...

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Tesla vs. Edison

Tesla’s biggest innovation was introducing alternating current as the standard for modern electric power, breaking Thomas Edison’s monopoly on DC power. Author and monologist Mike D...

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Transmit This

A lot of us learned that Guglielmo Marconi invented radio, but Nikola Tesla transmitted electromagnetic waves before Marconi — the Supreme Court decided the case in 1943. Jim Stagni...

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Tesla and Twain

Mike Daisey tells the story of Tesla’s salons, where he played fast and loose with technology. "When he had you there, he'd show you inventions, then make you part of the invention...

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Mr. Spock and Dr. Strangelove

Samantha Hunt describes the turning point in Tesla’s life when he began acting like a mad scientist we recognize from movies, and Biologist Vincent Pieribone traces how scientists hav...

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The Death Ray

Mike Daisey tells the story of the Tesla’s real Dr. Strangelove moment: inventing the ultimate super-weapon, a death ray. But did it work? The government thought it might, and the ...

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Wanted: Bold Thinkers

Much of science today is grant-dependent and discourages dreamy, out-of-box thinking — who wants to fund mistakes? "I really think of [Tesla] as one of the last people inventing on ...

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Garage Inventors

All over the country, amazing science is happening without institutional or government funding. We visit inventors working in garages, basements, even a Quonset hut on a farm. Rache...

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Reputation Saviors from Apopka

Help crowd-fund a Nikola Tesla vs Super Man - Super Bowl XLVII Commercial - http://www.indiegogo.com/nikolateslasuperbowl

Oct. 01 2012 04:37 AM
Wade Roush from San Francisco

This was an entertaining show and Tesla is one of my favorite characters from history. However, in light of Mike Daisey's troubles with the This American Life broadcast of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," I'm wondering whether WNYC and Studio 360 have any statement to offer about the factual accuracy of Mr. Daisey's Tesla monologue. To what extent was the work fact-checked before you aired it?

Mar. 26 2012 01:38 PM

Tesla was so far beyond Edison, the things Tesla was doing and wanted to do was making Edison look like a child in the area of Electricity. Thank God for Westinghouse funding of Tesla or we may not have even known about this god among men!

Feb. 13 2012 11:25 AM
Kalie McMonagle

Studio360 sometimes sounds like All Things Considered, but sometimes sounds like Radiolab or This American Life. In its hour long show it can be an entire hour devoted to Nikola Tesla and the larger picture of how he fits into the theme of past and present mad scientists or it can be filled with 5-20 minute segments, flipping between theater to music to author interviews. This allows Studio360, as a culture program, to have the play of programs we think of for more entertainment value than news value. These are things we are more likely to podcast and listen to for hours on a long car drive, because we are able to be pulled into the story for a complete hour, rather than measure our drive in twenty minute segments. On the other hand, the other format allows the program to be accessible in shorter clips on their website. By segmenting their program, it’s easier for us to share an interesting segment we listened to over Facebook or Twitter than sharing an entire program. Pretty tricky of them, eh?

See the full review on how Studio360 is making radio a verb here: http://kaliedoscope.posterous.com/

Feb. 05 2012 03:59 PM
William F. Brabenec from Attica, Michigan

Tesla is usually compared to Edison, but in reality he is intellectually closer to Einstein albeit in a different field.

Feb. 02 2012 09:53 PM
Dacia from Houston, Texas

I just had to add this episode of "Drunk History" to the comments. It's Drunk History vol. 6 w/ John C. Reilly & Crispin Glover, the amazing story of Nikola Tesla, as told by a very drunk person. Awesome. Just like this show! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gOR91oentQ

Feb. 02 2012 01:35 PM
Lori R

Just want to say that I listed to this with my 8 year old daughter this morning before school, and she was fascinated! Thank you helping us broaden her horizons.

Feb. 02 2012 12:15 PM
oddjob1947 from Maynard

[Pardon if i run on...]

'creative science':
While an element of creativity may be necessary to do 'science',
seems to me science is the finding of 'truth'/'fact', as distinct
from _creating_ that truth. An 'artist' can 'create' 'anything',
within the limits of their art/media. A scientist may use
creativity to explore 'the box', to define 'the box', and to
observe/demonstrate that an existing 'box' is 'too small'
or 'the wrong shape'. If the 'scientist' gets too far outside
'box', the ideas stop working...

'mad scientists'
Baron Frankenstein was created 30 odd years before Tesla. If one
reads Shelley, there is no lightning. And if one watches the
animated Superman Mad scientist cartoon mentioned, the scientist
is not named. That Said: Tesla, during the 'War of the Currents'
did do a number of public lectures/demos, and more private ones,
with arcs/sparks/etc.


Jan. 31 2012 06:42 AM
oddjob1947 from Maynard

Please: Nikola Tesla
That's how he spelt it.

He was, as noted, as much engineer as scientist: the distinction isn't
cast iron, and less so then than now. I concur with the comment that
he was towards the end of the 'single actors', sucessors (eg Steinmetz,
etc) tended to be employees of manufacturers, government, colleges,

Tesla had many ideas, some worked, some, likely were uncorrect, as
more has been learned.

Marconi was preceded by many, eg Mahlon Loomis, Lodge, Righi, Poulsen
dozens more. 'everyone' was 'inventing' radio. With respect, the
ability of the Supreme Court to settle technical matters is iffy.
Most inventions have multiple inventors.

AC _preceded_ Tesla. Tesla was one of the first to come up with a
consistent design, reliable design rules, the use of two phase,
then three phase, design techniques for motors, alternators,

Marconi developed and installed a working, usable 'radio' system.
Tesla took a lot of money and didn't.

All this is historical fact, albeit clouded by accidental
misreading of history. Public knowledge in these areas is iffy:
happens i spend too much time in Used Book stores, and read
old technical books many find boring. I've spent 50 ish years
reading Tesla, books by and about, and relevant books about the
engineers and engineering of the time, travelling to
Colorado Springs, etc.


Jan. 31 2012 06:25 AM
Miriam Gordon

Thank you so much for this wonderful program about Nikola Tesla. I'm an introvert and "highly sensitive person" according to Elaine Aron, and I am trying to learn as much as I can about these traits. Tesla was clearly both.

Jan. 30 2012 08:59 PM
Glenn A. Walsh from Pittsburgh

Great radio program! Nikola Tesla worked for a time in Pittsburgh, while working with George Westinghouse to bring alternating current to the world.
A 1,200,000-volt Oudin-type Tesla Coil was built by George A. Kaufmann, specifically for Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science in the early 1950s. Operation of this Tesla Coil before the public, after each planetarium show, was a long-time feature of Buhl Planetarium. After Buhl Planetarium closed as a public museum in 1991, this Tesla Coil was moved to The Carnegie Science Center, where it continues to be operated before the public. More information on the Buhl Planetarium Tesla Coil:

Jan. 29 2012 11:23 PM
Duane from Brooklyn, NY

Yes...This was the best Studio 360 I've ever heard...
and "Tesla" is STILL an incredible Band as well....
(they will be in the NYC area in February....)

Jan. 29 2012 05:56 PM
Kyle from CA,USA

Great show about a great man who was hidden from the world because of excellent business model.
While Tesla was sold to the world as the mad man and his ideas mocked in public, in private they are used. The J.P Morgan / Edison development of central power for a fee is what runs the world today. everyone needs power.

Tesla showed the world that life is energy and that energy is available for everyone, he even showed how you can get it free and he proved it.

Jan. 29 2012 04:30 PM
Reda from NYC

Well NBR is my favored radio by far , infact it remain thee only source of media that make sense . Take TESLAR for example, such an important scientist and pioneer but yet I along with a great number of people including the lady charged of the hotel where he resided did not herd of him, sad, but thanks to such a radio station and specially STUDIO 360, those of us seeking what to know what is behind the heavily commercialized world we often fined it at NBR .

Jan. 29 2012 04:18 PM

let us be careful about saying that something is valueable, because it's "practical" or not. a lot of the technology and breakthroughs that we have today, were created as an amalgam, of the many different things, that singulary, were never thought of as practical or useful. again,the myopic utilitarian conceit,rears it's silly ugly head.

Jan. 29 2012 02:27 PM

@brian m- that's a really dumb comment. testla had friends,who would have helped with his finances. in those days it did not cost a small fortune to stay at a nyc hotel. plus,there could have been special arrangements for him, because of his status. and anyhow,relative to edison,he died broke,of monetary riches and popular recognition.

Jan. 29 2012 02:15 PM

i'd take slight issue with the scientist you had on. he was trying to down play the influence that scientists have on society,and, somewhat lightheartedly, debunking the "mad scientist" pop-cult stereotype at the same time. i think, most scientists follow the gov't/corporate monetary stream out of necessity,and or, genuine belief, in a conservative mainstrem science paradighm. scientists, do indeed have great influence,not out of singular individual power,but, out of the tascit collective compliance with the power brokers,however they be defined. your scientist,in his typical scientist myopia,really missed the mark here.

Jan. 29 2012 02:08 PM
Graham from Bronx

Tesla was an ENGINEER not a scientist. He invented things using known science. He did not discover new scientific principles. It is very annoying that engineers are not acknowledged as engineers by the media!

Jan. 29 2012 11:37 AM
jim muthig from North Berwick, Maine

Great Story. Every high school physics and electronics class should listen to this!

Jan. 28 2012 06:59 PM

The problem is that scientists can understand art, but the artist and PRI cannot adequately explain (understand) science or scientists. To understand Tesla, you would need to take a college level course in Electricity and Magnetism. Then you would probably conclude that he wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. Tesla understood polyphase electric transmission of which AC is the most commonly used today. His most important patents involved polyphase transmission and motors.
But there are others unsung heroes, such as Steinmetz and Heaviside, who really understood electricity and magnetism and developed the theory and mathematics to back it up. I don't think there are any papers written by Tesla to suggest that he had a deep mathematical understanding of the field.

Jan. 28 2012 06:23 PM
Chris Boese from Brooklyn, NY


Jan. 28 2012 04:40 PM
Brian M

It isn't really correct to say that Tesla died broke. You can't live in a Manhattan hotel with no money. Tesla had incomes from his many patents and from a children's book about electricity that he authored. I wonder if Tesla will ever become as renown for his many inventions as Edison is for his and why really does the invention of radio continue to be credit to Marconi and not Tesla? Will Tesla get the credit that is his due with enough passage of time? It seems that the obscurity of Tesla is what adds to the legend of Tesla and somehow we (society) has a need for this kind of hero. A little like Lester Young for example.

Jan. 27 2012 05:55 PM

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