Happy 161st Birthday, Nikola Tesla

07/06/2017 03:15 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2017

As a society, we don't normally celebrate 161st anniversaries. But then Nikola Tesla wasn't exactly normal.

July 10 marks the 161st birthday of the peripatetic inventor responsible for our electrical power system, particularly the Niagara Falls hydroelectric station, the first-ever, which supplies electricity to the entire northeastern U.S. AC power transmission was just one of a host of Tesla's technology disruptions, which includes radio. So, as a tech historian, I'll take any opportunity, regardless of how tenuous, to bloviate about Tesla.

Even though this year's birthday is as odd as the man, Tesla's name remains relevant today largely thanks Elon Musk, who named his electric car company after the man most responsible for our modern society. And, of course, Musk just announced availability of the Tesla 3, the electric car for the rest of us, which certainly would have made its namesake smile.

This fall, Tesla's name and reputation will receive a more substantial boost with the release of the Oscar-bait film The Current War. Scheduled for release December 22, Tesla will be played by Nicholas Hoult (best known, albeit unrecognizable, as Nux the sympathetic War Boy in Mad Max: Fury Road, and as “Beast” in X-Men: Apocalypse) and Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison in yet another flawed genius role, and is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). The film will recount Tesla's battle with Thomas Edison over which electric transmission standard, AC or DC, would become the global standard.

While a cinematic mise-en-scène of such technical minutia sounds like snoozersville, what has become known as the War of the Currents involves a whole lot of corporate intrigue and subterfuge thanks to the machinations of such devious figures as J.P. Morgan, the invention of the electric chair, and Edison's perverse proclivity for electrocuting animals, including an elephant (yuck).

Tesla's Tower

While not a special number – 161 isn't even divisible by three, a particular bugaboo for the OCD Tesla (and which may have inspired Musk's numerical sedan designation) – this week does mark a more appropriately enumerated but sad Tesla anniversary.

On July 4, 1917, 100 years ago – now there's an appropriate commemorative number – Tesla's wireless power broadcast antenna at Wardenclyffe, the inventor's last great laboratory in Shoreham, Long Island, was dismantled to pay off his debts and for the war effort (that's World War I), which the U.S. had entered three months before.

Tesla believed that power could be broadcast like radio, supplying free electricity for all. Of course, even had his idea worked, Tesla's financiers, who included G.E. co-founder J.P. Morgan, would have turned the tower and the innovation into a profit center for themselves and cut Tesla out, a recurring theme during the commercially-naïve Tesla's career.

To mark both Tesla's birthday and his tower's regrettable centenary, the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is holding an Electric Dream Expo this Saturday, July 8, from 2-6pm.

The Electric Dream Expo is part of the continuing campaign by the Tesla Science Center folks to refurbish and transform Wardenclyffe, Tesla's only remaining lab, into a museum and educational center, to which all geeks and nerds should contribute. Appropriately, Elon Musk has been a prime supporter of this effort.

There's also an effort to establish a Tesla at Niagara Museum, to be housed in the Edward Dean Adams Transformer House, the only remaining building from Tesla's original 1895 power plant.

While he didn't realize at the time, Wardenclyffe proved to be Tesla's downfall. Having spent millions to produce nothing of value for its investors, Tesla was unable to procure funding for any additional ideas. He spent the remaining 25 years of his life largely out of the public eye, mostly in rooms at the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street in Manhattan, feeding pigeons and dreaming of a wireless future we are now living in.

Happy birthday, Mr. Tesla.

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