During my stay in Belgrade I found a variety of great restaurants, bars, and attractions scattered throughout the city, but the most interesting activity for me was a visit was the Nikola Tesla museum. The relatively modest, seven-room museum tells the story of Tesla’s life, his remarkable inventions, and exhibits a rotating collection of his personal effects. I’ve seen more museums than I care to count at this point in my life, but in honor of my Tesla-mad friend, Artyom, who I went hitchhiking with a few months back I felt it prudent to visit.
For any travelers passing through Belgrade, I highly recommend a stop at the Nikola Tesla museum - especially if you were educated in the US. Much like the Yugoslav Wars I mentioned in my last post, my classes in school focused primarily on the life of Thomas Edison and relegated Tesla to a small blurb in the margins of my textbooks. I knew Nikola Tesla was an important historical figure, but I was disheartened to realize how truly little I knew about this prolific inventor and visionary who single-handedly laid much the groundwork for modern society today.
For those of you interested, here’s an entertaining summary of Tesla’s inventions courtesy of The Oatmeal.
The tour of the museum started with a video of Tesla’s life and our guide for the afternoon spent over an hour talking about Tesla’s numerous contributions to society, chief among them the alternating current (AC) induction motor. As much as it pains me, I'll spare you the nerdy explanation of how the motor works, but I cannot even begin to describe to you just how pervasive this technology is in your life. For example, when you plugged in your phone to charge last night I doubt you thought about where that electricity came from, but the means of efficiently generating, transporting, and delivering electricity using alternating current (as opposed to direct current (DC)) was first pioneered by Tesla. At the time, the AC motor was a truly revolutionary invention and, there have been numerous enhancements over the years, this kind of motor is found in everything from electric toothbrushes all the way to large-scale ship propulsion systems!
Basically, any mechanical device you own with moving parts relies on an AC motor!
Another one of the many fascinating items on display in the tiny museum is a replica of the radio-controlled boat Tesla first demonstrated in New York back in 1898. While I was aware of Tesla’s work on the AC motor, I had absolutely no idea he was the visionary mind behind remote controlled devices. Nowadays nobody thinks twice when they see a child playing with a remote controlled car or helicopter, but this humble little boat completely confounded all who witnessed Tesla's very first demonstration. The story goes that when people saw the device navigate through a pool of water wirelessly, the crowd genuinely believed Tesla was controlling it through telepathy. At the time, few people were aware radio waves even existed, so to see the device in action was almost incomprehensible. The extent of the crowd's disbelief was so great that people even went to so far as to claim that Tesla hid a trained monkey in the boat to control it!
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke
As fascinating as radio controlled devices are, my favorite display in the entire museum was the large transformer in the middle of the facility - colloquially known as the “Tesla Coil.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock your entire life, you’re probably familiar with this device as it is the most famous of Tesla's inventions best known for illuminating light bulbs wirelessly. We’ve all been mesmerized/terrified at some point or another by the bolts of electricity discharged from the top of the structure and I've seen everyone from magicians to musicians make us of the spellbinding power this device has on people. Even after all the videos I've seen over the years, to see the tower in action is a mind-blowing experience.
And mind you, this is coming from a college-educated man born in the 20th century who loves science and keeps up with technology.
Tesla first demonstration his transformer back in 1893 and completely dumbfounded a crowd of onlookers by wirelessly lighting hundreds of phosphorescent lamps suspended in the air simultaneously with a flick of a switch. In this day and age, I imagine such a demonstration would still amaze people, but I can only imagine the crowd’s astonishment the instant everything turned on. Considering that most people at the time were still using candles and only vaguely aware of light bulbs, I feel even the term “flabbergasted” would be an understatement.
After Tesla's demonstration many people believed he had magic powers.
Back in the museum, the tour guide fired up the transformer and asked a few volunteers to hold some standard, multi-colored fluorescent lights. There was nothing particularly special about these lights; they were same ones I remember seeing in every office I ever had the misfortune of working in, but to see the tube light up in my hands before my very eyes was an almost unbelievable experience. The moment the tube illuminated I instinctively looked around for the power cable even though I knew none existed. It sounds ridiculous that such a simple demonstration could have such an impact on me, especially considering I knew exactly what was going to happen, but to see a light bulb illuminate in my hands wirelessly is a mesmerizing spectacle to behold even in the 21st century. Over 120 years after Tesla's first demonstration, for a brief moment even I felt as if the tube was being illuminated by magic.
My second thought, however, was considerably more childish:
BB-ZSHOOO…. WAAAM, WAAAM…. KSCHHHH, KSCHHHH, KSCHHHH
KOOOOSH, KERRRRR, KOOOOSH, KERRRR… "Luke, I am your father!"
Tesla really was a man ahead of his time in every sense of the phrase and I could write endlessly about what this man did for society. Even though he is often viewed of as the quintessential mad scientist, it is staggering just how prolific Tesla was and I now rank him up right there with my childhood "hero" Albert Einstein. Tesla's ideas ranged from the seemingly absurd like his design for a “death ray blaster”, to the first hydroelectric dam in the world (nine of the thirteen patents used to build the dam were Tesla’s), to even predicting the widespread use of wireless communications and the emergence of cellular phones! This isn’t to say Tesla didn’t have is mistakes, but what the man contributed to society is astounding and it’s horribly disappointing to know Tesla – the man who laid the foundations for the modern society we have today - died alone and penniless at end of everything.
It’s a shame Nikola Tesla is overshadowed in the American educational system in favor of Edison especially since Tesla is personally credited with nearly 300 different patents during his lifetime (unlike Edison, who patented his employee’s ideas). Like the great country of Serbia, I’m embarrassed by how little I know about Tesla, but my trip to the museum has engendered a strong desire to read about his life and educate myself as much as possible – I highly recommend Tesla: Man Out of Time if you're interested in learning more. Here’s hoping that the new found glory of Tesla Motors helps to raise awareness of this man's great legacy, but if you ever find yourself in Belgrade make sure to visit the museum! You won't regret it!