Recently, I spoke with Carole Bourgeois, one of the filmmakers behind the Nikola Tesla documentary “Electricity: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla,” which is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. She and director Wil Cashen are attempting to set the record straight on Tesla, but are in need off $35,000 to pull the documentary off, with only 10 days remaining.
Carole and I talk Wardenclyffe Tower, the Tunguska Event, Tesla’s visionary migraines and how to teach schoolchildren the truth about the real genius of modern technology.
Nikola Tesla is getting an inordinate though certainly not unwarranted amount of attention as of late, such as with The Oatmeal’s fundraising goal for a Tesla museum at Wardenclyffe. What was the inception of Electricity: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla? What compelled you to act?
The Oatmeal fundraising effort was an Internet sensation. We have been working on this for the last 12 years, studying Tesla’s life story (every aspect of his life), and five years devoted to “Electricity” and the screenplay. We took a camera crew out in the city of Los Angeles and ask educated working people if they knew the name Tesla, and 9 out of 10 people did not know who Tesla was, certainly as to the degree to which he contributed to our lives then and now. Most people took a stab at it, but were completely incorrect. So we still have a lot of work to do to tell this amazing story and change history.
How did you first encounter Nikola Tesla and his work?
We got interested and then obsessed because Wil Cashen is an engineer and technical genius in mathematics who designed robotic assembly lines in Detroit, and recently designed the first electric truck. I am Wilhelm’s business partner, a businesswoman and writer, and catching the Tesla bug was quite easy because of the great injustice as to all that he invented that was buried by Edison, who hated him. Morgan and Marconi stole his wireless communication patents. Most of us have used at least 10 of his inventions before we even step the door each morning. Not to mention the companies making billions off of his patents.
Is it particularly atrocious that schoolchildren are taught that Thomas Edison was some technological wunderkind when it was, in fact, Tesla? Will your documentary perhaps help insert Tesla into his rightfully deserved place in elementary school textbooks?
We have created a school program about Tesla starting with 3rd and 4th graders, and have reached out to the “First Organization” founded by Dean Kaman and newly joined by wil.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas to provide free downloads of the docudrama to the children. Our efforts do not stop with the docudrama—it’s only the beginning of our work. It took us so long to write the screenplay (15 drafts before we got it right). We had to be accurate about Tesla’s experiments, and how they lead to his inventions. We also had to detail his eccentric life and struggles with OCD. It also had to be as it exciting as the times, which was during the Industrial Revolution and the “Robber Baron” days. Wilhem is an expert at deciphering all of Tesla’s technology, while my writing and in-depth biographical research made this version of Tesla’s story unique.
To your mind, what is it about Tesla that makes him endlessly fascinating? Is it his boundless imagination and scientific abilities, or the childhood visions that he claimed gave him his visionary power, or how his ideas were time and again disregarded by business and government interests? Or some combination thereof?
Certainly, it all started with his childhood dreams, but he had the ability to see his inventions in three-dimentional images within his mind, including circuitry. Additionally, he was so far advanced, no one knew what to do. Patent investigators had to visit Tesla’s laboratory just too even grasp an idea.
Just imagine this: it’s 1898 and Tesla rented the Madison Square Garden, then constructed a large tank of water where his remote control vessel was showcased. People came in on horse and buggy! If we went into his laboratory today, he would scare us with the degree of his experiments. Tesla never cared so much about money. He knew he was born to invent and the free distribution of wireless electricity was to be his gift to mankind as a human right; hence, he didn’t think like Edison, Morgan and Marconi and got ripped off.
Now for a little comic relief. Wardenclyffe Tower: Do you think Tesla blasted a shock wave through the Earth that came out in Siberia, triggering the Tungunska Event?
No. Tungunska was an asteroid collision with the Earth.
What have you thought of the fictional representations of Tesla in Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of the same name, and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day?
Honestly, he seemed like a farce in The Prestige and only touched the surface of who he was. How can anyone even begin to capture Tesla in a cameo role?
Other “Hollywood” scripts attempt to make his story futuristic, but that is not necessary. With Wilhelm covering the technology, I have researched how Tesla thought, acted, what he would do in any given situation—our script will blow you away. I explore how the flashes of lights he suffered were migraines, and why Sarah Bernhardt was the love of his life.
Tesla was very clearly interested in wielding science and technology to bring about world peace. In that respect, he’s something like a prototypical Gandhi or even John Lennon, but—and not to engage in hyperbole here—with the mind of god. He had these incredible creativity abilities that we usually ascribe to divinities, but he didn’t float above humanity—he wanted to create a better world. Do you think this aspect of Tesla has been neglected by those textbooks and biographies that consider him?
Again, the surface has only been touched. We thoroughly cover every aspect of his work and life so that he is portrayed as the complex genius he was. Tesla’s devotion was to science, knowing he could never marry. That is why we took so much time to dig into the story, and it is a fascinating story.
Was Tesla just too pure for this world; eaten up by the engines of capitalism which had no time for dreams of free energy and wireless communication, etc., or a death ray that could prevent war, when we all seem to understand that the operating principle of civilization seems to be war as an engine of profit?
Again, the world he lived in was a world of industrial development at a pace of massive growth, like the massive growth of the Internet in our time. Growth periods are always subject to success and failure at both ends of the spectrum of invention. Tesla thought, as many scientists did, that his ultimate weapon (something like a particle beam) would create a level field of play between all countries because its use would be too devastating. This is a common and repeated fallacy of all scientists that has resulted in nuclear proliferation today.
What wrongs, aside from the obvious ones (Edison, JP Morgan), do you think were the greatest suffered by Tesla?
His overall efforts to establish an array of technologies were stifled by his neverending effort to fund his ideas and concepts. In 1893, Tesla filed wireless communications patent but it was revoked and given to Marconi, who formed RCA. Marconi kept applying to the US Patent Office and getting turned downed, until his 5th attempt when he hid the circuitry in the patent abstract and the patent officer let it go through.
Losing Wardenclyffe was Tesla’s downfall. He filed a lawsuit, but could not rebound from the failure. I believe it is an injustice that Marconi accepted a Nobel Prize based on another man’s work. In 1943 the US Supreme Court restored Tesla’s wireless communication patents. Sadly, Tesla had died three months earlier. Even the Smithsonian has Edison’s picture, but there’s no mention of Tesla next to his Niagara Falls hydroelectric station. To this day, the Smithsonian will not change it.
Magician Marco Tempest, who gave a TED Talk that featured Tesla, agreed to lend his support to your project. How did that happen?
We just contacted him. Those of us who know the truth of this amazing man want to work together. There will never be another Tesla. We would be 100 years behind technologically if not for Nikola Tesla. We can never let this happen again, and that is why this story must be told, to change history for our future children.