To walk in Tesla’s footsteps you’d better wear cork-soled shoes
August 19, 2013
I’m not sure the reason, but in recent months there has been a resurgence of interest in the life and work of Nikola Tesla. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of the exotic, all-electric Tesla sports car produced by California’s Elon Musk (the real Iron Man) and his company that has been receiving a lot of favourable news coverage lately. Then again, maybe it’s because 2012 marked a significant milestone in the life of Tesla himself. Or maybe it’s because of all those reality TV shows and Internet videos that seem to have discovered that Tesla’s remarkable amplifying coil (his Tesla Coil) can be used to produce the most exciting and terrifying lightning bolts.
There’s even a YouTube™ video that features two Tesla Coils playing a nerve-rattling, buzzing, zapping version of “Sweet Home Alabama“. I wonder what Tesla would think of that?
Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see Tesla’s name and inventions back in the public spotlight once again (the last time was in the late 90s when the New Age movement hijacked Tesla’s legacy and tried to make him out to be some kind of space alien prophet.)
But it seems that this time people want to know the true life story of the enigmatic man who invented all those amazing and spellbinding electrical machines – the truth about the man who literally changed life in the 20th century. The man who invented the first practical AC motor, but who also invented radio, x-rays, lightning machines, the first remote-controlled robot, the binary logic circuit, wireless electrical power transmission, the fluorescent lamp, and the earthquake machine to list but a few of his world-changing inventions.
In an earlier blog about Nikola Tesla I also mentioned a Hollywood film – a collaborative effort of visual effects genius Tim Eaton and Tesla biographer Marc Seifer – that is currently in the works. So I am quite excited about this resurgence of public interest and the recent attempts to tell a fact-based story of Tesla’s exciting and dramatic life.
But what about his work? What efforts have made to present to us a true picture of what Tesla did and how he did it? Well, the Intertube is rife with videos showing Tesla Coils zapping daring fools who sport protective tinfoil hats and chain-mail suits. All very thrilling. But these devices were built using modern methods, materials, tools, and equipment. And while they are fascinating to watch in action, they convey little of the craftsmanship and attention to detail with which Tesla built his own machines. Tesla was as much an artist, craftsman, and showman as he was an inventor, and he knew how to present his works in the most impressive ways. For all their dramatic appeal, few of the latest generation of Tesla devices come even close to accomplishing this.
As it turns out, I know of a man who seems to have taken up the baton, walking, as it were, in Tesla’s footsteps. Kitchener Ontario’s Nemanja Jevremovic is a brilliant Electronics Engineer who builds meticulously-detailed, fully-operational reproductions of Tesla’s machines to exacting museum standards. His devices are constructed using the kinds of methods and parts that would have been available to Tesla in his day. Machines that make you think you have been whisked back to Tesla’s own New York City lab in 1894.
Last fall Nemanja had a chance to show off some of his amazing reproductions and fine craftsmanship at a Tesla exhibit sponsored by Burlington’s L-3 WESCAM, a modern offshoot of the Westinghouse Corporation that gave Tesla his first big financial break back in 1890.
The exhibit was held on Friday, Sept. 14th in Kitchener’s old Tannery building at the corner of Victoria and Charles street. Featured exhibiters included Nemanja and his lovely wife Jovana – herself a gifted graphics artist and photographer who produced the dramatic, eye-catching artwork for the exhibit – along with Les Drysdale, noted Canadian sculptor famous for his impressive life-sized statue of Nikola Tesla that now graces the lawn of Victoria Park in Niagara Falls, Ontario where it overlooks the spot on the New York side where in 1893 Tesla and Westinghouse harnessed the power of the great falls to produce and transmit the first AC power to Buffalo, NY.
Upon entering the Tannery exhibit visitors first encountered a bronze Les Drysdale bust of Tesla surrounded by posters showing the key players in Tesla’s remarkable climb to engineering fame and notoriety. Included in the poster were Guglielmo Marconi who used (some say stole) 17 of Tesla’s patents to further his claims to have invented radio, Thomas Edison whom Tesla once idolized and briefly worked for when he first arrived in New York City until Edison abused Tesla’s trust, Wall Street financier J.P. Morgan the millionaire tycoon who invested in Tesla’s Wardencliffe Tower project but who later pulled his money when Tesla disclosed that his intent was to use the tower to transmit freely-accessible wireless electricity, and George Westinghouse who purchased the rights to 43 of Tesla’s AC patents and used them to design and build the first AC power plant and transmission lines from Niagara Falls to Buffalo NY.
The exhibit hall was a large, spacious room but Nemanja and Jovana had cleverly and stylishly laid out their displays to fill the space, draw viewers in, and show Tesla’s work in its best light. Nemanja himself even became part of the show by demonstrating his reproductions to a rapt audience, much as Tesla himself would have done.
The first device Nemanja showed was a reproduction of one of Tesla’s favourite showpieces… the Egg of Columbus device that he first unveiled at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he demonstrated to audiences how a rotating magnetic field could induce an electric current, and thus a corresponding magnetic field, in a large freestanding metal egg making it follow the rotating field, spinning so fast at the bottom of a shallow wooden bowl that it eventually ended up spinning vertically on its tip. Nemanja’s rebuild of this remarkable machine worked flawlessly to the amazement and entertainment of the audience (although he later confessed to having boosted the power output to overcome a slight mechanical malfunction… but perhaps Tesla himself experienced something similar before his show in Chicago).
Throughout the evening Nemanja could be seen sidling over to those examining his reproductions of Tesla’s radio transmitter and receiver (which played classical music throughout the hall), Tesla’s earthquake detector, his telegraph transmitter and receiver, and a model of Nemanja’s own design that cleverly demonstrated Tesla’s AC power transmission principles from his bladeless turbine-driven generator through power lines to his induction motor at the opposite end. Nemanja spent a few minutes patiently and clearly explaining the workings of each component to curious onlookers.
But the highlight of the evening was unquestionably Nemanja’s demonstration of his full-sized, million-volt Tesla Coil which, when fired up, continuously radiated 4 foot lightning bolts from its toroidal (donut-shaped) emitter, angrily ionizing the air with a sizzling and snapping blue glow. Nemanja’s warning to onlookers to stand far back from the display was obeyed without question as he cranked up the power on this monster. One could not help but be impressed and even a little intimidated by the long, wriggling fingers of blue-white electricity that arced loudly and menacingly through the air in the darkened room, filling it with the acrid, burnt scent of ozone.
While these finely crafted machines were certainly the highlight of the evening the less obvious, but perhaps even more remarkable, attraction was Nemanja Jevremovic himself. Born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia only a few hundred miles from Tesla’s home town, Nemanja is a bear of a man who still speaks with a distinct Serbian accent that rings with fiery passion for his favourite subject, Nikola Tesla. His devotion to building his detailed reproductions with a perfectionist’s eye and surgeon’s hand almost makes you think the great man himself might be watching over Nemanja’s shoulder, coaching and critiquing and offering suggestions as the work progresses.
And perhaps that’s not too far from the truth. After listening to Nemanja speak about the life and times of Nikola Tesla, and after seeing him show with pride the handiwork of his efforts to rebuild Tesla’s machines to the same exacting standards as their original creator, one cannot help but feel that were Tesla, in fact, witness to this dedication to his legacy, he would be proud to have Nemanja Jevremovic walk in his footsteps.