Tesla: Man Out of Time

My brother sent me an early birthday present this year, a copy of Margaret Cheney’s biography of Nikola Tesla called Tesla: Man Out of Time. Nikola Tesla is something of a steampunk icon and his work has fascinated me ever since I saw my first Tesla coil at the Griffith Park Observatory on a family outing when I was a child. I would actually take a crack at building a Tesla coil as an electronics club project in college. The two experiences helped to inspire my story “A Specter in the Light,” which appears in the anthology DeadSteam. The title is a link and will take you to the Amazon page where you can get your own copy of the anthology. I’ve even written a story where I imagine Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs led him to learn more about Mars than is widely known. That story appeared in the All-Martian Spectacular issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine, which appears to be out of print.

In the real world, Tesla was interested in the propagation of electromagnetic waves. He’s directly responsible for all of our buildings being wired with AC plugs. His patents also led directly to the invention of radio. He pioneered the development of remote control vehicles for defensive purposes. In particular, he experimented on remote-control ships and submarines, but one can easily see how these anticipate the remote-control military aircraft of today. He provided light to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which helped expand the acceptance of electric lighting.

Tesla was also a charismatic visionary who had more ideas than he could possibly test. Because of this, he attracted such luminaries to his circle as Mark Twain and science fiction pioneer, Hugo Gernsback. In her biography, Cheney fills in details of Tesla’s youth in Serbia, his education around Europe, and his immigration to the United States where he briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but found a longtime ally in George Westinghouse. She paints a picture of Tesla as a dapper man who always wore fine clothes and was meticulous in his appearance. She also discusses his love of pigeons, which he fed regularly and kept at his rooms in New York.

Cheney’s book filled in many details I didn’t know about Tesla, such as how he lived much of his adult life in New York City hotel rooms and his friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Cheney also discusses Tesla’s love of Serbian poetry. I’ve long been fascinated by his brief foray to Colorado Springs where he conducted large-scale experiments he couldn’t conduct in the city and she gives good information about that time period. What’s more, the book pointed out an amusing connection with Tesla and my own writing I hadn’t know about. In my first steampunk story, “The Slayers,” I created a character named Rado, who was meant as a tribute to Ray Douglas Bradbury. However, Tesla had a friend who was a professor at New York University known as Dr. Rado.

As it turns out, not all of Tesla’s ideas seem like good ones. As an astronomer, I found his notion of charging the entire sky so it’s never dark at night to be particularly horrifying. Admittedly, Tesla was thinking about nighttime urban safety, but I’ve long felt that humans need the night and the stars to be able to dream of better futures, including the kind of future Tesla wanted to build.

If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla, I recommend Marget Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time. There’s a lot of good information and it was a breezy, compelling read.

Scientists of the Wild West

I’m a proud graduate of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology located in Socorro, New Mexico. The school was opened in 1893 as the New Mexico School of Mines. The first president was a chemist, Dr. Floyd Davis. Of course, in 1893, Socorro was still very much part of the wild west. For that matter, New Mexico and Arizona wouldn’t achieve statehood for nearly two decades. Now, I’ll hazard a guess that when you picture the wild west, your first image isn’t of scientists. Nevertheless, there were many scientists who found the west an attractive place to work. Among them was Mr. Steampunk himself, Nikola Tesla.

Tesla in Colorado

Tesla opened a laboratory in Colorado Springs in 1899 so he would have room to conduct his electrical experiments. He conducted experiments in wire telegraphy and electrical generation. At one point, he is said to have generated an artificial lightning arc over 135 feet long that created a thunder boom which could be heard over 15 miles away.

At one point, Tesla aimed his wireless receiver at the night sky and was surprised to hear faint beepings. Tesla believed he was picking up evidence of extraterrestrial communication and the press reported it as evidence of life on Mars. The truth might be far more interesting. It turns out that modern scientists who have experimented with Tesla’s designs have discovered that Tesla’s receiver was outstanding at detecting any kind of electrical discharge. People have used Tesla receivers to detect lightning on Jupiter, for instance. Such lightning is hard to distinguish from a telegraph signal, so it’s possible that Tesla actually made the first detections of extraterrestrial lightning.

Percival Lowell

Another scientist who was very interested in the possibility of Martian life was Percival Lowell. A former foreign secretary to Korea and scion to a wealthy Eastern family, Lowell could build an observatory wherever he wanted. Traditionally observatories had been built near the universities that housed astronomers such as Harvard, Yale, or Cambridge. Lowell decided to conduct one of the first surveys to determine the place where he could obtain the most clear nights on sky with a telescope. In 1894, Lowell decided to build his observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell observed Mars extensively from the site. Years later a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh would discover Pluto while working at Lowell Observatory.

The wide open spaces and clear skies of the west clearly appealed to certain scientists in the late nineteenth century. In fact, Dr. Floyd Davis’s closing remarks from his inaugural address as president of the New Mexico School of Mines could, with only minor adaptation, apply to many homesteaders and ranchers of the period. “Education for such professional service is a knowledge of how to use the whole of one’s self, to apply the faculties with which one is endowed to all practical purposes. A liberal technical education broadens our views, removes prejudice, and causes us to welcome the views of others, and we no longer consider our methods the only ones worthy of adoption. It keeps us out of ruts and makes us desirous of being benefited by the experiences and teachings of others. SummersLightningWolves It stimulates great mental activity, and thus leads to skill, investigation, discovery and improvement.”

If you’d care to read about my fictional wild west scientists, check out Owl Dance and its sequel Lightning Wolves. The novels are available both in paperback and as ebooks.

Science, Magic, and Music in the Old West

Earlier this month, I was honored to be one of the author guests at the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention held at Old Tucson Studios. Many classic western films were shot at Old Tucson, so it’s a great place to immerse oneself in the whole steampunk experience. The weather was beautiful for the event and, for the most part, my panels and events were standing room only.

Wild Wild West Con 3

On Friday of the convention, I spoke about how Mars became a place in people’s imaginations during the Victorian age. Of course, there is a strong wild west side to this story. Percival Lowell looked for clear, high dry skies to observe Mars and he established an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He then went on to document the planet’s non-existent canals. Nicola Tesla came out west to Colorado to establish a laboratory and thought he detected radio signals from the red planet. All of it helped people see Mars as a place, even if those scientists didn’t interpret their observations correctly.

Martian Presentation

Friday night, I attended a wonderful show featuring the bellydance performance troupe Osiris, the magician Dyno Staats, and the Nathaniel Johnstone Band. The bellydancers captivated my daughter and Dyno’s magic was fun. Although Dyno and I know each other, his assistant hadn’t met me and I was pulled up for one of the tricks, which was a delight. Several of the Nathaniel Johnstone Band’s songs were inspired by folktales and mythology, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Nathaniel Johnstone Band

On Saturday, I participated in two different writer’s panels. The first was Drake and McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing, in which two writers and two audience members created stories on the fly from prompts provided by writers Erasmus Drake and Sparky McTrowell. Later that day, I was on a writing panel with Dashing David Grasse, and Muffy Morrigan. While all of this was going on, my daughter in a fit of mad genius constructed her very own automaton.

Verity and Friend

On Sunday, I wrapped things up with Dyno Staats on the Victorian Magic and Science panel, where we discussed how science and magic influenced and changed each other through the nineteenth century. We’ve given this presentation at a few different conventions now and I always learn new things.

David and Dyno

In addition to the panels I participated in, there were plenty of other events. David Grasse taught participants how to play faro. There was lots of tea dueling. There were many workshops where people made items to take with them. There were lots of vendors selling everything from steampunk crafts, to clothes, to books. All in all, there was a little something for everyone who either was already a fan of steampunk or was looking to learn more about it.

Revolution of Air and Rust

As it turns out, I sold out of the first edition of my novel Owl Dance at Wild Wild West Con, but the new edition is on its way. I’ll be sure to post details when I have them. In the meantime, be sure to check out my steampunk novella Revolution of Air and Rust in which Pancho Villa falls into a parallel universe while fighting against forces from the United States and finds a new weapon. The novella is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Looking Back in Time at Mars

The “All Martian Spectacular” issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine has just been released. The magazine features wonders for the imagination and ripping good stuff. Lyn McConchie, Joel Jenkins, Laura Givens, John Howard, Kit Volker, Sam Kepfield, Gary Fitzimons and Lou Antonelli share their tales of nineteenth century Martians.

Also included in this issue are my original story “Commodities of Nature” and my non-fiction article “Destination Mars”. The article discusses advances in nineteenth century astronomy and how those allowed people to imagine Mars as a real place that people could visit, and not just a point of light in the sky. People who have seen my “Victorian Astronomy” presentation at science fiction and Steampunk conventions will recognize some of the material I talk about, but I uncovered some new facts for this article and present sources of further information.

Unfortunately, the links that were supposed to appear in the article were deleted in typesetting. For those who would like to read The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery by William Sheehan, it’s available online at: http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/MARS/CONTENTS.HTM

I also mention an article about Nathaniel Green, including many of his maps and paintings published by the Journal of the British Astronomical Association. It is available online at: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2004JBAA..114…13M

The story “Commodities of Nature” picks up where the article leaves off. In addition to astronomy, some early radio pioneers claimed to have received signals from Mars. One of those early pioneers was the famed—at least in Steampunk circles—Nikola Tesla. In the story, an engineer has a grand vision of delivering water to all of the parched Southwestern United States through a series of canals like those observed on Mars by Percival Lowell. The engineer receives a letter from none other than Mark Twain, who urges him to visit Tesla in his Colorado Springs laboratory. There, the engineer gets a rare look at the scientist’s famed Teslascope.

Admittedly Nikola Tesla has become so highly celebrated in Steampunk circles that using him in a story runs the risk of feeling clichéd. However, I feel he’s important to the story and I bring up a few items about him that I haven’t seen in other stories. What’s more, I feel like I’ve known about Tesla far longer than he’s been popular. A friend of mine and I spent many late nights in a lab at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in the late 80s working on a Tesla Coil, and even scaring some professors in the process!

I hope you’ll check out this special issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine.