Geek Trivia: Spark of inspiration

What play did Nikola Tesla cite as his inspiration for the alternating-current motor?

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On May 1, 1893, U.S. President Grover Cleveland pushed a single button in Chicago, and a moment later, 100,000 electric lights illuminated the World Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World's Fair. This single technical (and more than a century later, remarkably unremarkable) achievement marked an extraordinary accomplishment for Nikola Tesla in his so-called "War of Currents" with Thomas Edison, one that was years in the making.

Tesla had immigrated to America roughly a decade earlier. Filled with dreams of building an electrically-powered civilization, the native Yugoslavian had hopes of working hand in hand with the era's most famous inventor, Thomas Edison.

Indeed, for a brief period after his arrival in the United States, Tesla actually worked for Edison. But technical and monetary disputes led to a split between the legendary pair, and Tesla's idol soon became his commercial rival.

Thus, Tesla was on his own to secure financial backing for the alternating-current technology he had conceived at the mere age of 24, which Edison considered competition for his own direct-current design patents. Soon after parting ways with the "Wizard of Menlo Park"—and a brief stint as a ditch digger—Tesla's reputation for genius impressed a group of investors enough to finance the Tesla Electric Light Company.

Alas, Tesla's scientific prowess far outdistanced his business acumen. While the Tesla Electric Light Company did build the most advanced electric arc light of its day, only the investment group saw any profit from this achievement.

Such was Tesla's reputation—more visionary than practical designer—even after partnerships with the Western Union Company's A. K. Brown and industrialist George Westinghouse finally funded Tesla's wildly successful development of the AC motor and its associated power distribution system. But despite all of his accomplishments, Tesla never supplanted Edison as the premier inventor of the Electric Age, never amassed the fortune his genius certainly could have provided, and never shook the labels of poet and dreamer.

In the end, that was perhaps most fitting, considering that Tesla cited a work of fiction, rather than of science, as his inspiration for his original concept of the alternating-current motor.


What play did legendary inventor Nikola Tesla cite as his inspiration for the alternating-current motor?

Tesla was renowned for committing entire books to memory during his youth, though none more famously than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's multifaceted early-19th century morality play Faust, which the inventor credited as the inspiration for his first vision of an alternating-current electrical motor.

As a student at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz, Tesla first encountered a direct-current Gramme dynamo. One could crudely compare the Gramme dynamo as the direct-current equivalent of the alternating-current motor. A Gramme could convert electricity into locomotive force and vice versa, serving as both an engine and a generator.

Fascinated by the Gramme's inefficiencies, Tesla believed there had to be a way to better the machine, and he spent the next few years obsessed with the potential improvements.

By his own account, while walking in a Budapest park with a friend one afternoon, Tesla recited this verse from Goethe's Faust (not to be confused with Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century play Doctor Faustus):

The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!

According to Tesla, a vision of how to improve a direct-current Gramme dynamo appeared to him after quoting these lines, invoking the concept of alternating current. In that moment, Tesla claimed he drew a diagram in the sand of his envisioned design for an AC induction motor, one that he didn't alter before presenting his ideas to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at the tender age of 30.

Tesla's imagined improvements not only solved some of the Gramme dynamo's inherent inefficiencies, but it also laid the groundwork for all of Tesla's future AC innovations.

Tesla would essentially put the same design to its perhaps most famous early use in 1893, when he received Lord Kelvin's blessing and a formal commission to build a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. Despite doubts from his financial backers and the scientific community at large, the Niagara Falls power plant came online on Nov. 16, 1896, providing power to Buffalo, NY, and, within a short period of rapid expansion, New York City itself.

Though he would suffer many public and financial failures in the coming years, Tesla was, for a moment, triumphant—the undisputed master of electrical engineering. Not bad for a booklover from the Balkan Peninsula.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the Oct. 27 edition of Geek Trivia, "Federal funning." TechRepublic member Leon Tribe, how shall we say, improved my classification of the mathematical constant pi as an irrational number.

"While pi does fall under the class of irrational, it is better classified as transcendental—that is, it cannot be expressed as a fraction, nor can it be expressed as a square root."

Further proof that this Trivia Geek can't do math. Thanks, Leon!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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