Great show of Tesla

When the clock struck eight, a noble man of thirty sat down at his usual table in the Palm Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. His slim and elegant figure attracted attention. Most diners were aware of the famous scientist’s need for privacy and tried not to stare at him.

Eighteen clean linen napkins were stacked as usual at his place. Nikola Tesla was unable to explain why he loved numbers divisible by three, as he could not explain his fear of germs, and many other obsessions that tormented his life.

Absently he began to clean the already shining silver and crystal, taking one square of linen after another, until a small starched mountain had risen on the table. Then, as each dish arrived, he compulsively calculated its cubic contents before swallowing. Otherwise there could be no pleasure in eating.


Those who came to the restaurant just to watch the inventor might have noted that he did not order his meal from the menu, but the dishes had been specially prepared beforehand according to his telephoned instructions and now was being served at his request not by a waiter but by the owner of the hotel himself.

William K. Vanderbilt interrupted the dinner, chiding the young scientist because he had not used in the best way the Vanderbilt box at the opera. When he left, a scholarly-looking man with a Richelieu beard and small rimless glasses came to Tesla’s table and greeted him with particular affection. Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor and poet, was a socially ambitious and well-connected bon vivant.

With a big smile, Johnson bent down and whispered in his ear the latest rumors circulating among the “400”: a shy girl named Anne Morgan, with whom the inventor had fallen in love and asked her father for an introduction. Tesla smiled in his modest way and inquired after Johnson’s wife, Katherine.

“Kate has asked me to invite you to lunch on Saturday,” said Johnson.

They discussed for a moment another guest of whom Tesla was fond but only in a platonic way, a charming young pianist named Marguerite Merington. Assured that she had been asked too, he accepted the invitation.

The editor went his way, and Tesla returned his attention to the cubic contents of his dessert. He had barely completed the calculations when a messenger appeared near his table and handed him a note. He recognized at once the handwriting of his friend Mark Twain.

“If you do not have more exciting plans for the evening,” wrote the humorist, “perhaps you will join me at the Players’ Club.”

Tesla scribbled a hasty reply: “Unfortunately, I have to work tonight. But if you want to come to my laboratory at midnight, I promise you some good entertainment.”


Exactly at ten, as usual, Tesla stood up from his table and disappeared into the lighted streets of Manhattan.

Strolling back toward his laboratory, he turned into a small park and whistled softly. From high in the walls of a nearby building came a rustling of wings. Soon a familiar white shape fluttered to rest on his shoulder. Tesla took a bag of grain from his pocket, fed the pigeon from his hand, then wafted her into the night, sending a kiss.

Now he considered his next move. If he continued on around the block, he would feel compelled to circle it three times. With a sigh, he turned and walked toward his laboratory at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue (now West Broadway), near Bleecker Street.

It was completely dark when he entered the building. He turned on the main switch. The tube connected to a wall lit up, illuminating this dark cave full of interesting machines.

The strange thing about this tube was that it had no connections to the loops of electric wires stretched along the whole ceiling. In fact, it had no connections at all, because it drew energy from the surrounding fields. Tesla was able to pick up an unattached light and move it freely to any part of the workshop.


In one corner, a strange device began to vibrate silently. Tesla’s eyes narrowed with satisfaction. Here under a kind of platform, the tiniest of oscillators was at work. Only he knew its awesome power.

Carefully he looked out of the window to the black shapes of tenements below. His hardworking immigrant neighbors appeared safely asleep. The police had warned him of complaints about the blue lightning that flashing from his windows and electricity snapping through the streets at night.

Tesla shrugged and turned to his work, making a series of microscopic adjustments to a machine. Deeply focused on his work, he was not aware of the passage of time until he heard someone knocking on the door of the ground floor.

Tesla hurried down to greet an English journalist, Chauncey McGovern of Pearson’s Magazine.

- I’m so pleased you could come, Mr. McGovern.

- I felt I owed it to my readers, sir. Everyone in London is talking about the New Wizard of the West and they don’t mean Mr. Edison.

- Well, come along up. Let’s see if I can deserve my reputation.

As they turned to the stairs, there came a ring of laughter from the street, and Tesla recognized the voice.

- Ah, that’s Mark!


He opened the door again to welcome Twain and the actor Joseph Jefferson who had come directly from the Players’ Club. Twain’s eyes sparkled with curiosity.

- Tesla, let’s have the show. You know what I always say?

- What do you say, Mark? the scientist asked, smiling.

- What I always say, and mind you they’ll be quoting me into the hereafter, is that thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.

- In this case, my friend, this night will be filled with thunder and lightning. Come along.

“You have to be very strong and do not tremble when you cross the laboratory of Nikola Tesla,” the journalist McGovern would later recall:

“Imagine yourself seated in a large, well-lighted room, with mountains of curious looking machinery on all sides. A tall, thin young man walks up to you, and by simply snapping his fingers creates instantaneously a ball of leaping red flame and holds it calmly in his hands. As you gaze you are surprised to see it does not burn his fingers. He lets it fall upon his clothes, on his hair, into your lap, and, finally, puts the ball of flame into a wooden box. You are amazed to see that nowhere does the flame leave the slightest trace and you rub your eyes to make sure you are not asleep.”

If McGovern was confused by Tesla’s fireball, he was at least not alone. None of his contemporaries could explain how Tesla could do this miracle, and even today no one can explain it.


This odd flame disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared, Tesla switched off the lights, and the room became black as a cave.

“And now, my friends, I will make for you some daylight.”

Suddenly, the whole laboratory was filled with wonderful and strange light. McGovern, Twain and Jefferson looked everywhere but could not find any trace of the source of the illumination. McGovern asked if the magic had some connection with the demonstration Tesla had reportedly given in Paris in which he had produced illumination between two large plates set at each side of a stage, with no source of light apparent.

But the light show was just a warm-up for the inventor’s guests. His facial features expressed the seriousness with which he himself regarded the next experiment.

A small animal was brought from a cage, tied to a platform, and quickly electrocuted. The indicator registered one thousand volts. The body was removed. Then Tesla, with one hand in his pocket, leaped lightly upon the same platform. The voltage indicator began slowly climbing. At last two million volts of electricity were pouring through the frame of the tall young man, who did not move a muscle. His silhouette was now sharply defined with a halo of electricity formed by myriad tongues of flame darting out from every part of his body.

Seeing the horror on McGovern’s face, he extended one hand to the English journalist, who later described this unusual sensation: “You twist it about in the same fashion as you have seen people do who hold the handles of a strong electric battery. This young man is a literally a human electric live wire.”


The inventor leaped down from the platform, frantically waving at Tesla to stop it.

- Quick, Tesla. Where is it?

The inventor helped him down with a smile and showed the direction of the rest room. Tesla knew the laxative effect of the vibrator.

None of the guests wanted to repeat the experiment in which Tesla was standing on the high-voltage platform. No one could repeat it. But the guests asked him to explain why he had not been electrocuted.

- As long as the frequencies were high, he said, the alternating currents of high voltage widely spread out on the outer surface of the skin without injury. Milliamperes penetrating nerve tissue could be fatal, while amperes distributed over the skin could be tolerated for short periods. Very low currents flowing beneath the skin either alternating current or direct current could kill.

It was already dawn when Tesla finally said good night to his guests. But the light burned on in his laboratory for another hour before he locked the door and walked to his hotel for a little rest.

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