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201: Tesla with Richard Munson

Author Richard Munson joins the podcast to discuss the historical accuracy of the 2020 movie Tesla.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:31

We all know movies are entertainment and not supposed to be entirely accurate. But before we dive into some of the details of the movie, if you had to give this movie a letter grade on the historical accuracy of Tesla’s life, what would it get?


Richard Munson  01:43

Oh, can I give two grades? I’ll give it an “A” for the fact that this probably the first movie that Hollywood did that’s really focused on Nikola Tesla, who I think has been an overlooked and to be honest, even abused in some regards by Hollywood, on total historical accuracy, probably a B or B minus. But I’m not sure that really matters. I mean, what, you know, the point of movies and all artists artistry is to come up with sort of an image some feeling some sense, and and that way, you know, did in fact, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla’s shove, you know, ice cream cones at each other? No. But does it create the sense of the tension between them? Yes. So that’s, those would be my two grades.


Dan LeFebvre  02:33

That’s good. Yeah. I mean, yeah, it is a movie. Right? And so you gotta have some entertainment on there. For sure. At the beginning of the movie, we do see Nikola Tesla working at Edison machine works in New York City that gives a date of August 11 1884. We don’t get a lot of Tesla’s life before this, although later on in the movie, there are some kind of facts that are sprinkled in here, we find out that he was born in 1853, in a small rural village in what’s now Croatia, he went to school in Prague to study engineering, but he never graduated from there, according to the movie, and he came to America with hopes and dreams. So the movie doesn’t really give a lot about Tesla’s early life. Can you fill in some more of the historical record with a brief overview of Tesla’s life up until the timeline of the movie?


Richard Munson  03:18

Yeah, I wished it the movie had looked a bit more at a thriller like, which is fascinating and also quite dramatic. I mean, even his birth date. He was born at the stroke of midnight between the ninth and 10th of July. And he was born, this man who gave us artificial lightning was born during a lightning storm. How cool is that? You know, is the midwife you know, was freaked out by this because it really was quite a lightning storm and said, Oh, no, he’s a child of the storm. And his mother came back as No, no, no, no, he’s a Child of the Light. We have to look at this on the positive side. But I mean, you know, even you know, where he was born. He was a Serb that was born in Croatia. He was part of a Orthodox Christian family. His father was actually a priest in a country that was 98% Roman Catholics. So in some regard, he was a bit of an outsider to begin with. But I think the key thing about his early life that would have been useful is that, you know, even though he claims it was blissful, he was doted over by two older sisters, he wrote, you know, horses, he had a cat that he thought was the greatest in the world. He had this event when he was nine years old, and had an older brother Dane. That was about 15 at the time, and he was, you know, a Nicholas idol and all also the, you know, glory of his father and mother. He was considered the brightest one and probably would be the most, you know, accomplished. And so everybody looked towards Dane, and unfortunately, when he was 15 years old, the stallion that the family owned, bolted and threw Dane to the ground and he died. And Nikola, at this early age of nine years old. was called by his mother at around midnight to come in and kiss his dead brother. Goodbye. Whoa, that’s a little dramatic. And so you would think and then then the important part, then comes later you would think that then the family would consider. They now have one surviving son, let’s, you know, really focus our attention now on Nikola, but no, what they focused on was the fact that Nikola wasn’t Dane. And if Dane was around, he would have done things better. So Nikola, you know, spent much of his youth trying to gain his father’s adoration and acceptance. Even when he went off, finally went off to college, you know, he, you know, gotten masterful grades. I mean, what’s at the top of his class did everything perfect, and his father’s reaction was Dane would have done better. So Nikola, you know, at this point, we always think of him as this sort of genius. He dropped out of school, he moved away to a town and without telling anybody where he was, he took up gambling and billiards, and eventually got arrested for vagrancy on with brought back to his family, by the police. You can imagine his orthodox father and his dear mother, were just what did we do? So I think that dynamic of you know, having lost his beloved brother at an early age had a huge impact on him throughout his life, as well as his continuous struggles to try to, you know, come up with some creative, mindful way to impress his father. And that I think, would have been helpful for the movie.


Dan LeFebvre  06:39

I want to see that movie now. I mean, that that’s, so he was he was constant. It sounds like he’s trying to always impress his his father with that it kind of kind of being a driving force in what totally made him who he is, or why


Richard Munson  06:56

even go so far as you know that, because of his striving to please his father, he began to develop what he called sort of mind games, he began to travel in his mind to other places. And that, essentially, because his inventing style became what he referred to as cerebral engineering, it all happened up here in his head, he claims that his striving to please his father was what trained him if you will, to approach inventing in a cerebral sort of way.


Dan LeFebvre  07:28

Wow, do we know what his relationship was with Dane? Like, I mean, he was trying to impress his father. But I mean, just losing your brother is has a huge thing to


Richard Munson  07:37

huge shock. I mean, Nikola, from all accounts seems to have looked up to his brother and thought that he was, you know, just the big brother that he wanted to be like, and so even, you know, had some notion when he wrote in his diary about 50 years later that the vision of his dead brother still haunted him. So there were some historians who tried to make the case that, you know, Nikola had some role in his brother’s death. But I think that’s baloney. It’s just, he just got bolted from a spooked horse. And Nikola was crushed. And obviously, his parents were also and continued to hope that Nikola would would not replaced day but we are trying to live up to who had been the joy of the family.


Dan LeFebvre  08:24

Yeah, that’s a lot left out, for sure. But if we do have back to the movie, we see Tesla at the Edison machine works, we get a sense for how Edison ran his company, there’s always a lot of work to do. Edison himself hardly ever seems to sleep, he expects his employees to work even harder than he does. He talks to everyone but doesn’t really listen to anyone else. There’s a scene that I thought was pretty telling where Edison tells Tesla that alternating current is a waste of time. Then Edison mentions something about how Tesla thinks that he owes him $50,000. Edison’s refusing to pay and so Tesla just gets up and walks out. What was it like for Tesla when he worked for Edison, and how did their working relationship end?


Richard Munson  09:09

The relationship actually began when Tesla got his first job in Budapest, installing Edison telephone systems, both in Budapest and then later in Paris. The Edison company’s European representative recognized the genius of this young man and sent him to New York with probably the greatest letter of recommendation you could ever have. He wrote to Edison, he said, I know of two great men. One of them is you flattering Thomas Edison. And the other is this young man who’s standing in front of you. So Tesla obviously got a job working with, you know, the Wizard of Menlo Park. And they had a you know, a great relationship in the sense they both worked incredibly hard. They were both brilliant. They barely slept, and yet they were two totally different, you know, temperaments. Edison to be honest with rather crass, rumpled Tesla in comparison with this European cosmopolitan, he spoke about eight languages, you know, he would dress most days as though he was going to an opera. They did have differences, as you noted, between, you know, Edison liking direct current and Tesla liking alternating, we might come back and talk about that. But, you know, the thing that really tipped the scales was what you had mentioned on this $50,000. Of thing, this was an issue, at least from Tesla’s perspective, where Edison had offered him a bonus of approximately $50,000 If, in fact, he was able to vastly increase the efficiency of Edison generators. So Tesla spent, you know, evenings, weekends, I mean, just a tremendous amount of creative energy to, in fact, triple the output and efficiency of what had been the basic Edison generators. And so he goes to the great man, who we highly respect and says, you know, I’ve done what you’ve asked, you know, where’s my bonus, and Edison, crass, rumpled GRUMPY MAN laughs at him, he laughs at him. And then, you know, in a slight that only an immigrant can feel, you know, you know, sort of a stab to the heart. He says, When you become a real American, you’ll appreciate an American joke. And so Tesla, of course, found nothing funny to be laughing about this, picked up his bowler hat, walked out the door,


Dan LeFebvre  11:27

you won’t ask, there’s something else that the movie kind of implies. And you’re talking about Tesla losing his brother, and then his trying to impress his father being a driving force. According to the movie, it mentions that Edison lost his wife, Mary at age 25, and get the impression that he was just grief stricken, which is completely understandable. And then the impression I got from the movie was That was his driver as to why Edison was the workaholic that he was he just threw himself into his work. Is there any truth to that?


Richard Munson  12:01

I think he was a workaholic before his wife died. I mean, he just, that’s just who he was. And, you know, they had Tesla. And Edison had totally different inventing styles. I mean, Edison was a trial and error guy, you know, he put out on a big table, tons of little pieces of wire or, you know, string or whatever. And he tried to, you know, piece them together in a way to make them work. And he was brilliant at it. I mean, not discounting, you know what he did, but it really was kind of just hodgepodge trial and error. Tesla, in comparison, as mentioned before, did everything in his mind, this cerebral engineering, he would concoct what a machine would look like and make adjustments to it in his mind before it was ever done. And he actually made fun of Edison thinking that if Edison had the foggiest idea, about, you know, some basic mathematical formulas, he would have saved tons and tons of time. But that wasn’t the way Edison worked. And, you know, obviously, Edison, you know, have unbelievable inventions. So it’s not a criticism of him. But that’s that they just had different styles about what they did. And I think Edison was like that all of his life.


Dan LeFebvre  13:10

Okay, I have to ask them, because you earlier when you mentioned that, I don’t remember who was that, you know, wrote to Edison and said, there’s two people, right you and somebody has obviously catering to Edison. And then this idea of of Tesla kind of making fun of Edison, there was Edison, for lack of a better term, an egomaniac. Like he didn’t, he liked people praising Him and not so much the other way around.


Richard Munson  13:33

Yes. That’s not unusual for brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, you have to have unbelievable self confidence that, you know, the better way and so again, I’m not knocking Edison as a result of that. But that’s sort of an attribute. You know, look at people you know, today who we look to, as you know, great entrepreneurs, they’re not exactly wallflowers.


Dan LeFebvre  14:00

At fairpoint. According to the movie after a year of digging ditches for Western Union, he’s digging phone lines. One of the foreman introduces Tesla to a lawyer named Alfred S. Brown and an electrician named Charles F. Peck, brown and pack like the idea of alternating current and they set up Tesla with a lab, give him $250 A month salary to work on his motor that’s going to generate, transmit and utilize the power. So pretty good summary of how Tesla got investors to work on AC power.


Richard Munson  14:34

Yeah, just to put an in context, I mean, Tesla, after he walked out of the Edison place, gathered some investors to set up an electrical system in Rahway, New Jersey. He was successful in doing that, but he thought Tesla thought that these investors would also allow him to expand this alternating current system to other cities across the country. So he built a big empire if you will, the investors basically screwed him, which was a common theme throughout Tesla’s life, he was a horrible businessman. And so after getting shunned by this company, and having his stock that he thought was valuable, become essentially worthless, he got stuck digging ditches for about a year, for $2 a day, imagine that, you know, this cosmopolitan, brilliant scientist is digging ditches. He’s not your regular ordinary dig, ditch digger, because they were, you know, every day, the foreman would have to hear from Nikola about how this telegraph wire could be made more efficient, or the machinery on the other end could be improved. And so essentially, at some point, he said, Alright, let’s bring it a few other people to talk to you. And, you know, he got at this point was probably the most important thing is the that he got guidance from a particularly legal guidance as to how to run a business, because he didn’t have that himself. And unfortunately, didn’t last long. But that’s sort of what’s what was missing in his life. And they introduced him. They gave him some money. But the key thing that they did was introduced him to George Westinghouse, who at the time was trying to figure out how to create electrical systems in competition to the larger Edison systems. And Westinghouse was particularly interested in in alternating current.


Dan LeFebvre  16:22

Okay, okay, that was definitely the impression I got from the movie that Tesla was not very much of a businessman. But on the flip side of that, I also got the impression that Edison kind of was I think there was a mention from those two investors that Tesla was making $15 a week working for Edison. And they made some sort of a kind of an offhand comment in there saying something like, Edison likes to hire the best, but he practically makes them pay to work for him. Is that something that was true?


Richard Munson  16:49

He was cheap. And he was, you know, it was an honor. I mean, Tesla himself, you know, was thrilled to be able to work with a great man. I mean, he was, you know, the great inventor of the time. So yes, he was able to attract talent, and he paid them poorly. And he worked them really hard, but no harder than he worked himself. The going back to Westinghouse, I think that’s the key, you know, relationship that got developed, I mean, because Westinghouse, thought that alternating current could compete against Edison’s direct current. And as a result, Westinghouse thought that he could build these systems and, you know, make a whole lot of money. So he paid Tesla, not only money for his patents, which made Tesla relatively rich, but gave him a royalty on each electric motor that the Westinghouse company would make, that ended up being worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if I might, just because this is going back to the point of how horrible of a business Tesla was, you know, at some point, you know, Westinghouse got overextended. I mean, he, we didn’t come back to these, but he was engaged with the Chicago exhibition of 1893. And he, you know, captured the power from Niagara Falls and brought it to New York, in the process of doing that he spent a lot of money, but he also got stretched then financially. And so his investors were going to him and saying Westinghouse, you got to cut back some money. So he goes to Tesla, which is in part in the movie and says, you know, I’m, I’m really broke here, I’m sort of struggling, is there anything you can do to help me, you know, and Tesla as well, if I tear up, you know, my royalty contract, would that be useful? Tesla right in front of them tears up this contract, which some people would estimate would be have been equivalent of about a billion dollars in today’s money that he just tore up. Because he said to Westinghouse, you have trusted me. And I believe in you that you will make my system, the reality for the rest of the country, that sort of trust that vision of bringing his invention to the world. Being a horrible businessman in the process, he gave away a billion dollars. just remarkable.


Dan LeFebvre  19:12

That yeah, we will come back to that for sure. But I want to you’re talking about AC alternating current and direct current and the movie does kind of explain this briefly made a big deal about how Tesla’s motor eliminated the commutator. And the sparks that go with it. It’s they say that it’s more efficient than Edison’s direct currents. And it basically explains that direct current is like a river flowing peacefully to the sea. Alternating current is like a current rushing violently over a precipice. That’s the way the terminology that the movie used to explain these differences. Is that a pretty good explanation of the difference with I mean, obviously, I’m sure it’s a lot more detail. Largely


Richard Munson  19:58

that was that was Edison’s view of the difference between the two of them. The key difference is that alternating current can be sent over longer distances. And direct current, if you know can only go for, you know, a couple 100 yards. So if in fact, we only had direct current generators, we would have, you know, electrical generators burning coal or whatever they were burning at the time, you know, basically spaced off every one or two blocks. But alternating current does, which is the system that we mostly use today is that it’s what’s referred to as step up the voltage at right at the generator and then send this high voltage electricity over long distance transmission lines, hundreds of miles. And then we have transformers, basically, near all of our houses, you can look up the poles, there’s these little, you know, gray, you know, boxes that are transformers that step down the electricity and to a voltage that can be used inside your house. And so what it was certainly more efficient, but it was also why it was an efficient was that it was able to travel over long distances and bring electricity to more and more people. But this does battle between direct and alternating current became a, you know, an ugly, ugly struggle. It was referred to as the war of the currents. And I think it revealed not the best side of Thomas Edison because the things that he did to try and diss alternating currents who protect his own investment were shocking, if not downright gruesome.


Dan LeFebvre  21:36

That was the impression I got from the movie as as well now ask you if how accurate this is, I guess was Edison almost seemed going back up being egotistical, he was stuck in his like, this is my way. And this is that. And then, whereas Tesla seemed very much like this, thinking his way was better, but not so much because he thought he was going to make a ton of money off of it like Edison was, I don’t know, I guess the driver I got from the movie was Edison wants to make a bunch of money off this. And Tesla just wants to do what he thinks is best. But I mean, Edison smart guy, did he did he? I mean, he had to have known that this is better, right? Maybe that’s a trick question.


Richard Munson  22:23

You know, I guess once you get invested as deeply as he was, in a particular technology, it is really hard to make an adjustment as big as this would have required. So yes, I think you’re accurate, that Edison have brilliantly figured out how to make direct current work, and send it over short distances. But he just was, and his focus was on making money. Whereas Tesla had sort of this vision, he was going to bring power to the world, you know, almost free power to the entire world. So you had this entrepreneur versus this idealist between the two of them, and their struggle, I think defined sort of industrialized America, you know, in the early 20th century, and also just created a, you know, both an ugly business war, but also, you know, a technical inverse and wars as well.


Dan LeFebvre  23:19

You did talk about this little bit earlier, I want to circle back to the some of the the money that Tesla did make, and according to the way the movie explains it with Westinghouse, the buys the patents, the movie suggests that it was over a million dollars in today’s money. And then of course, you mentioned also that Tesla will get royalties for each motor, and what’s called the horsepower clause. And that movie says is going to assure millions more for years to come. And Westinghouse then hires Tesla to also oversee the production of it all. The movie didn’t really mention whether or not he’s getting an extra salary for that or not, or if that’s kind of included, but we do see a time in place of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, August 14 1888. Is that pretty accurate as far as how Tesla did make money off of his invention before tearing


Richard Munson  24:05

it all up? Yes, I mean, for a while Tesla was doing extremely well. Westinghouse did bring him to Pittsburgh, and help him organize things. Tesla, however, did not really fit in well with Westinghouse engineers, who, you know, were not, you know, as brilliant as as he was or thought he was. And they were also sort of regimented in sort of a corporate mentality, whereas Tesla was more of this free thinking idealist, but he did make he was pretty flush for a while he had a nice, you know, apartment in the Waldorf Astoria, the great hotel of New York City at the time. He spent most of his dinners at Delmonico’s eating he loved particularly steak most every night. And so he was doing fine. Thank you. And he ran into some problems associated with a fire in his laboratory. But he also faced, you know, just sheer business stupidity by tearing up this mortal T contract.


Dan LeFebvre  25:10

I like that you mentioned that there was the the corporate side for the engineers there. The I could definitely see how that would be a case where if Edison is running his company, and he’s this workaholic, that’s just driving everything. But it sounds like Westinghouse was running the company that Tesla was working for. So Tesla wasn’t, it sounds like he wasn’t necessarily involved in who’s working in the, in the work regiments and all that, and so they’re not quite as driven as he was.


Richard Munson  25:34

Well, Westinghouse was certainly one driven man, but he had a different approach. I mean, he would, he trusted his other engineers and his team, far more, I think, then did Edison and certainly the independent, you know, Tesla. So, you know, I think, you know, Westinghouse is one of the underappreciated geniuses that we don’t know much about, because he didn’t keep many notes. But he worked incredibly hard with sort of drawing constantly, you know, from his own, you know, library to, you know, when he was being driven to the car or he had his own railroad railway car there, he was constantly drawing up new designs for his engineers to develop.


Dan LeFebvre  26:12

Going back to kind of this war between Edison and Tesla, there are a couple parts in the movie where we see Edison go to some pretty extreme lengths to fight Tesla’s growing popularity. There’s a guy named Harold P. Brown, he works for Edison, he buys some of Tesla’s AC motors, he gets 24 Dogs electrocutes them with 1400 volts of Edison’s direct current, the dog survives. And then he uses 400 to 800 volts of the Westinghouse alternating current, and the dog dies. And that proves I’m using quotes here for listening on audio, that AC power is not safe. Well, DC power is. There’s another tactic that we see in the movie where there’s an axe murderer named William kemler, he sentenced to death. And instead of hanging Edison is the one who convinces them to electrocute him with a Westinghouse machine. And so showing just how dangerous AC power is, it’s the first use according to the movie of an electric chair, did Edison actually do those things?


Richard Munson  27:11

Every one of them and more. Not only dogs, he did cats, he did monkeys. He did sheep, he did horses. I mean, you you pick an animal that he wanted to prove, could be killed as a result of what he referred to as electro, Westinghouse, you know, as a way from a public relations campaign to try and dis, you know, his biggest competitor and the kemler, you know, Assassination or I guess execution was stunning, because Edison actually lobbied the New York State Legislature to allow electrocution as a better and more humane approach to execution than a firing squad or, you know, a hanging, and it was unbelievably botched. And they brought him in and they you know, had as often I guess, I’ve never been to one but to an electric fusion and you have reporters and, you know, people that are associated with the trial watching this. And so, you know, they shoot, I guess, 400 volts, you know, and Guy jerks around, but he’s still obviously alive, they up that, you know, double it, and he jerks around more and starts oozing goo, you know, and they up and again, I mean, it’s absolutely growth, the New York Times reporter was beside himself, he just said everybody was throwing up, and, you know, was groaning about how horrible it was. And so, you know, I think the general population looked at that report and said, Edison, you’re out of your mind, you know, what are you doing, you know, causing this pain to animals into you know, trying to have an electrocution and but it was amazing the lengths to which you know, Thomas Edison would go to advance you know, his public relations associated with with what he thought was his electric empire.


Dan LeFebvre  29:09

Well, I think we do see that in the movie where the electrification get botched a little bit he doesn’t die the first attempt and then they die they up it again and and that


Richard Munson  29:19

I mean, they were nice in the movie because at least by all the reports it was far more gruesome. I’m not suggesting the movie should have been more realistic.


Dan LeFebvre  29:31

Wow. Yeah. thankful for that. Everyone see that?


Richard Munson  29:34

Oh, I agree. No, yeah.


Dan LeFebvre  29:37

Yeah, there’s times where it’s good not to be as as accurate that’s for sure. But so if the if that was it sounds like more of a PR push right to kind of be Westinghouse, are you anytime you turn something into a verb it you know, that is a PR thing? Did that backfire at all on Edison you sound like in that article, if people are saying oh Edison, you’re crazy like that backfire on him. They realized that he was behind this.


Richard Munson  30:01

I think it did actually LM and it opened up the opportunity for Westinghouse to be able to win the contract to Power and Light of the Chicago World Exhibition of 1893. And that was, you know, sort of turned the page, because here, this vast, you know, just south of Chicago, this opening which millions of Americans and foreigners came to look at the wonders of American industrial power, and it was all being powered by a Westinghouse Electric generator that was based on Tesla designs, and they had hundreds of 1000s of light bulbs. I mean, it was the, you know, the White City as it was referred to, and I think at that point sort of showed the potential and the reality of the potential for alternating current in the system that Nikola Tesla had envisioned.


Dan LeFebvre  30:55

Wow, wow. Would you say that in a movie? I’ll come back to that in a second, because there’s a couple points that I wanted to ask about in the timeline of the movie that happened before that. One of them is a relationship between Tesla and lady named and Morgan, she’s the daughter of JP Morgan, her father had been pouring millions into Edison’s General Electric Company. So it was a little bit seemed a little awkward there. But the impression that I got from the movie was that in Morgan had a thing for Tesla, but he didn’t really see you in a romantic way. He instead had a thing for another international superstar, Sarah Bernhardt. What was Tesla’s romantic life? Like? Is that is that laugh? Just the answer?


Richard Munson  31:35

Yeah. Well, I mean, you’re talking about this man, who was a germaphobe. Um, who I mean, he was brilliant, but um, he abhorred jewelry on women, he would get a rash if he saw a peach, he would have to count his steps. And if they were not divisible by three, he would do the entire walk all over again. The guy had some quirks. And when it came to women, you know, the thought of physical contact. This was not exactly the most romanticizing, you know, individual that said, however, he was a flirt. He loved chatting up, and, you know, women, and because he, you know, with his European cosmopolitan, and tall and handsome, I mean, he, he was a charmer, and an Morgan was charmed by him, um, they met at her sister’s wedding. And then she and invited Tesla to the Morgan mansion, Thanksgiving dinner, at which point afterwards he regaled the entire crowd with his, you know, electrical sparks across the room, his dancing with, you know, lightbulbs that were glowing without being attached to wires, and doing all these amazing sorts of things. I think, you know, the relationship that they suggested in the movie was not historically accurate one, but I thought was incredibly clever, you know, for their ability to use her as the voice of reality into this to looking back and saying, you know, here’s what, you know what’s really going on in this. So, yes, she had a thing for him. Yes, he had sort of, you know, a flirtatious relationship with Sarah Bernhardt. He says that he only had really one love of his life, which, you know, happened in Europe in Budapest when he was about 19 years old. But that lasted only a summer, because he went off to engineering school and she, you know, went off, you know, to have babies. Another one individual who is willing to have a romantic relationship.


Dan LeFebvre  33:41

Wow, okay. Yeah, that’s, what are you talking about? The, the light bulbs just change a little bit, but you’re talking about the light bulbs with power without being connected anything? Do people see that as magic? Or? I mean, could they understand that the science of it?


Richard Munson  33:56

Oh, I think they totally saw it as magic. I mean, you know, the, the weird part is, you know, um, you know, this man, who we sort of have this image of as being this isolated, weird, you know, individualized inventor, he was actually a showman, and would, on numerous occasions, packin hundreds, if not 1000s of people to come watch him, you know, send sparks, you know, 50 feet across the stage, or, as I said, to grab globes, you know, which were electrified by, you know, basically, generators on either side of the stage that were sending, you know, electrostatic signals that would allow the bulbs to be lit, even though they were not connected to wires. And so yes, this was, this was magic. No one had ever seen this stuff before. So he was the great magician. But he also was an idealist who thought that this new power, which even he admitted that nobody fully understands, and I think even physicists today would sort of say, it’s a pretty weird form of energy. To me this movement of electrons all that all along, you know, a conductor. I mean, it is strange, but he was able to, you know, capture and utilize and manipulate this source of power, which before had been reserved for the gods or for lightning.


Dan LeFebvre  35:16

Yeah, but he did it more during those shows. If he wasn’t really as much of a businessman, I would, I guess I could see a contrast here again, going back to Edison, if he would do something like that he would do it, because that’s gonna bring in money, right? That’s a business thing. Bring in a lot of people. It sounds like Tesla did it because he liked like the showmanship or the you know, what, the adoration that comes from that sort of thing?


Richard Munson  35:39

Well, I think he also wanted to blow people’s minds. I mean, he wanted to, I mean, he had this vision of what this new power source could do. As far as in revolutionising, you know, American industry, as well, as you know, getting rid of the drudgery. That was, you know, life without electricity. I mean, we can’t even imagine, you know, you know, we had to candle or, you know, had to adjust the, you know, the wicks of lanterns, or, you know, we had to smash our clothes against rocks and hang them outside to, you know, to dry. I mean, life before electricity was really drudgery. And so, he, Tesla had this sort of vision, he was going to reduce that drudgery and also create, you know, an industry a, an economy that would bring riches and benefits to basically everyone around the world.


Dan LeFebvre  36:39

I want to ask about another character that we see in the movie. It’s Tesla’s assistant, somebody named and Tony zucchetti. And he’s been by Tesla’s Tesla’s side for years, according to the movie. And then at one point in the movie, he shows Tesla, a company that he invented Tesla’s like, oh, that’s already been done. Getty just gets up walks out of the room, later, Tesla’s tells and that he went to South America to seek His fortunate, kind of odd, I thought the way the movie handle it is, you know, he’s been an assistant for years, and then all of a sudden, he just kind of gets up and leaves, can you fill in some more historical context around that?


Richard Munson  37:12

There’s, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot. Yes, they were, you know, together for an extended period of time they worked in Europe, on, you know, the original designs for an electric motor together. So they were sort of joined at the hip for a long time that appears as though Tesla increasingly saw the Getty as talented, but not a genius. And so therefore, they were sort of not on the same plane. And so when this idea for a compass came forward, I mean, Tesla was, you know, sort of, really like that’s been done before. And first, the Getty, who was, you know, trying to impress this person who had been his friend, his colleague, his right hand, Best Buddy, it was crushing to have this rejection of No, you’re not really as bright as you need to be. And what you’ve come up with is second rate. And so he did, in fact, leave and by all accounts that I’ve seen is that he did go to South America and ended up dying there


Dan LeFebvre  38:17

was Tesla did with Tesla do something like that on purpose? Or was he just not that empathetic and just didn’t even realize that how crushing this would be to somebody else?


Richard Munson  38:27

My impression is, social skills were not his strength.


Dan LeFebvre  38:31

So social and business skills, not so much for Tesla. Yeah, I


Richard Munson  38:34

don’t think he I don’t think he appreciated that, you know, well, and you’re, you’re dealing with a genius, who, you know, is again, he was also a very bright guy. But he just wasn’t in the same league, if you will, as Nikola and Nikola didn’t appreciate that. His best friend, to be quite honest, you know, needed some acclamation every now and then. And he wasn’t getting it.


Dan LeFebvre  38:59

I mean, how many people throughout history on the same leak as Tesla, right, so I mean, Robert, you’re, you mentioned this earlier and go back to in the movie, we see the World’s Fair in Chicago 1893. According to the movie, Westinghouse set up a pavilion of lights, the fair consumes three times more electricity, the entire city itself. According to the movie, there’s this display 20 million visitors to the World’s Fair can see for themselves. The AC power is beautiful and safe. And this is something that the way the timeline of the movie comes soon after all that you know, Edison’s trying to prove the AC powers. It’s terrible and dangerous. And so this kind of comes off as No, it’s beautiful. It’s safe, it can do this. What we want it to do. Was that a pretty good interpretation of what really happened at the World Fair?


Richard Munson  39:52

Yes. And I think not only did millions of visitors from around the world come and see the reality of alternating current and the system’s electric motors that Tesla had designed. But it opened the door for probably the biggest electrical project of the era. And that was capturing the power from Niagara Falls. And using that to send electricity initially to Buffalo about 23 miles away. And then 400, a stunning 400 miles all the way down to New York City, you know, remember, direct current could go a couple 100 yards. And here was the clear example that you could send power 400 miles, it allowed. Think about the changes that allowed it allowed the underground electrified subway system of New York, it created the Great White Way of Broadway, because suddenly you could have all these lightbulbs. I mean, so it was a stunning achievement, bringing sort of the fair, like, advances to the reality of creating an electrical system of capturing the power from, you know, waterfall, and bringing electricity 400 miles to New York City.


Dan LeFebvre  41:05

Now just had to blow your mind. At that point. I, I wouldn’t even know what would be capable, because you just blow your mind. Like, I never even would never even think about that. I mean, there’s so many inventions now even that you’re like, Oh, this is amazing. But I don’t know what I can do with it. Cuz I don’t know what I don’t know.


Richard Munson  41:22

Yeah. But I mean, I think, you know, Tesla is genius was that he had some vision for what this electric motor and alternating current system could do. And I think he thought that, you know, he could bring it to New York City, and it would change life, both in the way that, you know, we are transported that allowed elevators and therefore larger buildings, you know, to be, you know, had it transformed into sort of the skyscape of New York City. And, as I said before, reduce the drudgery of millions of people.


Dan LeFebvre  41:57

Yeah, wow. Yeah. And that’s a big part of it to give some of those ideas to others to what can be done with this as well. Yeah, something else you alluded to earlier that the movie does show as when Edison merges with some new companies, Westinghouse tells Tesla that they’re going to have to do the same in order to keep up with Edison. But Westinghouse says, his board of directors who refuse to go through with any sort of merger, and until they cancel the horsepower clause in Tesla’s contract, and they have to pay Tesla what’s spelled on his contract. Westinghouse is saying that the entire company is going to go bust. So according to the movie, Westinghouse is the one that kind of convinces Tesla to cancel the clause so that Westinghouse can maintain control the company merger will go through and as he puts it, in the movie, the entire country will be put on a see now the movie does. I got the impression that Westinghouse was really trying to be genuine. And Tesla also seem to put his trust in Westinghouse, according to the movie as well. But I did get the impression that was Westinghouse kind of driving that Tesla didn’t really care about the money. So he was happy to give that up. We see him tearing that contract was the movie’s interpretation of this pretty accurate.


Richard Munson  43:09

It was pretty close. I think, you know, as I mentioned before, that when Westinghouse who Tesla really trusted and I think was a quite an honest businessman, you know, in comparison to you know, the War of the current, you know, activities of the Wizard of Menlo Park, Westinghouse was pretty calm. But he laid out, you know, his financial situation. And Tesla, as you noted, wasn’t that interested in money even though we, you know, admittedly, he was staying at the Waldorf Astoria and eating dinners at Delmonico’s is so it’s not like he was a hermit. And he liked dressing well, and


Dan LeFebvre  43:48

can enjoy the money even though you don’t? Yeah.


Richard Munson  43:51

But I mean, so he’s, he comes back. You know, I think Westinghouse laid out the problem. And Tesla took the bait of saying that, you know, his ideal was to have Westinghouse, who had been his friend and promoter, you know, take his inventions and bring them to the world. And if that required him tearing up His royalty contract, no big deal. It was a billion.


Dan LeFebvre  44:18

That’s a pretty big deal. But other than that, according to the movie, Tesla explains to JP Morgan, that he’s going to Colorado right, he’s going to do some you’ve got like a 300 horsepower oscillator to run simultaneous operations at any point in the globe. So he’s starting to take on what I got the impression was some other inventions outside of you know, the the AC side. And we see him you put an apparatus on the ground doesn’t matter if it’s a few miles or a few 1000 miles. The concept here is that you can transmit messages to a receiving post so you know signal steamships anywhere at sea or obtain instantaneous stock quotes sent from the east coast or the west coast, something that you know, these days, we’d only think twice about, you know, back then it’s just crazy to think about. Morgan offers Tesla $100,000 In the movie to get it done. We find out later that Morgan ended up giving him another $50,000. I think the movie mentioned something about this, but same as $4 million in today’s money. Can you fill in some more historical details around this new idea that Tesla had and being backed by JP Morgan?


Richard Munson  45:31

Well, just to make it clear, JP Morgan covered his bets. He and invested in both Edison and Tesla, he invented, invested in both Mark Hawley and Tesla as to who could, you know, transmit in a wireless communication. And he also probably spent more money on a single painting than he did in all of his investments into the Tesla business. So you have to put this man in some perspective, I mean, he was a ruthless banker, looking out for ways to monopolize various industries be that steel, copper, what have you that he had done before, and was thinking about how to do that with both communications and power, the new idea that Tesla came up with, which, you know, to be honest, ended up being not feasible, or he just went in the wrong direction, he decided that instead of sending power over electrical lines over long distances, or sending communications wirelessly through the air, what he would do with that he’d send power into the earth, you get a, you know, a huge bolt, like a, you know, bolt of lightning would strike the Earth. And Tesla realized that that bolt of lightning, when it hit the Earth, would sort of echo down through the globe. And then echo was way back up to him. And he thought, well, I could do that. And by doing that, I could allow people anywhere in the globe, to plug into the earth, and obtain both messages, as well as free electrical power. Brilliant idea. And Morgan sort of appreciated that, really, what he wanted was, you know, some wireless technology that would allow him to get stock quotes while he was out on his yacht, middle of the Atlantic. So, you know, this was all seemed kind of cool. And he didn’t want to not be involved in it. But I mean, he was, you know, looking at what Tesla was proposing or bringing power freely to everybody in the world. And, you know, Morgan is thinking, Ah, I don’t know, I invested a lot of money in equipment that charges people for power. So Morgan, Morgan is playing many sides in this particular game.


Dan LeFebvre  47:50

Yeah. I think a movie does mention that briefly talks about how Tesla has this idea of yeah, just Power for All, nobody controls it. It’s all for everybody. And yeah, I definitely did get the impression that some of the people that had business interests in here, like now, you can’t really make money off of that. Push that that way.


Richard Munson  48:11

But again, it goes back to sort of, you know, Tesla’s idealism. And it’ll also I should point out, it also reveals that Tesla, although a genius and gave us, you know, amazing things from electric motors, long distance, electricity, transmission, radio, remote control robots, I mean, the whole The list goes on, in stunning, but he also made mistakes. You know, not only was he thinking that he could send power through the Earth. But I mean, he also came up with, you know, crazy ideas after the Wright brothers had done, you know, their, their first flight, he declared the planes were too heavy, they never fly. Or, and he preferred the durables by account settling at the time. You know, contrary, he made fun of Einstein later in his life and suggested that you could split an atom and you wouldn’t get any power out of it. So, I mean, you have to put, you know, I mean, Edison also did, you know, crazy things, he, you know, thought that he could, you know, make a telephone that would allow you to speak to the dead, you know, so inventors, you know, have mistakes.


Dan LeFebvre  49:12

I guess you only remember the ones that work, not necessarily


Richard Munson  49:15

sort of batting average. And I would say, you know, Tesla, and to be honest, even you know, Edison’s batting average were extraordinary. Yeah,


Dan LeFebvre  49:23

I mean, that makes perfect sense, because it’s not necessarily. I mean, inventors may be some of the more out there because they’re coming up with things that nobody’s ever thought of before. But that’s the same for everything. I mean, businesses and projects and you’re talking about even with Edison, you know, I’m sorry, with Morgan, investing in a lot of different things. The reason why people do that is because some of them don’t work. Businesses don’t work and so they don’t fit in. That’s that’s how it works. Just how it works. We’re coding at the end of the movie, a Tesla is working on his tower in Long Island in 1901. And Morgan comes to visit and says that her father knows that Tesla is in deep debt. All he asked for was a way to send stock quotes. He mentioned that across the Atlantic. And now Tesla’s going on record saying that he’s getting messages from Mars. At the very end of the movie, we see Tesla going to ask Morgan for more money, he has some other ideas to photographing, through using the electrical impulses of the brain, a beam of microscopic particles traveling close to the speed of light that will stop an army in its tracks 250 miles away. And that squadron of airplanes gets wiped from the sky with this beam. Morgan just isn’t even listening anymore in the movie, and then Tesla’s in tears, he walks away, we find out the very end that Tesla outlived Westinghouse, Edison and Morgan, he died alone at a hotel in 1990 4387 years old January 7, how did the movie do? Showing the end of the story for Tesla?


Richard Munson  50:52

I think well, I’m one of the saddest parts about the research that I was doing. I was lucky enough, I was at the Library of Congress going through, you know, various documents of Tesla. And the librarian said, there’s this other box back here was, you know, of his business notes to JP Morgan. And it was just stunning to sort of see, and it was sad, to sort of see this great man and inventor, basically plead with JP Morgan for a little bit more money to do these things. And Morgan, you know, you can look at him as a, you know, a robber baron who, you know, wanted to crush, you know, any competition. But I mean, he also, you know, was a businessman and was realizing that Tesla was not delivering, and why should he continue to throw money down what he was looking at as a rathole? Because this idea of putting power into the earth was being proven not as effective as what Marconi was doing as far as sending your wireless communications via radio, or, you know, what, you know, Westinghouse and others were doing as far as sending electricity over long distances. So, yes, I think it was a, you know, sort of sad ending, there are lots of, you know, I think what the movie didn’t point out, which I thought could have been simply because his later years were focused around pigeons of all things he would take to go into New York, and parks Bryant Park in particular, and feeding pigeons off his arms, etc. And one great story was, you know, he was getting an award from the American electrical engineering Association. And during the first part of this ceremony, you know, Edison, or Tesla was all dressed up, he was, you know, seemingly, you know, alert to live, etc. And they were then going to go across the street to actually present the award to him at another banquet, and he disappeared. So everybody was looking all over, you know, tarnation, as to where was the, you know, the man of the hour, and one of the organizers, after, you know, about 15 frantic minutes of looking for and thought, well, maybe he’s in Bryant Park, and he was in his tuxedo, his arms out, there were pigeons on his head, or all over his body. And the organizer says, you want to come back? We’ve got an award for you. So he comes back into the room, you know, this organizer gets rid of all the pigeons very nicely and brings them back, and Tesla delivers a great speech, and this quarter. Okay, what was that all about?


Dan LeFebvre  53:30

Well, he talking about Morgan not giving him money and Tesla kind of pleading, do we know if Tesla ever regret regretted tearing up basically a billion dollars?


Richard Munson  53:40

There’s no evidence that he did. No, I think he just, you know, here’s the here’s the interesting point. And another short story after he did Niagara Falls, which was stunning. I mean, everybody was claiming that this was the greatest engineering accomplishment of the entire century, you know, for this man who was born, you know, at the stroke of midnight, you know, sort of locked in between being in today and being in tomorrow, when he was in today. You know, he did these remarkable things, but he got bored. It was thinking, Yeah, I’ve done that. I’ve said, you know, what am I supposed to do now? Three to 500 miles? Yep. Boring. So he comes up with this whole new idea of creating a whole new science that he referred to as tellem atomics, where we would refer to as robotics. And in this amazing demonstration right at the time of the Spanish American War, he builds a pond in the middle of the old Madison Square Garden and puts a remote controlled boat into this water and but dazzles these people with having signal sent to this boat and have a go around, you know, the pond move forward, move backwards, and the whole crowds going, you know, nobody had ever seen this before. I mean, this, this was total magic. I mean of a boat moving by. It’s Golf. And so he’s got the the crowd in the palm of his hands being the showman. And then he turns to the crowd and he says, Does anybody want to ask the boat a question? Who asks boats a question. And there must have been some math nerd in the back who said, Okay, what’s the square root of 16? At Tesla, he’s got his hand hidden underneath the control system by you know, the pond, and flips the switch so that the lights on the boat flash four times the square root of 16, the crowd goes nuts. You know, but for Tesla, you know, this was it’s not just a boat who could deliver, you know, ammunition or bombs to blow up, you know, Spanish in Havana Harbor. But it was for him, the first embodiment of a non biological being, it was a machine that embodied a human mind. It was something that not only would, you know, follow directions, but at some point, there’s artificial intelligence that he was foreseeing there were at least 100 years before anybody really got down to making it he foresaw would allow this machine to make a decision as to what it ought and what it ought not to do.


Dan LeFebvre  56:14

Wow. And when the with the crowd, just being amazed by that and talking about magic, you know, that we think throughout history, a lot of times when somebody doesn’t understand what’s going on, it’s magic. But a lot of times, there’s also kind of a demonic aspect thrown into it. Did anybody ever denounce Tesla, for that reason, the thinking that what he was doing was some sort of, you know, supernatural or something in that way.


Richard Munson  56:39

There were a few comments, but to be honest, they were sort of minimalized like, you know, maybe I didn’t follow them up as much. Probably, because I was still going, Whoo, this is, you know, pretty fantastic. No, I think generally, he was, you know, viewed as this magician, even though you know, there were some, you know, religious fanatics who thought that lightning was something that God should control and that what the heck was he doing, you know, trying to take over a power of nature of God. But all in all, I mean, he brought wonders and wonderment to people who watched his various demonstrations.


Dan LeFebvre  57:19

Okay, speaking of demonstration, I’ve had that going back to the movie at the very end. I don’t know why for some reason, there’s Ethan Hawke, as Nikola Tesla, seeing the tears for fear song. Everybody Wants to Rule the world. So I have to ask, what are your thoughts on that?


Richard Munson  57:36

This is when you sort of give an artistic license to a Hollywood director.


Dan LeFebvre  57:41

Tesla never actually sang that song. Are you telling me Tesla never actually sang Tears for Fears?


Richard Munson  57:46

I’ve missed? I missed that somewhere.


Dan LeFebvre  57:49

Oh, yeah, I thought that was interesting. I had to ask. Even though we have been talking about the 2020 movie, you did write a great article for The Daily Beast called What the hell is Hollywood got against Nikola Tesla. And it talks about the 2017 movie The current war and how Tesla only got 15 minutes of screen time. I’ll make sure to include a link to that article for anyone listening. So you can go read it. Why do you think over I kind of talked about this in the very beginning, but overall, why do you think Tesla has been not really portrayed as much and when he has it to quote your article, merely an eccentric crank?


Richard Munson  58:29

The honest answer is I’m not sure. I mean, I would guess that it’s hard to portray, particularly on film, you know, the intricacies of somebody who’s thinking, cerebrally. I mean, it’s, you know, Edison is somewhat, you can watch him move things around the table. You know, what’s there to do? I mean, and so you get in actually, even the most recent movie, a lot of times of just staring at Ethan Hawke who I thought did a great job, but looking seriously as though he’s thinking, well, that’s


Dan LeFebvre  58:58

fascinating. Yeah.


Richard Munson  59:01

So I think in part it was, you know, that you just didn’t know how to deal with this brilliant cerebral, and impart quacky, you know, sort of a person. I mean, you’ve had him portrayed by, you know, Chris, kind of, what’s his name by a variety of characters and but, you know, overall, you know, until this most recent movie, he hasn’t really been the center of a movie, which is why, you know, going back to your initial question, I’d give them an A for finally realizing that this is somebody worthy of, you know, a movie, and in the past, has been a very minor character.


Dan LeFebvre  59:39

Yeah, well, maybe someday they’ll actually do a movie about the beginning of his life because that it might be hard to see somebody’s thinking and turn that into a movie, but it sounds like there his early life would be an amazing story. Oh, I


Richard Munson  59:53

think the beginning of it was quite formative and quite dramatic. So the other thing I think the movie missed that I wish they had done more of his just, you know, he comes across in the movie as sort of grumpy, you know, always kind of, you know, reserved and, you know, into his own thoughts. He was actually quite a social charming, you know, character. We got introduced to the Johnsons, briefly in the movie, Robert Johnson was the editor of the, one of the most popular magazines of the era. And he and his wife had this intellectual salon that they bring various people over to enemy. Tesla, you know, and somebody like Mark Twain became buddies. And they would, you know, after dinner at the Johnsons, they go back to Tesla’s laboratory, and they were like little boys, they were shooting, you know, electrical sparks across the room, they were dancing around with a lighted, you know, bulbs, Mark Twain. Yeah, similar things with John Muir with, you know, I guess, you know, sculptors, I mean, so he was an engaging, sort of likable, you know, man, despite his genius and his quirks, and that side, I don’t think came through as much as would have made him


Dan LeFebvre  1:01:14

human and charming. What is your favorite story about Tesla,


Richard Munson  1:01:17

I think it’s, um, you know, I go back to this remote control boat, in the, in the pond in the water, or in the Madison Square Garden. And why it’s important is because a few weeks after that, Marconi tried the same experiment, and, you know, built his own pond. And he was, you know, brought in a bunch of military officers again, remember, at the beginning of the Spanish American War, and he had on one side of the pond, he referred to it as the Spanish ship. And then his little remote control thing had little tiny bombs, or, you know, explosives, that he maneuvered his, his boat over to dock right next to the Spanish ship, and he was going to punch the button, so that he demonstrate to the military that this was a way of blowing up, you know, the evil Spanish ships. The problem is, Marconi hadn’t figured out how to do individualized communications or wireless communication. So he punches the button, a Spanish ship is just fine. But in the background, where, you know, he had been storing these little miniature bombs, just with


Richard Munson  1:02:31

with smoke, and, you know, noise that everything, you know, sort of fills the arena, pour, Marconi is sort of sitting there, biking, as you said, oops. So, it sort of makes the point that not only was Tesla thinking outside the box, and moving beyond to think about a whole new realm of artificial intelligence, robotics, but he also, you know, was more advanced in his technical ability in this case of sending individualized messages that would distinguish between when you sent a message to the back room versus when to send it to the boat. So


Dan LeFebvre  1:03:12

small difference, but pretty important. Thank you so much for coming in to chat about Tesla. I know you’ve written numerous books, including a biography on Tesla himself. So for someone listening to this, who wants to learn more about the real man, can you share a bit about your book as also where they can learn more about your work?


Richard Munson  1:03:30

Sure, I mean, as you might imagine, I’ve got a website, Richard Bunsen calm and there includes descriptions of the various books and some of the reviews and ways to purchase it. And if anybody does, I sure hope you like it would welcome feedback.


Dan LeFebvre  1:03:46

I’ll make sure to include links to that in the show notes for this episode. Thanks so much for your time.



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