Tesla’s trip to the Continent would take an emotional and physical toll that he couldn’t have imagined. But he nevertheless returned from Europe with the big idea that would dominate the rest of his career.
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This week we follow Tesla to Paris and a job with the new Edison lighting company there. In Paris, Telsa gains his first real, practical exposure to the nitty-gritty of designing and building dynamos and motors, and gets a taste for just how good the good life can be.
Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times
EPISODE 6 – Is Paris Electrified? (1882-1884)
Last time, we looked at just the first few months of 1882, when Tesla had his eureka moment in the park and understood in a flash the concept of using rotating magnetic fields as the basis for his new electric motor—later called an induction motor.
This week, we’ll follow Tesla to Paris where he’ll take a job with the new Edison lighting company there, and quickly become one of its most trusted troubleshooters. It was here that Tesla gained his first real, practical exposure to the nitty-gritty of designing and building dynamos and motors, and where he got a taste for just how good the good life could be.
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We left off in 1882, and in May of that year The Triple Alliance was formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The military alliance would endure until 1914, when it would dissolve acrimoniously in the run-up to the First World War.
In June, Ferdinand von Lindemann published his proof of the transcendentality of pi.
In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed. It is the first major law which restricts immigration into the United States. It wouldn't be the last.
Also in the United States, Carolyn Merrick was elected president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, an organization dedicated primarily to the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alchol. The Personal Liberty League was formed shortly thereafter, established to oppose the temperance movement in the United States.
In September, for all you footie fans out there, Tottenham Hotspur F.C. was founded in London.
And also in September is the last of our big dates in 1882 for the history of electric power: on September 4, Thomas Edison (who we’ll meet for the first time next episode) flips the switch to the first commercial electrical power plant in the United States. It provides DC power, and lights one square mile of lower Manhattan. This is considered by many as the day that begins the electrical age.
Notable births in 1882 include:
• Igor Stravinsky, famed Russian composer
• Geoffrey de Havilland, British aviation pioneer and aircraft company founder is born, as is Raymonde de Laroche, French aviator, and the first woman to receive a pilot’s license.
• Hans Geiger was born in 1882. A German physicist, he is best known as the co-inventor of the radiation-detecting Geiger counter, and for the Geiger–Marsden experiment which discovered the atomic nucleus.
• October saw the birth of Robert Goddard, the American rocket scientist; A. Y. Jackson, famed Canadian painter and a founding member of the Group of Seven; and Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian-born actor best known for playing Dracula in the famed 1931 movie of the same name. Your fun fact for today: Lugosi was so identified with the role of Dracula that he was buried in one of his Dracula capes…
• December saw the birth of two notable scientists: on the 11th, Max Born was…well…born. A German physicist and mathematician, Max Born was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics, for which he would win the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics.
• And on December 28, squeaking in just under the wire for 1882, was Arthur Eddington—later Sir Arthur, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Arthur Eddington was an English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, as well as a philosopher and a popularizer of science. Eddington wrote a number of articles that announced and explained Einstein's theory of general relativity to the English-speaking world, particularly during World War I when (for obvious reasons) new developments in German science were not well known in England. He also conducted an expedition to observe the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919 that provided one of the earliest confirmations of general relativity.
In addition to Jesse James, other notable deaths in 1882 include:
• Mary Todd Lincoln, former First Lady of the United States;
• Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi
• And British naturalist and father of the Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin.
When we left off last time, Tesla and his friend Szigeti had left Budapest for Paris. The telephone exchange that employed them had been sold, and the owners—the Puskas Brothers—had offered both men jobs in the new Edison lighting company in Paris that they were getting off the ground. They arrived in Paris in the spring of 1882, and Tesla must surely have been excited about the possibility of meeting representatives of the Edison companies from America, who could build his new AC motor and help drum up investors.
It’s fair to say that Paris in the late 19th Century was the centre of European culture and fashion. A stop on the well-known Grand Tours taken by wealthy elites from England, the United States, and elsewhere, through these high-class tourists the culture and fashion of Paris were transmitted to the whole world.
“I never can forget the deep impression that magic city produced on my mind,” Tesla writes in his autobiography. “For several days after my arrival I roamed thru [sic] the streets in utter bewilderment of the new spectacle.”
During this time, Tesla led what he described later as a "Rooseveltian” life (that’s Teddy Roosevelt, known for advocating a strenuous, physical, ‘manly’ life.)
“Every morning,” Tesla wrote, “regardless of weather, I would go from the Boulevard St. Marcel, where I resided, to a bathing house on the Seine, plunge into the water, loop the circuit twenty-seven times and then walk an hour to reach Ivry, where the Company's factory was located.”
Why 27 laps, you ask? Remember Tesla’s OCD around the number three and numbers divisible by 3.
The Edison Company in Paris was actual a group of related companies, modelled on how the Edison lighting companies were structured and organized in the United States: the Compagnie Continentale Edison (which controlled the patents); the Société Industrielle & Commerciale (which manufactured equipment); and the Société Electrique Edison (which installed the systems). Now, don’t worry too much about the French names—Tesla appears to have been employed primarily by the Société Electrique Edison, which for simplicity’s sake we will hereafter abbreviate as ‘SE Edison.’ Just remember that is the company concerned with the actual installation of the electric light systems.
I should also apologize for what I can only assume is my horribly inelegant pronunciation of the French names throughout this episode. I have nine years of Ontario public school French classes to blame. No doubt my pronunciation is, how you would say, le merde.
Because French law of the day required that inventions patented in France also be manufactured there, Edison had dispatched his closest associate, Charles Batchelor, to Paris in 1881 to organize the companies.
Batchelor was originally from Manchester, England and a “master mechanic” in his own right. He’d first met Edison on a business trip to the United States in 1870 and soon became his closest associate. He worked on the first phonographs and on perfecting the filament for the lightbulb, and ran Edison’s operations first in New Jersey and then in Europe. He owned a 10 percent share of Edison’s many worldwide companies, making him a very wealthy man indeed.
When Tesla joined the Edison companies, Batchelor had either built or bought a large factory (the sources disagree once again) in Ivry, on the outskirts of Paris, where Edison lamps and dynamos would be built for the European market. The plan was to erect central stations in the major cities for indoor lighting, as well as large outdoor arc lamp systems which were by then beginning to illuminate urban streets. Batchelor also had designs on his native England, where the Crystal Palace Exposition was then displaying Edison’s new incandescent lamp.
Tesla and his colleagues would travel to and help set up and service these facilities.
It was at the Edison works in Ivry where Tesla began to acquire, for the first time, practical engineering knowledge about dynamos and motors. To this point, he had relied mainly on mental engineering, visualizing in his mind how an AC motor might work in the ideal—reflecting his “idealist inventor” nature we spoke about back in Episode 0.
It’s important to remember that in these early days of what we would think of as electrical engineering, there really weren’t codified industrial standards or even best practices. The design and construction of electrical machines was based on trial and error and the craft knowledge of the men working on the devices.
So Tesla, for the first time, had to consider the proper proportions for the rotor and stator coils; plan the length and diameter of the coils, the gauge and number of turns of wire, and the speed of the machine’s rotation in order to secure a particular current output.
Tesla absorbed much of what was then known about dynamo and motor design from his time spent at SE Edition, and this put him in a position to start thinking about how to convert his ideal motor into a real machine.
While learning a great deal, Tesla also brought unique strengths to SE Edison. Though he hadn’t finished his degree, Tesla did have grounding in physics and mathematics from his time at Graz, whereas most of his colleagues had learned electrical machines by working either in the telegraph industry or in machine shops. The manager of SE Edison, R. W. Picou, soon recognized Tesla’s ability to apply theory and make calculations and put him to work designing dynamos for incandescent lighting systems.
Tesla was paid three hundred francs a month, which works out to $1400 US dollars today. This was a princely sum for the era, but we see here the first stirrings of the wild spending ways that would haunt Tesla for the rest of his life. As soon as Tesla got money he spent it. He had a taste for the finer things of life—fancy clothes, fine foods—and was also known to be extremely generous (particularly with his employees later in his career).
But we’re jumping ahead. For the moment, the wonders and possibilities of Paris offered plenty of ways to separate Nikola from his hard earned pay. “The income was spent as soon as received,” Telsa confessed in his autobiography. “When Mr. Puskas asked me how I was getting along…I [replied] ‘the last twenty-nine days of the month are the toughest!’”
Though working on Edison machines, Tesla didn’t abandon his own ideas while at Ivry. It’s unclear whether Tesla ever got to pitch Charles Batchelor his AC ideas directly (though I think it likely that he did at some point), but Tesla was disappointed to learn that Edison had a violent aversion to the mere mention of alternating current. Undeterred, he outlined his plans to Szigeti and a group of Edison men, drawing diagrams in the dirt with a stick as he had in the park back in Budapest. He outlined a new motor he’d been working on, in which “the generator produced three separate alternating currents that were delivered to the motor over six different wires.”
“My idea,” Tesla explained, “was that the more wires I used the more perfect would be the action of the motor.”
But the Edison men seemed unimpressed.
Much is made (rightly) of Edison’s own distaste for AC power systems and his intransigence when it came to change or admitting someone might have a better idea or system than his. It wasn’t called the ‘War of the Currents’ for nothing, after all (and we’ll get into all that in future episodes). So Edison’s own feelings must have trickled down through the company at least to some degree, and shouldn’t be discounted in why the Edison team wasn’t interested in Tesla’s AC motor. After all, the advantages of AC over Edison’s DC system were so obvious to Tesla that he could not believe anyone could or would ignore them.
But the Edison men were no dummies, and despite what some more conspiracy-minded fans of Tesla might tell you, at this point they certainly had no particular axe to grind with Tesla or with AC.
Yes, their ultimate superior wasn’t a fan of AC, but more immediately the mindset of early electrical engineers simply hadn’t caught up with Tesla’s vision yet. Their goal was to build and sell systems for electric lighting, not to transmit power to run electric motors. Remember electrically-powered machines were still almost novelties in these early days of the electricity industry. Coal and steam and (literal!) horse-power were far more common and efficient ways to generate power for industrial work. Commercial and domestic lighting schemes—that’s where the money was, thought most everyone. So why bother with an AC motor?
It was only four or five years later when companies finally began thinking about the commercial possibilities of generating power for lighting AND electric motors. Tesla, as so often happened, was ahead of the curve.
However, this mindset problem isn’t the only factor (or perhaps even the most important one). Because, from a commercial standpoint, Tesla’s six-wire plan had other drawbacks: to the mind of the Edison men, Tesla’s scheme used too much copper wire. Then (as now) copper wire is expensive, and the Edison companies actually spent a large part of the early 1880s developing distribution systems that used as little copper as possible in order to cut costs. The use of six wires for an AC system (where a three wire DC system would do just fine, thank you) seemed to make such a motor unnecessarily expensive to manufacture.
Now, electrical systems using AC can operate on higher voltages and hence have smaller conductors so the copper cost might not actually have ended up being an issue, but in 1882 it is unlikely that either Tesla or the Edison men would have understood this. More trial-and-error (as I mentioned earlier) would be needed before this fact was realized.
The Edison companies were in business to make money, and they had no incentive to pursue some expensive, unproven, visionary technology the way Tesla (who was so often disinterested in economic considerations) wanted to.
Only one Edison man, David Cunningham, an American supervisor at Ivry, seemed interested. Cunningham, Tesla recalled, offered to form a stock company around the idea. But to Tesla “the proposal seemed comical in the extreme. I did not have the faintest conception of what that meant except that it was an American way of doing things.”
As his friend, T. C. Martin would write of Tesla years later, “Mr. Tesla, then a youth of little worldly experience, would have sought an immediate opportunity to publish his ideas, believing them to be [a]…radical advance in electrical theory as well as destined to have a profound influence on all dynamo electric machinery.”
Here again we see Tesla the visionary, almost at the expense of all else. While he certainly had commercial ambitions of his own for his inventions, as we’ll see in later episodes, Tesla did come to see his inventions more and more as being for the benefit of all humanity, economic realities be damned. In some ways, this attitude—so key to the creative drive within him—would prove his undoing.
But, once again, we’re skipping ahead. For right now, Tesla was disappointed that no one at the Edison works seemed interested in championing his AC ideas, but was still a company man.
In the summer of 1882, Tesla was dispatched first to work on the lighting at the opera house in Paris, and then to Bavaria to help wire a theatre. In the autumn he helped lay underground cables for the new central station going up in Paris, and traveled to Berlin to install incandescent lighting at cafes there.
At the end of the year, Tesla “submitted to one of the administrators of the Company, Mr. Rau, a plan for improving their dynamos, and was given an opportunity.” Rau, the president of SE Edison, was soon impressed by Tesla’s innovations. Tesla was then tasked with developing automatic regulators, which were also well received.
Impressed by Tesla’s work, in April 1883 Batchelor dispatched him to Strasbourg in Alsace.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Strasbourg had changed from French to German hands, and after the war the Germans went on a building spree to reinforce their presence there. Among the new constructions was a central railroad station, which was to feature the fancy new incandescent electric lights.
SE Edison installed the system to much fanfare. Except, there was one hitch: it seems the generators coming from the Edison works in the United States had a bad habit of, well, exploding. Fires from faulty armatures and poor insulation were commonplace, and that led to, well…
Apparently one short-circuit happened at the grand opening of railroad station and blew out a large part of a wall, right in the presence of William I, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany.
Understandably, the German authorities were…less than thrilled. Not wanting to be accused of attempting to assassinate the monarch, Batchelor sent Tesla.
“On account of my knowledge of the German language and past experience, I was entrusted with the difficult task of straightening out matters,” Tesla wrote.
From now on, all shipments from America would be tested for “two or three days with a [full electrical] load” to prevent such, umm, unfortunate occurrences, and this included the four generators and twelve hundred Edison lamps for installation at the Strasbourg railroad station.
Tesla remained in Strasbourg for the next twelve months.
It was here, over the summer of 1883, that Tesla finally built his first alternating-current induction motor. He set himself up in secret in a closet “in a mechanical shop opposite the railroad station,” where he could tap into the circuit of the Siemens AC generator included in the railway station’s electrical powerhouse.
Szigeti—who had come to Strasbourg as Tesla’s assistant—forged an iron disk for the motor, which Tesla mounted on a horizontal axle, surrounded with a coil.
It was “a crude apparatus,” as he later described it, but “It was,” Tesla claimed, “the simplest motor I could conceive of. As you see it had only one circuit, and no windings on the armature or the fields. It was of marvelous simplicity.”
Tesla's first AC motor (Strasbourg 1883)
Having constructed his long-awaited AC motor Tesla must have been positively giddy. Szigeti by his side, Tesla threw the switch and…
The disk that Szigeti had made didn’t turn in the electromagnetic field. It didn’t turn because Tesla had wound the stator coil around a brass core that couldn’t be magnetized.
As a quick fix, Tesla jammed a steel file in the coil. Now the alternating current produced a magnetic field in the steel file that in turn induced currents in the iron disk. But still the disk didn’t rotate.
Tesla, in the good old fashioned trial-and-error methods of the early days of electrical invention, tried the file in a number of different positions until he found one where the magnetic field in the file and the induced currents in the disk were opposite one another, their repelling action causing the disk to slowly rotate.
Now Tesla could be thrilled by his invention: “I finally had the satisfaction of seeing rotation effected by alternating currents of different phase, and without sliding contacts or commutator, as I had conceived a year before. It was an exquisite pleasure but not to compare with the delirium of joy following the first revelation.”
Why point out the struggles of Tesla’s early AC motor? Well, to counter O’Neill’s claim that Tesla never wrote a thing down and that his inventions worked the first time, every time.
And because it’s a turning point for Tesla. As we talked about before, prior to this Tesla lacked real world experience in the design and construction of electrical machines. Tesla learned in Strasbourg that, unlike in his idealized mental engineering, materials count—the core of the stator needed to be made of iron or steel, not brass. Even though Tesla himself later boasted he was able to design perfect machines in his head that would then run flawlessly when built, it is clear that, like all inventors he was mortal and encountered problems turning his ideal mental machines into working devices.
Tesla presented this new AC motor to his friend, Mr. Bauzin, the former mayor of Strasbourg, who tried his best to interest wealthy investors, but ultimately found no takers.
His work in Strassbourg complete, Tesla returned to Paris in February 1884, apparently expecting to receive a promised bonus from the Edison Company for solving the problems with the Strasbourg plant. However, the promised bonus never materialized—not the last time Tesla would have to deal with a phantom bonus.
It’s unclear whether after this slight Tesla resigned in anger, or whether he just sort to bit his tongue and kept soldiering on.
Either way, in the spring of 1884, Charles Batchelor was recalled to America by Edison in order to manage the Edison Machine Works in New York. Impressed by Tesla’s work on improving dynamos, Batchelor suggested Tesla go to America and continue his dynamo work for the Edison company there.
Now, the story that we get from O’Neill here is that Tesla arrived in America with a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor to Thomas Edison which read, “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”
Except that O’Neill—as he so often did—got it wrong.
In his biography of Tesla, Wizard, Marc Seifer points out that nowhere else in Batchelor’s correspondence with Edison is Tesla praised at all, let along so effusively. Batchelor does praise certain other of his employees, but if Tesla was truly one of two ‘great men’ that Batchelor had known you’d expect to find some other mention of it in his letters. And the chronology doesn’t fit either, since Batchelor had been back in the United States for at least three months prior to Tesla’s arrival. Why not just introduce him to Edison personally if he was that impressed with Tesla? So, it’s unlikely that the praise came from Batchelor.
Instead, W. Bernard Carlson has tracked this letter (or one very much like it) to Tivadar Puskás, one of the Puskás Brothers who had
first offered Tesla a job at the telephone exchange back in Budapest. In the course of his research, Carlson interviewed Barbara Puskás, a relative of the Puskás Brothers, who recalls a letter like this written by Tivadar in her family’s archives. So while not exactly a smoking gun, I feel like if this praise did happen we’re safe in thinking that it came from Puskás and not Batchelor.
So, letter in hand, it was off to America for Tesla.
But Tesla reports some difficulties in setting out, and since they seem like something right out of a slapstick comedy, I thought we
should include an appropriate sound track:
Selling nearly everything he owned, it was only once at the train station as the train was pulling out that Tesla—still on the platform—discovered he’d lost his money and tickets for both train and ocean liner.
Running alongside the train as it picked up speed, Tesla had only moments to decide what to do. So he jumped aboard and hoped for the best. He was apparently able to buy another ticket onboard with the change in his pocket, and then talked his way past some skeptical steamship officials and aboard the ship the City of Richmond when no one else showed up to claim his berth.
Tesla’s only baggage was a small bundle of clothes, some poems and articles he had written, and a package of calculations relating to solutions of what Tesla only described as “an unsolvable” mathematical problem, and plans for a flying machine he toyed with, off and on, for many years.
* * *
Next week, Tesla arrives in New York City, and finally meets the Wizard of Menlo Park… That's right: Ladies and gentlemen, the episode you've all been waiting for--Tesla vs Edison: Round 1!
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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.