Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lights, Action, Tesla!

Steampunk has brought about a renewed fascination with Nikola Tesla and even Hollywood has noticed with 2006's The Prestige directed by Christopher Nolan starring David Bowie as Tesla. But this isn't the first time Tesla in some form haunted the silver screen. In James Whales' 1931 Frankenstein and sequel The Bride of Frankenstein we were introduced by the special effects wizard Kenneth Strickfaden to Tesla Coils that were actually built by Tesla himself.

Strickfaden was responsible for all the laboratory equipment used in both films and in subsequent films for Universal and also MGM's Wizard of Oz. Acquiring the Tesla Coils and constructing elaborate machines that whirled about fingers of electricity was an engineering feat and the results are still to this day are rather spectacular to watch and they were also dangerous. Karloff was not fond of the electrical effects and Strickfaden allegedly doubled for him in some of the more electrifying scenes.

Even today Tesla's name is invoked with geekish reverence as in the ScyFy series Warehouse 13 where the agents carry a Tesla Gun. Though I can only fathom what Tesla would make of this cultural fascination one thing is without a doubt, Edison, his rival never achieved near the homage Tesla has either in pop culture or in perhaps history itself. Maybe it is due to the man's eccentric nature or his rogue independence or both, but Tesla's name has almost become esoteric and otherworldly with rumors of FBI files that were confiscated at his death. Tales of Death Rays and other inventions that not only could bring harmonic power to the masses but destruction as well began to surface from files allegedly kept by the government in some secret warehouse. Sounds like something from a TV series eh?

In a world that seeks to move away from fossil fuels perhaps a more serious eye now turns to Tesla. Recent years have seen electric cars that can travel 200 miles on a charge are being manufactured by Tesla Motors before any of the major car companies even considered it. Tesla once said that the future belonged to him, with his place in history secure and his name associated with Steampunk and bandied about in film his cultural impact is evident but his legacy and his inventions is what will make the prophecy complete. Then again, Dr. Gordbort's Moon hating Death Ray based on Tesla technology may just do us all in.

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