Fire and the Wizards of Light: Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison

Left: Nikola Tesla / Photo: Napoleon Sarony via Wikimedia Commons; Right: Thomas Edison / Photo: Louis Bachrach via Wikimedia Commons

Among the great American inventors, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are remarkable for having both collaborated and competed while developing some of the most transformative modern technologies. Although Edison is perhaps better known than Tesla today, there was a time when both these names were equally upon everyone’s lips. This was especially so in New York City, where Tesla made his home in 1884, after having begun his work in electrical engineering in Europe. Transferring from the Continental Edison Company in Paris to the Edison Machine Works in New York, Tesla had an opportunity to meet Edison and work on improving arc lighting designs, but quit the job soon after to develop electric lighting on his own.

By the time Tesla had come to New York, Edison had already developed an effective long-lasting incandescent light bulb, but there was only limited infrastructure in place to power the bulbs. Edison Electric supplied direct current (DC) to its customers, which could only be delivered short distances from the power plants, effectively limiting service to the cities. Competing companies provided alternating current (AC), which could be carried over great distances, but which was dangerous when used for indoor lighting. Fewer than five years after applying his genius to the problem of improving AC power, Tesla licensed his “polyphase” AC patents to Westinghouse, displacing Edison’s DC utility and making safe and efficient AC power available for indoor purposes everywhere. Over the course of the following decades, the incandescent bulb replaced candles, oil lamps and gas lighting the world over, increasing productivity and reducing the frequency of fires.

Nikola Tesla’s Laboratory Fire of 1895

On March 13, 1895, after Tesla and his employees had gone home, a fire completely destroyed Tesla’s laboratory, containing years of notes, private papers, experimental equipment of all kinds—some in the process of being refined, some long abandoned, some in the earliest stages of development. Tesla said at the time, “I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say? The work of half my lifetime, very nearly: all my mechanical instruments and scientific apparatus, that it has taken years to perfect, swept away in a fire that lasted only an hour or two. . . . Everything is gone. I must begin over again” (“Mr. Tesla’s Great Loss,” New York Times March 14, 1895). Tesla estimated the loss to be valued at $50,000, but he made no insurance claim, as he had not insured the laboratory. Despite his position as competitor in the electric lighting market, Edison offered Tesla the use of his workshop at Llewellyn Park, NJ, so that Tesla might continue experimenting until he could rebuild the laboratory. Within a few days, Tesla was raising money and considering new locations.

Charles Dana, “The Destruction of Nikola Tesla’s Workshop,” The New York Sun March 14, 1895

The building that housed Tesla’s laboratory was located at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue on a plot which today is occupied by part of Fiorello La Guardia Park on La Guardia Place. Contemporary reports suggest that the fire was started on one of the floors below the laboratory, probably in the dry cleaning establishment where a careless night watchman had been smoking. The lost laboratory equipment was not limited to devices relating to controlling AC current; it included wide-ranging experiments in radio and wireless lighting. A journalist visiting Tesla shortly before the fire gave the following account of what he saw:

The laboratory was literally filled with curious mechanical appliances of every description. Wires innumerable, from the smallest size to cables three-quarters of an inch thick, ran along the walls, ceiling, and even the floor. In the center was what appeared to be a large circular table covered with thick strips of black woolen cloth; snakelike cables running up underneath were connected at the other end with an adjacent dynamo, thereby establishing a possible center of electro-dynamic vibration. Between the table and the windows two large brownish globes, eighteen inches in diameter, depended from the ceiling by cords. These balls were composed of brass, coated with two inches of wax to render them non-injurious, and served the purpose of spreading the electrostatic field. (Walter T. Stephenson, “Nikola Tesla and the Electric Light of the Future,” Scientific American Supplement 1004 [March 30, 1895]: 16048)

Nikola Tesla’s Stay at the Gerlach Hotel & His Radio Technology

Among the radio equipment in the laboratory was a transmitter, which Tesla had been planning to use later that year as part of a public demonstration of the power of wireless by transmitting signals to an audience aboard a steamboat moving along the Hudson River. Tesla had already received radio signals from the laboratory transmitter at his hotel, the Gerlach, at 49 West 27th Street, on whose roof Tesla had built a receiver (today, the former Gerlach is called the “Radio Wave Building” and bears a plaque commemorating Tesla).

Radio Wave Building, formerly the Gerlach hotel, 49 West 27th Street.
Photo: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons

Twelve days after the fire, Tesla wrote to thank a friend for her sympathy using Gerlach hotel stationary whose heading includes the words “Strictly Fire Proof”: stone buildings would advertise this feature because the use of indoor electric lighting had not yet become so widespread as to make fires uncommon. He wrote, “I have gone through an experience which can not fail to leave some trace, but I am not broken in spirit, quite the contrary, my energies have risen to the occasion” (available for bidding at Swann on October 28, 2021, lot 48).  

Nikola Tesla, autograph letter signed, to Mrs. Anthony, 25 March 1895. To be offered in our October 28, 2021 sale of Fine Books & Autographs. Estimate $8,000 to $12,000.

Thomas Edison & Radio Technology

By the 1920s, radio technology had developed sufficiently that a commercial market had emerged for radio sets in the home. Thomas A. Edison, Inc. produced radio-phonographs and later radio sets until the Great Depression forced the dissolution of the Edison Radio Division. In his letter of October 16, 1930, Edison’s son, Charles, president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc, wrote a letter to his father explaining that the business was in desperate straits and that he would cease operations if he would just give the word. That word came the next day, in the form of 6-line note, written by Thomas Edison to his son on a small scrap of lined note paper: “OK. get out of the Radio business by making no more and liquidate without sacrificing too much. Let me see your plan of doing it” (available for bidding at Swann on October 28, 2021, lot 21).

Thomas A. Edison, brief autograph letter signed, to his son Charles, 17 October 1930. To be offered in our October 28, 2021 sale of Fine Books & Autographs. Estimate $800 to $1,200.

Radio, of course, survived the Depression, and Tesla lived to watch Guglielmo Marconi, Thomas Edison and others develop radio communication devices that conform to principles of radio communication Tesla proposed as early as 1893.

Tesla died on January 7, 1943. Three days later, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia delivered a eulogy for Tesla live on WNYC radio.

Listen to the WNYC Tribute to Nikola Tesla here.

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