Tesla in Pop Culture: A Double-Edged Sword

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Tesla in Pop Culture: A Double-Edged Sword

It wouldn’t be fair to say Nikola Tesla has been treated poorly by North American history books because, for the most part, he’s not been represented poorly; he’s just been ignored altogether.His absence from most teTeslaPopCultureCaption copyxtbooks and curricula is especially puzzling given that he invented an Alternating Current Induction Motor that enabled the proliferation of electricity and transformed the world.  It isn’t entirely clear why Tesla’s work has been either neglected or loosely attributed to other inventors, such as Thomas Edison.  It may be that he had a penchant for grand proclamations and his showmanship lead some historians to feel that at least some of his visions and contributions were difficult to discern from pomp and circumstance.  It may be, as some have theorized, Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison, who was more business savvy, created an enormous shadow of bias that led many historians to intentionally, or unintentionally, highlight Edison and ignore Tesla.  It could be that Tesla’s tendency to keep most of his ideas in his mind rather than on paper coupled with a terrible fire that destroyed most of the notes he actually did keep, meant the material to draw upon was limited to the patents he secured and a relatively modest body of literature.Regardless of why Tesla has been omitted by main stream historians in North America, it has meant that the job of propagating Nikola Tesla’s story has often fallen to those who are willing to dig in behind the textbooks and sift through patents, newspaper clippings and the original source documents.  In many instances, that work has been done by engineers, technologists and fans of subculture – in short, often done by geeks.   The result is that the mystique around Tesla that has evolved from geek culture can often co-mingle fact and fiction.For example, Rave Mehta’s “The Inventor.”  It is a comic book (see image above), or “Graphic Novel” that is based on Tesla’s life and Inventions.  The opening chapter tells of Tesla’s birth and his early education.  The general facts are relatively accurate, but the author embellishes the characters to suit the genre and to perpetuate, if not amplify, the mystique and super power legend of Tesla.  The value is that it engages youth and promotes the legacy of Tesla, but the drawback is that, for some, it can relegate Tesla to a pseudo Pop Star and hinder the movement to have Tesla recognized in more scholarly way in educational materials.Similarly, the Tesla versus Edison “Epic Rap Battle” below, highlights some elements of the historical rivalry between Tesla and Edison, but the humorous medium may harm the serious message:On the other hand, the drive to champion the underdog and to create movements has also resulted in Popular Culture magnates, like Matthew Inman of “The Oatmeal,” to create an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign to raise 1.37 million dollars needed to save Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Lab and convert it into a Museum. The plight of Tesla has rallied legions of fans trying to right the injustices and restore Tesla’s good name in the annals of history.  It is also being done with more modest movements like that of John W. Wagner, a retired 3rd Grade Teacher whose students have written to many of the finest Universities across the country and successfully lobbied to prominently display a bust of Tesla on their campuses.  Further, it is being done with grass roots, more culture-based charitable organizations, like the Nikola Tesla Educational Corporation, who are simultaneously trying to bring awareness to Tesla’s legacy while also extending and building upon his work through scholarship, educational resources, and community enhancement.It is both the positive and the questionable support for Tesla that has led the BBC to call Tesla “The Patron Saint of the Geeks” and truly makes the Pop Culture presence of Tesla a double-edged sword.

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