rays, sparks and a life of legend in Cosmocaixa


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Lightning and flashing, yes, but also gigantic high-voltage coils, radio remote control, wireless transmission and oscillators capable of causing earthquakes or, depending on the case, loosen the guts of Mark Twain himself. The induction motor and alternating current. Edison as an arch enemy and the Wanderclyffe tower as a dilapidated monument to posterity. The ray of death? Okay, not everything could be, but who needs a deadly and spectacular weapon of mass destruction, a thing that would drive science fiction illusionists crazy, when his name has served to shape the empire of billionaire Elon Musk and, So much montage, it has been embedded in popular culture in the form of movies, songs, flirty books like Jean Echenoz’s or, better yet, in the form of David Bowie with a mustache and a bow tie?

“Tesla invented the 21st century”, Solemnly proclaimed by the deputy general director of the La Caixa Foundation, Elisa Durán, to present the ambitious and electrifying exhibition that Cosmocaixa dedicates until February 2022 to the “visionary, versatile and extravagant”Nikola Tesla, “Founder of modern technology” and directly responsible for something as elementary as the flick of a switch to light up. A genius ahead of his time, a visionary inventor forgotten for years who time and pure logic have returned to the top of the podium of contemporary science. “He is a scientist without whom many of the advances and comforts that we have cannot be understood. His ideas have had a huge impact today, ”insists Durán.

That is why the indefatigable and somewhat gaffe inventor of Serbian origin is the protagonist of the third monographic exhibition that Cosmocaixa dedicates to a scientist. The other two, Einstein and Darwin, help to recalibrate the importance of a character who was born in 1856 in the darkness of the nineteenth century but bringing with him the light that would end up illuminating the twentieth century. «This child will be the son of light», It is said that his mother said shortly after Nikola appeared. And it was. Boy it was. “He was a visionary who wanted to change the world,” underlines the director of the Nikola Tesla Museum Belgrade, Radmila Adzic.

Detail of a Tesla coil in full operation
Detail of a Tesla coil in full operation – Efe

Come out of the dark

The exhibition, co-produced in collaboration with the Serbian museum, traces that path from darkness to light and from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the skyscrapers of New York based on biographical notes and, above all, electromechanical devices and devices devised by Tesla. Massive and enigmatic machines that hum, shoot rays, light bulbs and fluorescent lights from a distance, generate tremors and, in short, push the laws of physics to the limit.

There they are, for example, the magnetic induction motor, the first remote control, a remote-controlled boat, a replica of the ambitious and dilapidated Wanderclyffe tower with which he aspired to use the earth as a conductor of electricity … Today, Duran recalls , the number of patents registered by Tesla and documented amounts to 280, although it is suspected that the real figure could be more than 700. And, among all of them, none more spectacular than the bobina Tesla, a two million volt transformer that in Cosmocaixa fires tree rays and emits music like fresh out of ‘Encounters in the third phase’.

In parallel and hand in hand with personal objects, replicas of offices and even his death mask, the exhibition reconstructs Tesla’s footsteps from his childhood in Smiljan, where, legend has it, he discovered electricity when he saw how hair stood on end. a cat, until his last days in New York, where he died alone and soberly ruined in the room 3327 del New Yorker Hotel. “He was an innocent character full of manias who pursued success with his inventions and became a victim of the financial society, which ended up robbing him of his ideas,” summarized a few years ago the writer Jean Echenoz, author of the delicious biographical novel ‘Relámpagos ‘.

Visitors can interact with the facilities and experiment with Tesla's inventions
Visitors can interact with the facilities and experiment with Tesla’s inventions – Efe

In Cosmocaixa, all this is perfectly explained through his encounters with Marconi, who ‘took advantage’ of a wireless transmission system invented by Tesla in 1895 to patent the device and proclaim himself the inventor of the radio (in 1943, the United States Supreme Court declared Tesla the true inventor of the radio and returned the patent to him ), or the famous ‘war of the currents’ that confronted him with Thomas Alva Edison, for whom he had worked in France at the Continental Edison Company and in New York at the Edison Machine Works.

Together they had designed the improvement of the lighting network of the American city, but an economic dispute confronted them and led to a war of public relations, foul play and fierce competition: Tesla blindly defended the superiority of the alternating current, while Edison did the same with direct current. In the end, time would end up proving Tesla right, even though it was Edison who took fame thanks to achievements such as the incandescent light bulb or the phonograph.

The great paradox is that the only great prize that Tesla received in life was nothing less than the Edison Medal in 1916. “When you get home today and turn on the light, remember that it is thanks to Tesla”, Duran highlights. The sky-high bill and electricity at the price of unicorn blood, however, would not quite fit Tesla’s way of thinking. «He conceived electricity as a common good; all his work goes in that direction. Unfortunately, capitalism has not always been in favor of this idea, ”laments Adzic.

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