Film review: Tower to the People

October 23, 2015
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“Man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.” (Goethe, Faust)

Consider how much we are becoming accustomed to a wireless world. Our telephones, connections to the internet, even drone aircraft. Much of this technology is possible in large part because of the inventions of Nicola Tesla, a contemporary and rival to Thomas Edison. It was Tesla who advocated for AC power instead of DC. But his biggest dream was to provide free energy to the whole world without wires. Tower to the People—Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues is the story of his struggle to accomplish this massive undertaking.

Although still relatively unknown, Tesla was a genius concerning all things electric. You may have seen the lightning from a Tesla coil at a science museum, but that is in some ways just a toy he made in the process of inventing the basics of radio and the ideas behind florescent lights, microwaves, and even things that help make computers possible. Edison is much better known because he invented things with commercial appeal. Tesla was much more interested in making things that just made life better.

Early in the 20th Century, Tesla teamed with J. P. Morgan, one of the richest, most powerful men in the world, with the idea of creating trans-Atlantic radio communication. He set up a laboratory on Long Island and began building a massive tower that would serve as an amplifier that would send radio waves to a similar tower in England. When Marconi developed trans-Atlantic radio first, Morgan lost interest in continuing to fund the process. But Tesla also saw this project as a way to set up such towers around the world and use the earth and atmosphere to transmit electricity worldwide, at no cost. He spent the next several years trying to find support to finish the project, but eventually he lost everything. That struggle takes up a bit more than half of the movie. From time to time, the story is illustrated with quotations from one of Tesla’s favorite books, Faust.

The second half focuses on a more recent project to save the derelict laboratory building and create a Tesla science museum there. Some locals began the campaign which finally found success through crowd funding. It is interesting that Tesla spent so much of his life chasing money for his project, and years later others find a new method of chasing money and raise far more than Tesla ever envisioned.

One of the interesting things about Tesla is his absolute obliviousness about the commercial world. While Edison had the idea of profit firmly in mind in his invention, Tesla only sought to make life better and thought that his reward would be all the things people could do because of what he had done. One of the reason that Morgan was so adamant about cutting off funding (and preventing others from investing) was that the idea of universal power would undermine many of the industries in which he was involved. Given that this is the time of the great robber barons of commerce, there is something refreshing about someone who didn’t think of getting rich, but only enriching the world.

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Darrel is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) living in southern California

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