When 10-year-old Nikola Tesla, growing up in Croatia, saw an engraving of Niagara Falls in 1866, he envisioned a giant waterwheel harnessing the water’s power. In 1895, Tesla realized that vision. He helped George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Electrical Company, build a power plant at the falls. It transmitted electricity using a system that Tesla designed and that made electric power a feasible source of energy for the world.
Thomas Edison was the first person to transmit electric power to homes and businesses, but he relied on direct current, which can only go about a mile before losing potency. To power an entire city, Edison had to build generators for every neighborhood, and often for individual buildings. With that much equipment in operation, power failures and fires were common. Tesla pioneered the use of alternating current (AC), which could be transmitted hundreds of miles from centralized generating facilities, making the transmission of electricity safer and more efficient.
AC posed a threat to Edison’s generating business (soon to become General Electric), so he tried to portray it as unsafe. After one of Edison’s colleagues provided a Tesla-Westinghouse motor for the first electric-chair executions, Edison joked that the prisoners had been “Westinghoused.”
At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Tesla and Westinghouse fought back. Tesla displayed the world’s first neon signs, which were powered by AC and shaped to spell the names of famous scientists. He also shot two million volts of AC through his body, and came away unharmed–partly because he wore rubber shoes and partly because he used a high-frequency current; it danced harmlessly across his skin and bathed him in a blue halo of electric flame. His demonstrations convinced the public that AC was safe, and since then more than 80 percent of the electric devices sold have used alternating current.
I am starting a new series - anecdotes from the lives of some famous people. Small snippets that I have collected over time. These are musicians, scientists, inventors - many that you know. Here is an mystery surrounding the death of famous Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
According to official reports, Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) died in his brother Modest’s apartment on November 6, 1893, just days after drinking contaminated water and contracting cholera. But rumors soon circulated that Tchaikovsky committed suicide after a homosexual affair threatened his reputation.
The rumors first surfaced because Tchaikovsky was not treated like a cholera victim. Health laws demanded, for instance, that the body be quarantined and sealed in a coffin as soon as possible. But a composer colleague reported viewing Tchaikovsky’s body at Modest’s apartment while choirs sang requiems and throngs of people looked on. Conflicting medical reports added to the suspicion that friends, relatives, and doctors were hiding the truth to shield Tchaikovsky’s legacy.
An unofficial account of Tchaikovsky’s death suggests that he’d become involved with the nephew of a powerful duke. Incensed about the affair, the duke denounced Tchaikovsky to Czar Alexander III, who convened a “court of honor.” The court, many now believe, sentenced Tchaikovsky to death by suicide, probably by poison.
Homosexuality was illegal in Imperial Russia. It was tolerated if accompanied by discretion, but public exposure could carry harsh consequences. Although Tchaikovsky’s closest friends and relatives knew he was gay, they guarded this knowledge carefully. The composer confided to his brother Modest, for instance, that his sexual desire for other men brought him inner torment, but only later did Modest characterize these illicit passions as the driving force behind his brother’s music. He claimed, for example, that unrequited love for a former classmate inspired Tchaikovsky’s rapturous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. That same classmate would eventually serve as a judge on Tchaikovsky’s court of honor.