The Man Who Could Not Change The World by Kehkashan Khalid
July 3rd, 1917
A book lies open on the table. A quill lies upon it, dry now, having spilled its last blots of ink into periods to mark the trailing off of the last scribbled sentence. Papers are scattered all across the shelves as if by deliberate disorganization. The chair stands askew as if recently vacated in a rush. Even the candle, the stumpy candle glued to the table in the mess of its own wax, seems to give off faint wisps of smoke from its singed wick, as if a pair of fingers had only just snuffed it out. The whole room, in fact, seems to battle the fact that it has been abandoned these past twelve years. The whole room seems to speak of the imminent return of its occupant. This study at Wardenclyffe Tower seems to be in denial of its demolition, scheduled for tomorrow.
“Your son is a star of the first rank.”
My hand trembles as I read this. No, don’t think so highly of me. A letter from my father inspires no emotion, whatsoever, in my heart. No, I am simply drunk.
The letters swim up and down in my mind till I am giddy. I am crouching in some sort of alleyway I believe, and am determined to write this. To pen down my despair and my disillusionment with this whole charade. A university is not the place where knowledge blooms, as I once imagined. It is a place where knowledge is shaped. Squeezed into little boxes. Forced into iron moulds. And if it does not fit, they hack and chop and slice and knife away at the edges till the bloodied foot fits the bloody shoe! Faugh! I have gone and chipped my quill and pricked my finger with its tip. Now blood and ink mingles. Enough, my head aches. I… I find myself embarrassed. Last night I behaved quite unlike myself, but even as this morning’s coffee sobers my mind, I know that what I believe and what I wrote are one, and the same. I have lost all my money, last night at billiards. I have lost that stardom my teachers so eagerly spoke of three years ago to my father. I have lost the ability to earn this degree, having missed my exams. But, most importantly, I have lost all respect for this institution. I must move on. It came upon me so gradually that I must own I was thoroughly deceived for a very long time. Devouring bookish knowledge has always been second nature to me and I did this with a zeal. This, everyone approved of. My attempts to soar past those boundaries, so carefully laid out in the prim boxes within those books, were the bitter pill that none could swallow. It began in Professor Poeschl’s class. I noted that the Gramme Dynamo used twice as many commutators as were required. Fewer in a different design would make the machine so much more efficient. My remark was greeted with disdain, argument and utter dismissal. It was as if someone had pried my eyes open. All these pseudo-scholars took pride in what they knew but not what they could learn. I began a short experiment, deliberately offering unwanted alterations to theories and practices set in stone. Yes, I quickly realized, none of them could accept any change. What was the point of passing knowledge forward if it was never to be changed or improved upon? So quickly would it become obsolete, and the world extinct.
Soon I had lost all interest. The young freshman who never missed a lecture, gave twice as many exams and who was only ever chided for ‘working himself too hard’ became the drunk and disorderly senior who lost his scholarship, gambled away his remaining money and was completely unprepared for his finals. The star student became the renegade. I do not believe my clergyman father ever wholly understood or admired my passion for engineering but I imagine even he would be disappointed to learn that I am dropped out of college, degraded to sitting in a pub and circling the job advertisements in the local newspaper. No, it won’t do to have my whereabouts or my situation announced. I will send them a packet, some money, a letter perhaps, and then I must go to the West.
My mind bursts, teeming with ideas. Every time I sit down with a sharpened pencil and this huge yellow parchment, my mind begins to soar. But I must contain myself. There are certain designs required of me and I, as a dutiful draftsman, must stick to my orders and deadlines. I must make myself worthy of the sixty florins that will come my way at the end of the month. I must content myself with the intellectual exercise of playing the same card game with the same companions night after night. I must not expect my companions to create meaningful conversation and I must certainly not expect them to be interested in the noise in my brain. For my brain IS filled with noise. It is babbling away about the possibilities of each technical design I am forced to reconstruct. Well, I should be grateful of having learnt at least this from my university education: how to lock my imagination into an unreachable recess in my mind.
I have received a letter from my father. His message was simple. He begged that I return home. But my humiliation at being found out far surpassed my nostalgia for home and I curtly declined, stating that I wish never to be contacted again. That was March. It is April now and I am standing here in the middle of the pavement holding a cutting from a newspaper. It is his obituary.
The stench of damp cloth is overpowering. I feel a hunger gnawing in the pit of my stomach but my muscles feel too drained to move. My hair hangs greasy and limp on my forehead, it is as if the oil from those unwashed strands permeates through my entire body, affecting me with listlessness. Two days ago, I was energetic as a madman in my hysteria. The first day I gave in to my impulses, editing away at my drawings with a defiant zeal. Upon confrontation with my bosses, clearly angered at my inability to follow their instructions, I stood my ground. I argued the merits of my designs over theirs. At first I seemed to have stunned them; their gaping mouths instilled a spark of excitement in my heart, I was to succeed! But then, the eyebrows lowered and the mouths clamped shut. I was fired. What imbeciles! I felt a madness take hold of my mind and like a rampaging rhinoceros I stormed from one tavern to the next till I had nearly exhausted my meagre savings. Then, as the alcohol subsided so did my angst and I felt the characteristic emptiness that comes after much frenzy. I lay in bed for a whole day after that, trembling with a mild fever, yellow in the face. Today, I sit here by the window, writing this, feeling as though I have lost everything. I have no hope, no direction. I cannot work at this mundane job for people who seem to have discarded their intellect in the gutter. I cannot go back to my family for my heart will always ache at the misery I have caused them and for my rejection of my father’s last plea. Sometimes I wish that my mind would dull down enough to allow me the comfort of an ordinary life, an ordinary family.
I believe I have found what I was looking for. This place is a veritable paradise!
Don’t get me wrong: Edison is a slave driver and slightly thick-brained besides but I am surrounded by wheels and cogs and steel, all at my disposal. I have a stingy boss but one who values my contribution. He did not do so at first, he merely treated me as a draftsman, but when I pointed out a few errors in pieces of machinery and helped him improve them, he began to see me in a different light. Henceforth, he would direct me to his machines and leave it to my discretion to make the necessary changes. I must admit I feel a certain pride when I see the how much the efficiency has improved since I have begun this work. I have been staring at these drafts all night. The lines and letters are mapped on my eyelids, dancing in front of me even when I close my eyes; golden in the darkness. I have an idea. I have not much hope that it will be accepted but I must make an attempt.
“There are fifty thousand dollars in it for you–if you can do this.”
This is what he said to me today! Edison. I am to rework all the motors and generators that I believe are inefficient and the money is promised me if I manage to improve service and economy. I can feel a thrill course through my veins at the thought of the opportunity. I must get to work immediately.
It is bitterly cold. I have a sort of torn cloth jacket covering my back but it is of little use. The cold penetrates my bones. My fingers are too numb to even feel this pen properly. I want warm clothes but with a mere two dollars a day I must say a hunk of warm bread and cheese takes preference at the end of a hard day’s labor. I cannot write more, I must get back to work. I can hear the man shouting my name.
I am sitting under a fat bush. It is prickly, but I am grateful for its warmth. The nights become colder than ever and we are lucky if we find a good place to rest our head. It has been sometime since I last wrote and I suppose my current state requires some explanation. I was forced to leave Edison’s company. Upon successful completion of my project I reminded him of his promise about the money but he said to me,
“You mistake our American humor, Tesla.”
Noting my disgust he offered then to give me a raise. Hare-brained man! I think he truly believed it was about the money. It was his hypocrisy that angered me. I resolved then that I could not work for a man with so little aptitude for engineering or honesty. It took me some time but I managed to build the contacts required to begin my own venture. Tesla’s Electric Light and Manufacturing focused on arc-light based illumination systems as well as my patented dynamos and commutators. I am loath to admit, I was able to generate very little enthusiasm for my products. I attended scores of presentations, outlined relentlessly how easy life could become if they could propel themselves to accept these new machines. My AC induction motor for example sported no commutators and boasted less friction, thus requiring fewer repairs! Westinghouse did show some interest and for a long time promoted my products, paying me royalties. Then that accursed giant, J.P Morgan, lurched in, interested only in what money he could make out of the world, and not only tore Westinghouse up but also frittered my savings away. Gullible fool that I was to believe his canny talk. I sold my patents at a lump sum to earn myself some time but even then, it was not long before my partners forced me out on the streets. They reasoned that my products were not the need of the market. I was left penniless.
My head aches terribly. This shovel is too heavy for hands that have been deprived of nourishment for the past 15 hours, controlled by a brain that has been deprived of sleep. The ditch I am digging seems to divide into doubles and triples before my eyes. A smell of faeces seems to overpower all. I want to weep but my tears are freezing on my skin.
I am at my new lab in Colorado Springs. I came here because this was the origin of the magnifying transmitter and it is only fitting that the work be continued here. Also, the smaller consideration that I have associates here who have help me set it up. I am trying to create a workable system for wireless transmission of light and sound. I admit, it seems rather far-fetched to most small-minded people but I have realized it is something that is very possible. I am so close to discovering the final step! ‘I have fresh hope that I shall live to see the fulfillment of one of my fondest dreams, the transmission of power from station to station without the employment of any connecting wires.’
Bolts of lightning crackle at my feet and shoot up towards the sky. I am chuckling deeply. I am sure this horrific picture of a man grinning away amidst webs of lightning justifies the reputation I’ve earned for myself. The villagers think me a madman ever since I caused the city-wide blackout when my lightning hit a power station generator setting up powerful high frequency currents that burned the machine out! (On normal occasions my magnifying transmitter is generally silent, it is only when it accumulates high voltages that the sparks shoot out of the electrodes). My experiments thrill me but seem to frighten others. My artificial lightning makes the street lamps and people alike shudder! Sparks dance on the pavements and light bulbs come alive even when switched off. I must excuse the villagers their lack of enthusiasm. They do not know yet the value of my experiments. But all my energy is directed towards a great purpose. Well, they will find it out soon enough.
There is a man called John Jacob Aster who is willing to invest some sizable amount in my projects. It would be a relief to hand the petty money matters over to someone else, so that I can focus on the aspects of the project that truly deserve my attention!
They fail to see the value of the tele-automaton. I feel despondent. I feel as though I should finally give up, or give in. How it could not spark their enthusiasm is something I simply cannot understand. A radio controlled boat! Think of the possibilities! If not, then think merely of the fascinating idea! But none of those things appeals to them. Their misunderstanding of the magnifying transmitter and their lack of knowledge and joy at my discovery of the resonant frequency of the earth, I could understand. They, after all, do not think along the same wavelengths as I. But again I say, a radio controlled boat! Does that not appeal even to children???
It is 8:10 PM on a Saturday and I am sitting here at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, awaiting my dinner. It has been a long time since I left the facility at Colorado Springs. I must own that it was entirely my fault. Jacob Aster believed his money was being put to good use (and it was! just not the use he had imagined). For some reason, he believed my wireless experiments to be a complete waste of time. This angered me but did not lessen my determination in any way. I spent every penny he gave on researching further for my wireless transmission system. In a few months I was rewarded because I believe I managed to make contact with a place beyond Earth. I have the notes here, which I intend to sort out and have published. It is a breakthrough! But Jacob Aster refused to fund my work any longer. I suppose it was dishonest of me to beguile him in this way, failing to spend his money on matters he thought worthwhile.
I go to a very important meeting today. The years have taught me my lesson and I know that genius without power or money is fruitless. So, I go to the man who can combine his power and money to my genius. I go to the great J.P Morgan who once royally defrauded me, and hope to guilt-trip him into surrendering his capital.
Success! They may have torn up my lab at the corner of Foote and Kiowa in Colorado Springs, but the real magnifying transmitter resides in my brain. I intend to restart the project, greater than ever before and achieve what no man has achieved before. Something that will revolutionize the world.
December 1901 I am sitting at my desk inside my study at Wardenclyffe Tower. Wardenclyffe Tower. I can hardly believe that what was once a dream is now almost reality. We are working out the details of the construction of the transmitter. I do need Morgan to provide some more funds and will approach him directly.
I suppose life is meant to be full of disappointments. A man called Guglielmo Marconi seems to have transmitted a measly ‘S’ across the Atlantic and somehow that means the end of my world. Yes, I admit, his design is cheaper. But it is also capable of so much less. It transmits wireless sounds whereas I imagine a world without wires. But no one sees eye to eye with me. My financiers are rapidly abandoning me in favor of this Marconi, including the great J.P Morgan who refuses to lend me anymore. I continue to amend the design of my tower, in the hope that one day someone will realize it’s potential.
I have tried everything. I tried to demonstrate the ability of the Wardenclyffe Tower to transmit wireless electricity but it seems I am surrounded by skeptics. While they appreciated the way I wirelessly lit the lamps at my own study in New York (as an audience appreciates a magician’s tricks) they clearly do not realize that I am in earnest about the capability of this tower to propel us years into the future. I must admit that I feel it quite bitterly and wish to remind them that Marconi’s radio signal was only achieved with the help of seventeen of my patents!
Today, it is 50 years since the day I was born. Today, I am forced to acknowledge that one cannot leap through the bounds of time. You must live in the time accorded to you and only proceed at snail’s pace in the allotted sequence. Any attempts to jump the gun and try to live in the future and you shall be set back many years as punishment. After all, I have heard even the facility at Wardenclyffe will be demolished to erect something more ‘useful’. So here I am, the inventor of bladeless turbines and steam-powered oscillators, at your service. The inventor who lives quietly in room 3327 of the Waldorf-Astoria and is apt to take long walks and feed a multitude of pigeons in his past time. The inventor who will no longer attempt to make others see the doorway of the future, but will quietly pen it down in the hopes that someday, some minds will see to the application of my imagination.
Pain courses through my lungs and sparks dance before my eyes. For a moment I almost see myself back at my beloved laboratory at the corner of Foote avenue and Kiowa Street. Then a voice speaks to me and hands pull me up. I am riding in a taxicab and I believe someone mentions a hospital. I am adamant. I will visit no doctor. I will recover at my home though I seem to have cracked my ribs and wrenched my back. I suppose it will take me a long time to recover, but do I really care? No. For my brain, which is the source of all my work, continues to function and I believe that beyond this physical wreckage, there are no more curve balls life can throw at me.
A book filled with dreams, lies open on the table. A quill lies upon it, dry now, having spilled its last blots of ink into periods to mark the trailing off of the last scribbled sentence. Papers are scattered all across the shelves as if by deliberate disorganization. The chair stands askew as if recently vacated in a rush. Even the candle, the stumpy candle that is glued to the table in the mess of its own wax, seems to give off faint wisps of smoke from its singed wick, as if a pair of fingers had only just snuffed it out. A ‘do not disturb’ sign hangs lazily outside the door. The whole room seems paused in the midst of a crucial project. Room 3327 at the Waldorf-Astoria seems to be in denial of the fact that its occupant lies face down on the carpet.
University Runner Ups