A Tesla Tale in Two Different Times

 Lydia Emanuel, Vice President, NTHSA

 

Many parallels can be drawn between the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the Covid-19 pandemic which is currently sweeping the globe. Tesla would have been 62 years old at the time of the Spanish Flu and living back in New York City after a short stint in Colorado Springs.

A recent article by Harry McCracken details how the telephone1–a relatively new invention from the late 1800’s that was not even yet in 35% of American homes2–served the same purpose in 1918 that the internet does today for getting us through this challenging time. Since penicillin wasn’t invented until 10 years later, there were still many other communicable diseases that required quarantine, so that involuntary isolations were not unusual occurrences for that era. In the 1918 pandemic, schools, churches, and theatres were shut down, and people were discouraged from congregating in large numbers. The telephone was being promoted as the new way to stay in touch during self-isolation.3 Much like today, people were encouraged to call in their orders for groceries, and remote education by telephone was happening in California for quarantined high schoolers who kept in regular contact with their instructors.4 However, the close proximity in which the vitally important telephone operators had to sit, violated any rules about social distancing, and contributed to a high infection rate among them. By the end of October 1918, over 2000 New York Telephone Company Operators (1/3 of the company workforce) were sick.5 The public was asked to limit phone-calls to emergency situations only, since there weren’t enough employees to operate the switchboards.

In many cities, people were directed to wear masks when going out in public with a popular jingle being:

“Obey the laws, and wear the gauze, protect your jaws from septic paws”. 6

In an eerie echo of today, controversial lockdowns were instituted across major cities, and some cities that were very close to each other (Minneapolis and St. Paul) took opposite approaches and got opposite results. 7

In terms of the impact on Tesla’s world, New York City actually had a low death rate because citizens had been used to adhering to numerous public health interventions from that city’s very long campaign against tuberculosis.8 Also, there was another phenomenon at play. It was said that the “war and its aftermath overshadowed the disease”, 9 despite a second wave of the pandemic, and despite President Woodrow Wilson nearly dying from it while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. The mood of the day was to celebrate the end of the war, and it was considered more “manly” if you died in battle than in a hospital with the Spanish Flu. 10

Tesla has been well-documented for being a germophobe who strictly adhered to the rules of scrupulous hygiene. He had been gravely ill a number of times as a younger man with cholera and malaria in  Karlovac and Gospic11 and was always so highly focused on avoiding disease, that he managed to avoid getting the Spanish Flu. There are numerous stories about him declining to shake hands, obsessively washing his own, wearing gloves whenever he could, and going through 18 dinner napkins at a meal and 18 hotel towels at a time. He preferred boiled water and boiled food after reportedly seeing bacteria in a drop of drinking water under a microscope. 12 In many ways, he would have been the modern poster boy for today’s pandemic times with his meticulous devotion to cleanliness and sanitation.

The years shortly before the Spanish Flu were very hard for him. He was essentially flat broke as many of his former investors had backed away from his dreams of wireless power, and his ideas about a bladeless turbine. Some of the patents on his earlier discoveries were also ending and royalty money was therefore drying up.13 In 1915 there were rumors he and Edison would share the Nobel Peace Prize but this failed to materialize; in 1915 he began a decades long litigation (which he won only after his death) that he could ill afford against Marconi for infringing on his radio patents; in 1916 the City of New York sued him for back taxes of $935 when his monthly income was $400 or less, and he could barely make ends meet; in 1917 he was awarded the Edison Medal by the American Institute of Electrical Engineering which he mocked bitterly by saying that in supposedly glorifying ‘Tesla’ they were actually honoring Edison by giving him an award named after his rival;14 It was through sheer perseverance that he persisted in the crisis years before the war and Spanish Flu and the challenging recovery years after them. Tesla got by on modest royalties from patents on the smaller inventions he developed (automobile speedometers, flow meters and flow pumps), or by writing for various popular technical magazines. 15 By nature he had always been reclusive and more so when creating and inventing, but his isolation was amplified by the loss of some friendships and loss of financial support. However, he still managed to register 7 more patents between the end of 1916 and 1928,16  the last two being ideas that had long been percolating in his imagination for decades until he had the time to develop them– patents for the “apparatus for aerial transportation”–or the rudiments of the helicopter.17  Tesla survived the turmoil of the pandemic years, and continued to live until 1943 when he died at 86.

It’s not so unusual for periods of isolation to stimulate creativity and invention in situations like a pandemic. Shakespeare was said to have written Romeo and Juliet and King Lear during the Bubonic Plague, and Isaac Newton authored works on calculus, optics and principles of gravity when university classes were cancelled after a plague outbreak18. “Isolation allows for a clarity of thought that may be less achievable within the bustle of society” according to a recent article by Sam Hanson in Pandemics and creativity: a blessing or curse? 19   The Covid-19 pandemic has spurred research in numerous countries to find a vaccine, and also pharmaceuticals  to shorten the duration of the disease. Undoubtedly, films, novels and plays are bound to emerge, either about the effect of Covid-19 on society or as a result of its slowdown on society. A 12-year old boy has already pioneered an ingenious invention to eliminate behind-the-ear irritations medical personnel can get from the elastic ear loops in facemasks.20   

As a result of Covid-19, the NTHSA has had to cancel our plans for an Electrifying Edmonton celebration of Nikola Tesla’s 164th birthday. However, we encourage everyone to take advantage of this interval and unleash your creative or innovative forces by entering our Arts Contest, with details on our Home Page at  www.teslawave.org.

References and Notes

  1. How the telephone failed its big test during 1918’s Spanish flu pandemic; Harry McCracken, 04-03-20, www.fastcompany.com. 1,2,3,4,5
  2. Spanish Flu Pandemic:1918; John Galvin, July 32, 2007, popularmechanics.com/science 6
  3. Pandemic-onomics: Lessons from the Spanish Flu; April 6, 2020; Planet Money, Cardiff Garcia, Interview Host 7
  4. A century later, 2 Long Islanders remember another pandemic; Craig Schneider and Erin Serpico, www.newsday.com/health; interview with Rosalia Zona 8
  5. Why Are There Almost No Memorials to the Flu of 1918; David Segal, May 14, 2020, The New York Times, with excerpt from Catharine Arnold’s Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts From the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History 9,10
  6. Richard Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern; published May 22, 2018, W.W. Norton Company 11, 14,  17
  7. The Bizarre Obsessive Compulsive Rituals and Habits of Nikola Tesla, November 22, 2018, Helen Flatley at www.vintagenews.com 12
  8. W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press, 2013 13, 15
  9. Wikipedia, List of Tesla Patents 16
  10. Pandemics and creativity:  a blessing or curse? Sam Hanson, April 21, 2020; www.rubicononline.com 18, 19
  11. https://www.fastcompany.com/90488090/this-boy-scout-invented-an-ingenious-solution-to-one-of-the-biggest-problems-with-masks 20