The Parrot and the Igloo Notes

The Electrician

Books and other sources consulted for this chapter


Another chapter indebted to Jill Jonnes’ Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (Random House, 2003). Filled with colorful personalities and invigorating data. The sort of book where, when you talk about it with the writer’s agent, the agent gets wistful.


Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Prentice Hall, 1981.


Marc J. Seifer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius, Citadel Press 1996.


John O’Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, Ives Washburn, 1944.


W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press 2013.


Nikola Tesla, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, ed. Ben Johnston, Hart Brothers, 1982. Originally published in the February–June and October 1919 issues of Electrical Experimenter.


Stephen P. Tubbs, ed., Electrical Pioneers of America, Their Own Words: Bell, DeForest, Edison, Franklin, Henry, Steinmetz, Tesla, Thomson, and Westinghouse, Stephen Philip Tubbs, 2003.


Charles A. Dana, “The Destruction of Nikola Tesla’s Workshop,” The New York Sun, March 14, 1895, quoted in Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth, Tesla: Master of Lightning, Metro Books, 2001.


Richard Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, W. W. Norton, 2018.


Maury Klein, The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Making of Modern America, Bloomsbury, 2008.


Nikola Tesla, “Speech for the Institute of Immigrant Welfare,” May 11, 1938, in John T. Ratzlaff, ed., Tesla Said, Tesla Book Company, 1984.


Harold Evans, Gail Buckland, and David Lefer, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovation, Little, Brown, 2004


It takes a certain dramaturgical flair to brag about one’s infirmity. Also about the reverse.

This is Tesla from My Inventions. “It is my eternal regret that I was not under the observation of experts in physiology and psychology,” the inventor writes. “Can anyone believe that so hopeless a physical wreck could ever be transformed into a man of astonishing strength and tenacity; able to work thirty-eight years almost without a day’s interruption, and find himself still strong and fresh in body and mind?”


Jill Jonnes relates the stick-in-sand scene with great style in Empires of Light—combining Tesla’s My Inventions account with his as-told-to in the Joseph O’Neill Prodigal Genius. Tesla was reciting Faust (“I knew entire books by heart,” he explains, “word for word”) when destiny and inspiration struck.


Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography, McGraw-Hill, 1959.


Richard Munson, From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity, Praeger, 2005.

Munson tells us Tesla had formed a low opinion of certain Edison intangibles. The inventor, Tesla felt, “lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene.” Munson amusingly adds that neither man could “take kindly to other egocentrics.”

In his Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, Munson points out “the two inventors shared several characteristics, including their capacity for showmanship and boastfulness.”


Pierre Berton, Niagara: A History of the Falls, Kodansha America 1997.


The Columbia Lecture was delivered May 16, 1888, before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Here’s Jill Jonnes in Empires of Light:

Tesla’s first lecture, “A New System of Alternate Current Motors and Transformers,” was all Martin could have hoped, catapulting Tesla to instant fame in the engineering world. This paper, printed in all the foremost engineering journals, quickly became a landmark for its lucid description of an entirely new kind of very simple “induction” motor. Engineers and the press were astonished at the originality, simplicity, and promise of his AC design. Edison viewed it as but a variant on a technology that was unsafe and unfit for use in human habitations.

(W. Bernard Carlson gives the date as May 16; Jonnes, one day earlier. Columbia’s was then a midtown campus—Madison Avenue, between 49th and 50th.)

The Martin above is the Thomas Commerford we met in the sources to the previous chapter—the engineer and journalist who co-wrote the first big life of Edison (1910) with Frank Dyer, Edison’s general counsel. Martin was then American Institute of Electrical Engineers president. Jonnes on Martin (it explains his inviting Tesla to deliver that famous Columbia speech):


The ambitious young editor of Electrical World, Thomas Commerford Martin, a personable and ambitious bald English immigrant who sported a giant mustachio, stopped by Tesla’s lab. He quickly grasped that this little-known but highly charming Serb was going to be the next electrical titan, a visionary whose radiant dreams rivaled Edison’s. As a journalist, Martin savored the further drama that the unknown Tesla’s electrical dreams clashed with those of the world-famous Edison—AC versus DC.


Next decade, the Times had it that the lecture “startled the electrical public.” George Heli Guy, “Tesla, Man and Inventor,” The New York Times, March 31, 1895.


W. Bernard Carlson in Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age explains the seventeen-year life of the patents would earn a minimum of $315,000. (In the neighborhood of $10 million today.) Over a ten-year period $200,0000, which Tesla would split with his moneymen—Alfred Brown and Charles Peck, partners in the Tesla Electric Company.

Tesla being Tesla, Marc Seifer writes in Wizard, that figure got inflated. The inventor claimed to John Jacob Astor that the Westinghouse price was a cool half million. With a little wish fulfillment: “Despite hard times, he has lived up to every cent of his obligation.”


George Heli Guy, “Tesla, Man and Inventor,” The New York Times, March 31, 1895.

Guy notes that when Tesla dropped by “an uptown club,” there was “a gathering of well-known actors, musicians, and artists” whom the electrician already knew. That was because “there is always a bon camaraderie among men of this stamp.”


Scott Cutlip, Public Relations History: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century; The Antecedents, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995.

Modern corporate public relations is like “Hello,” another inadvertent verbal byproduct of Thomas Edison’s passage through the world. A language the whole business world now speaks.

In February 1888, Edison trying to sack up AC and drown it in the river, his Edison Electric Company published an anti-Westinghouse pamphlet. Eighty-two pages, an eye-popper title: A Warning. One appendix—the captions read things like “He Fooled with Lightning”—listed every person accidentally killed by alternating current. Westinghouse considered legal action; dicey. And press interviews were clock-eating; countering Edison was a full-time job.

So Westinghouse made it one. He put a Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph reporter named Ernest H. Heinrichs on his payroll. As the dean of public relations historians Scott Cutlip puts it, “Like many a business person since, he hired a newspaper person.”

This was October 1889. Heinrichs was on hang-around terms with fellow reporters; he could probe the journalistic soft spots of deadline and news peg. Watch for the chance to slip in a favorable statistic, a kind word, a warm image of Westinghouse. Historians call Heinrichs the first corporate public relations agent, Westinghouse’s the first corporate public relations agency. And since business follows the pattern of an arms race, soon all Westinghouse’s colleagues and competitors had their own PR divisions.

In Public Relations History, Cutlip titles his Westinghouse and Heinrichs section “Westinghouse Pioneers Corporate Public Relations—of Necessity.” And ends with, “Alan Raucher hailed Heinrichs as ‘the nation’s first industrial public relations man.’”

Cutlip notes elsewhere in the History one of the first appearances of the phrase “public relations,” eight years later:


One of the earliest uses of this term—one for which in later years several would take credit—was Railway Age. That publication’s annual Year Book of Railway Literature for 1897 stated: “The object of the publishers of the Year Book of Railway Literature is to put annually in permanent form all papers or addresses on the public relations of railways.”


Tom McNichol, AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2006.


Richard Moran, Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, Random House, 2002.


Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Walker, 2003. Here’s Jill Jonnes in Empires of Light:

Meanwhile, at the Edison headquarters, gloating executives proposed that from here on in, “as Westinghouse’s dynamo is going to be used for the purpose of executing criminals, why not give him the benefit of this fact in the minds of the public, and speak hereafter of a criminal as being ‘westinghoused,’ or (to use it as a noun) as having been condemned to the westinghouse in the same way that Dr. Guillotine’s name was forever immortalized in France?” The Edison officers were savoring this most monstrous and momentous of victories in the ongoing War of the Electric Currents.”

“Far Worse Than Hanging; Kemmler’s Death Proves an Awful Spectacle. The Electric Current Had to Be Turned On Twice Before the Deed Was Fully Accomplished,” The New York Times, August 7, 1990.

The condemned man—he’d killed his lover with an ax, and was described in newspapers as a hatchet fiend—was called William Kemmler.

“The execution cannot merely be characterized as unsuccessful,” the Times reported. “It was so terrible that the word fails to convey the idea.”

So awful, predicted the newspaper, the public would demand it be “the first and last electrical execution that this State will ever witness.”


“Kemmler’s Death by Torture,” New York Herald, August 7, 1890.

Westinghouse’s quote was picked up by The New York Times in “Warden Durston’s Record: The Man Who Bungled the Kemmler Execution. An Investigation of the Details of the First Electrical Execution Imperatively Called For,” August 18, 1890. (With the Times noting, “The remarks attributed to George Westinghouse, Jr., of the Westinghouse Electric Company of Pittsburg [its 1890 spelling; the city didn’t earn the h until July 19, 1911], when the result of the execution was made known to him, well indicate the line of argument that will be adopted by opponents of the law.”)

Westinghouse, speaking like a man with some media training, redirected news-readers’ attention to the ongoing struggle.

“It has been a brutal affair,” Westinghouse told the Herald. “They could have done better with an ax. My predictions have been verified. The public will lay the blame where it belongs and it will not be on us. I regard the manner of the killing as a complete vindication of all our claims.”


Richard Moran, The Executioner’s Current: “Edison must have bribed a reporter because a headline in the morning paper read: ‘Kemmler Westinghoused.’”

People scent conspiracies. On the opposing bench, as Jill Jonnes reports in Empires of Light, “Suspicion was rife that Westinghouse had somehow managed to mastermind this botched execution.”


Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham; A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press, 1998.


Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention, John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

Israel notes the chair included an Edison patent—U.S. Pat. 470,924—for its method of using AC current. With the War of the Currents lost, Edison relented. “In a 1905 interview,” Israel writes, “Edison regretted the invention of the electric chair and reaffirmed his opposition to capital punishment.”


Austin Sarat et al., Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, Stanford University Press, 2014.


Four decades later, Tesla was still bruised. And his remarks show the efforts of the public relations men (we’ll see them later among the professional deniers, practicing more of their art); by 1929 Tesla had been written out of his own story.

This is from a letter to the editor; Tesla to The New York World, November 29, 1929, “Mr. Tesla Speaks Out”: 

Edison and his associates bitterly opposed the introduction of my system, raising a clamor against the “deadliness” of the alternating current, which proved very effective and led to the adoption of a commercial type of machine in electrocution of criminals, an apparatus monstrously unsuitable, for the poor wretches are not despatched in a merciful manner but literally roasted alive . . .

Had the Edison companies not finally adopted my invention they would have been wiped out of existence, and yet not the slightest acknowledgment of my labors has ever been made by any of them, a most remarkable instance of the proverbial unfairness and ingratitude of corporations. But the reason is not far to see. One of their prominent men told me that they are spending $10,000,000 every year to keep Edison’s name before the public, and he added that it is worth more to them. Of course, in all that unceasing and deafening shouting from the housetops any voice raised to apprise people of the real state of things is like the chirp of a little sparrow in the roar of Niagara.


Nikola Tesla, “A Tribute to George Westinghouse,” Electrical World, March 21, 1914.


Nikola Tesla, “Speech for the Institute of Immigrant Welfare,” Hotel Biltmore, New York, March 12, 1938. Read in his absence—Tesla was just entering his ninth decade and no longer hale enough for encomium delivery. Quoted in O’Neill, Prodigal Genius.

Tesla added, of Westinghouse, still on the size theme, “He was a pioneer of imposing stature.”


The language of the royalty Tesla had negotiated was measured in horsepower. Joseph O’Neill (for whose Prodigal Genius Tesla screened these starring-Tesla moments) calculated the fees Tesla was turning his back on at $12 million.

Talking a man out of so many dollars, O’Neill allows, “would be a tough job for any executive.” He then gives this scene the sort of button Tesla would have appreciated. Westinghouse could now “make good his promise to Tesla to make his alternating-current system available to the world.” All thanks, O’Neill writes, “to Tesla’s magnificent gesture.”


Edmund Morris, Edison, Random House, 2019.


Nikola Tesla, “On Light and Other High Frequency Phenomena,” Lecture Delivered at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the National Electric Light Association in St. Louis, February and March 1893. Quoted in Thomas Commerford Martin, The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla, The Electrical Engineer, 2014.

Those waterfalls and tides were “stores of an infinitesimal part of Nature’s immeasurable energy.” That is, Tesla, in the nineteenth century, could already see the virtue of renewables.


“Tesla’s Work at Niagara,” The New York Times, July 16, 1895. Sir William Siemens saw “6,800,000 horsepower” in the falls. He gave his figures in “an address before the Iron and Steel Institute,” which sounds a little like a progressive speed metal band.


“Niagara Put in Harness,” The New York Times, July 7, 1895. (With an extraordinary drawing of the Niagara plant as a cross-section; in its way, thrilling.) Re the falls: “The vast power which has been running to waste at Niagara.”

The story continues, “Here are 275,000 cubic feet of water plunging over the edge of [the] Falls with a daily force equal to the latent power of all the coal mined in the world each day, something more than 200,000 tons.”


“Nicola [sic] Tesla’s Inventions,” The New York Times, July 9, 1895.

The piece discusses “the work that has been done at Niagara Falls for the commercial utilization of the great power that has so long gone to waste.”


“Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Outlook,” Review of Reviews, September 1895. Quoted in Marc J. Seifer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius, Citadel Press, 1996.


In “Niagara Put in Harness,” the Times expresses this politely: “. . . The Cataract Construction Company, in which many well-known New-Yorkers are concerned, among them William B. Rankin, F. L. Stetson, J. Pierpont Morgan,” and Commodore Vanderbilt’s son, William K.


For example, William Thomson, recently ennobled as Lord Kelvin, among Britain’s leading mathematicians and engineers; Carlton in Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age quotes his 1893 telegraph to the president of the Niagara Falls Hydraulic and Power and Manufacturing Company: “Trust you avoid gigantic mistake of adoption of alternating current.” The engineer was a member of the International Niagara Commission.

“Niagara Put in Harness,” The New York Times, July 7, 1895: “Some prominent men said it could not be done; others said that, even if it could, it could not be used profitably.”


For the professional debate, there’s “Alternating vs. Continuous Current Distribution at Niagara Falls,” The Electrical Engineer, August 21, 1895.

The speaker is George Forbes, the Niagara project’s consulting engineer: “At the time when I decided on alternating currents (which had not then been practically used for power purposes) many predicted failure, and some (including my friend Lord Kelvin) have continued to do so.”


Richard Munson points out in Tesla: Inventor of the Modern that Gold King allowed Tesla a spot “out of the limelight” to “prove the commercial effectiveness of his AC motor and transmission system.”


L. L. Nunn, manager of the Gold King Mine, needed cheap power for his facility in the rugged San Juan Mountains above Telluride, Colorado. He was running out of nearby wood and coal was not available. He approached the Westinghouse Company in 1891 about transmitting electricity three miles over rough mountain terrain from a generator near a large waterfall . . . Much to the delight of the Westinghouse engineers, the system withstood the mountain’s frequent storms and high winds, providing reliable power. Electrical Engineer declared the Tesla motor a success and that “work in this field is fast passing from experimental investigation into practical electrical engineering.”


Charles F. Scott, “Long Distance Transmission for Lighting and Power,” Paper Delivered Before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Chicago, June 7, 1892.

Collected in Thomas Haight Leggett, Electric Power Transmission Plants and the Use of Electricity in Mining Operations, California State Printing Office, 1894. Reprinted in Electrical Engineer, June 15, 1892.

Charles Scott assured Leggett, when sending along Gold King photos, “The work which has already been accomplished in the new plants which have been installed promises much for the future.” Gold King’s official name—it’s interesting to learn—was the San Miguel Consolidated Gold Mining Company. One streak by the system ran from December 13 to May 1—127 days, with only 19 and a half hours of downtime.


Such a record as this, with a new type of machinery, in a country where line construction and maintenance are peculiarly difficult, which practically continuous service, which attendants who were not electricians, with a high voltage, a considerable distance and large power, places transmission by the alternating-current synchronous system beyond the stage of experimental trial and gives it the stamp of commercial success.


As Jonnes puts it in Empires of Light, “The proving ground for the Tesla AC motor was notably tough: the rugged and arcticlike San Juan Mountains of Telluride, Colorado . . . The question was—would it run reliably? So all that summer, fall, and winter, and all through 1892, the Westinghouse engineers were delighted as the simple power system and the sturdy motor hummed steadily along, surviving the mountain’s usual severe electrical storms, high winds, blizzards, and avalanches. The Tesla AC system had passed its first real job with flying colors.”

Jonnes continues, “At long last, the Tesla motor had arrived, operating off a Tesla-designed generator.” And there was Oregon. “In the same triumphant article, Scott also described how for two years a forty-foot waterfall on the Willamette River had powered a big Tesla AC generator, which sent electricity thirteen miles to their electric lighting central station in Portland, Oregon . . . The last great AC hurdle had been overcome.”

There was also Westinghouse’s and Tesla’s successful demonstration at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: Lights and more lights. “The greatest concentration of artificial lights yet,” Munson writes in Tesla; upon seeing the lights many visitors wept. “Children’s writer L. Frank Baum claimed the Chicago marvel inspired his Emerald City and the Wizard of Oz.”


Edward Dean Adams, Niagara Power: History of the Niagara Falls Power Company, 1886–1918, Vol. 2, Niagara Falls Power Company 1927.

The alternating current decision was reached by the Niagara Falls Power Company on May 6, 1893. “A review of the plants in operation shows that the outstanding actual achievement in power transmission was at Telluride,” Adams writes, “where a 100 horse-power synchronous motor had operated for two years under adverse physical conditions.”

Adams, who was president of the Cataract Construction Company, notes that since Gold King’s motor was quite a bit smaller than what Niagara would need, the AC decision was based “upon faith and hope.” Faith and hope “that electrical engineers could produce apparatus much larger in size.”


“Nicola [sic] Tesla’s Inventions,” The New York Times, July 9, 1895.

“It will be noted in reading the accounts of the work at Niagara Falls that a commission of eminent scientists was created to determine the proper method for the carrying of Niagara’s power, and this commission, after two years of investigation, finally determined upon the use of the two-phase generators, which was an acknowledgement that Tesla’s method was the only practicable way of distributing he electrical current for commercial purposes,” the paper notes. “The Cataract Construction Company had finally determined that it was by means of Tesla’s inventions alone that its operations could be carried out.”

In Empires of Light, Jill Jonnes’s phrase for the Tesla patents is “all-important.”


George Heli Guy, “Tesla, Man and Inventor,” The New York Times, March 31, 1895. You didn’t need, even in the headline, a first name.

Even the Troy Press, in “Edison’s Rival,” April 20, 1895, could ask simply “Who Is King, Edison or Tesla?” Quoted in Seifer, Wizard.

“Niagara’s Power to Be Used: Work of the Conduit Company to Be Begun To-Morrow,” The New York Times, November 15, 1896. No first name; no introduction: “Tesla is now working on inventions which electricians believes will eventually settle the trouble.” This is the night before electric operations were to commence: Tesla is the only name in the article.

The Times had been heroicizing the inventor for a number of years. A subhead in “Nikola Tesla and His Work” (John Foord, New York Times, September 30, 1894) was “Tesla, Scientist, Inventor, and Seer.” Edison had been onto something with that “poet of science” guff.


This it is to have the insight of the poet joined to the tireless patience of the seeker after exact truth, to have a philosophic mind quickened by imagination, and a penetrating intelligence directed by the enthusiasm of humanity . . . This it is to be a scientist, inventor, and seer in one, to be one of the most remarkable men of this or any other time—to be Nikola Tesla.


Arthur Brisbane, “Our Foremost Electrician. The Wonderful Discoveries and Daring Theories of Nikola Tesla, as Told by Him to the World. Greater Even Than Edison,” The New York World, July 22, 1894.

As of 1895, Munson writes in Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, “Tesla clearly had become a scientific superstar.”


“Tesla Keeps His Secrets,” The New York Times, April 9, 1897. “It is only once in two or three years that Nicola [sic] Tesla, the electrician, can be persuaded to give a lecture.” The paper noted that the crowd for one of these infrequent lectures swelled at the American Museum of Natural History “until there was not standing room.”

“Without Telegraph Wires,” The New York Times, May 6, 1897. “Nicola [sic] Tesla, the electrician, says that he has practically perfected . . . The electrician replied calmly that it would, with his new method, be quite easy . . . “ In the U.K. trade organ Electrical Review (see for example below) he’s elevatingly referred to as “the great electrician.”


The inventor converted the situation for another interviewer into the dire Tesla mortal-combat style: current would without doubt eventually travel profitably at least five hundred miles. “I am willing to stake my reputation and my life upon this.”

“Tesla’s Discovery: Sending Electric Power Without Loss over a Distance of 500 Miles,” Austin American-Statesman, October 4, 1896.

“Tesla Makes Another Discovery,” Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1896. The same quote, just a touch starker: “I will stake my life and reputation on it.” The reputation part being more or less the nondramatic truth.


“Tesla’s Work at Niagara,” The New York Times, July 16, 1895. Not only was Tesla “the man above all men who made it possible.” There was at the close this final glow: “To Tesla belongs the undisputed honor of being the man whose work made this Niagara enterprise possible.” Soon Tesla motors would “driv[e] tools in every manufactory in the civilized world.


“Power for Buffalo,” Daily Cataract (Niagara Falls), July 20, 1896. Quoted in Jonnes, Empires of Light.


The visit was widely reported. In the trade press, of course: “Under the Searchlight,” Electricity, July 22, 1896. “The party came to inspect the works . . . It is Mr. Tesla’s first visit.”

The duo’s arrival was front-page news in The New York Tribune (“Studying Electrical Development,” July 20, 1896), and the Philadelphia Enquirer (“Electricians at Niagara,” July 20, 1896.


“Nikola Tesla at Niagara Falls,” The Electrical Review, August 21, 1896. The question was “What do you think of the Niagara power plant?” The piece notes, “It was this question that aroused the great electrician’s enthusiasm.”


“Niagara’s Power to Be Used: Work of the Conduit Company to be Begun To-Morrow,” The New York Times, November 15, 1896. It ends with a lovely journalistic landscape poem.

Thus is accomplished the harnessing of the great Niagara, and thus, without the marring of a single feature of its wild and grand beauty, without the destruction of a single spot transformed by the fingers of nature into a fairyland of beauty and enchantment, comes the blending of the useful and the beautiful.


Richard Rhodes notes in Energy: A Human History (Simon & Schuster, 2018) that within a decade Niagara was producing 10 percent of all the electricity in the United States.


“Yoked to the Cataract!” Buffalo Enquirer, November 16, 1896, quoted in Jonnes, Empires of Light.

The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky