Nikola Tesla: A Legacy in Performance Art

Creators
Kathleen Dowling and Dana Hart

Transcript
If you have ever watched an electrical storm from your porch, or seen a fork of lightning descend in the distance while driving on the highway, you understand the simple power that electricity has to entertain and amaze. During the late 1800s, the famed Serbian Scientist, Nikola Tesla, used showmanship and theatrics to amaze his lecture audiences.

Tesla’s lectures had humble beginnings. In 1888, T.C Martin, the editor of Operator and Electrical World, approached Tesla and asked him to present his AC motor in front of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Martin had trouble convincing Tesla to give any speech at all; as a sign of his reluctance, Tesla postponed writing the lecture until the night before, scrawling it out in pencil at the last minute. The lecture, however, was met with acclaim and respect. Tesla was a natural speaker.

Three years later, in May 1891, Tesla was again invited to lecture at the three-day symposium at AIEE. This time, however, Tesla came prepared. To accompany his speech, he brought props, such as gas-filled tube lights and a carbon-lamp button. He finished dramatically, telling his audience “We are whirling through endless space, with an inconceivable speed. All around us is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere is energy.”

The impact of the lecture was enormous, and was swiftly followed by lectures in Great Britain, in London, in Paris, and the Grand Music Entertainment Hall, in St. Louis, the only space large enough to seat the 4,000 attendees. Tesla became progressively theatrical, wearing a white tie and tails, and raising his voice expressively. Using his Tesla coil, he would conjure thunderbolts on stage and speak like a sorcerer. Famously, he would charge his own body from a Tesla coil, extending his arms so lightning and flames shot out through his fingers and head. The effect both excited and terrified audiences, and afterwards Tesla’s suit would continue to emit sparks for several hours.

Tesla had gone from being a natural lecturer to a master entertainer, and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 was his crowning performance. Tesla was in charge of several display rooms in Electricity Hall where he put on demonstration after demonstration, spinning metallic objects at great speeds, waving his florescent lamps, and, of course, turning himself into a human lightning storm with the Tesla coil, passing 250,000 volts through his body.

Tesla’s legendary lectures were only the beginning of a rich tradition of employing electricity in public spectacles and performance. The Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, for example, performed “Count on us (Tesla)” in 2003, in which she waved a fluorescent light-stick to a Tesla coil to create a light show. In New York, magician David Blaine recently put on a performance in which one million volts of electricity flowed from one tesla coil to another through his metal-clad body. In Nevada, electrical engineer Greg Leyh has constructed an 11.8 meter Tesla coil, and shocks audiences by crawling into a Faraday cage in the very center of the electrical field, with lightning shooting inches away from his face.

For many audiences, understanding the trick will ruin the magic. But for Tesla’s audiences, the explanation often preceded the performance. Audiences came for the show and left with an understanding, not to mention a greater interest in electricity. The aforementioned scientists and artists carry on that legacy, blending electricity with performance. Thanks to Tesla, this unique combination of science and art continues today.

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