Article Image

IPFS News Link • Science, Medicine and Technology

The Electricity Between Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla


As well as being a gifted writer, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was fascinated with technology. When he was born in 1835, sailing was the usual means of crossing the Atlantic, and burning oil or gas the usual means of lighting the night. When he died in 1910 steamships carried him across the Atlantic (and Pacific) in record time and electricity was becoming a household amenity.

One of the scientists seeking applications for electricity was Nikola Tesla(1856-1943), who was born in Serbia before emigrating to the US. Most of his scientific work focused on electricity, and he made a number of important inventions, including the Tesla coil and the polyphase motor. Tesla used the coil to conduct experiments, but because the coil can produce enormous electrical sparks it is still used in electricity demonstrations.

Tesla and Clemens seem to have established a friendship in the 1890s. Tesla later recalled how he had read some of Clemens's early works while recovering from an illness in Serbia during the 1870s.

Clemens had long been fascinated by electricity and had invested in the development of an electrical motor during the 1880s. His particular interest in Tesla began after hearing about a motor that Tesla had invented under the company Westinghouse. He recognised that Tesla's motor, which used alternating current, was superior to that of his inventor partner, James W Paige, which used direct current. Tesla apparently advised Clemens against investing in Paige's motor, although Clemens still lost a large sum on Paige's mechanical typesetter.

During the 1890s Clemens and his family were living in Europe, partly to escape from financial troubles and partly with a view to improving the health of his wife and daughter. However, Clemens returned frequently to New York. He was involved in the foundation of the Players Club in 1888, and in 1894 invited Tesla join it. He also visited Tesla in his laboratory, where he took part in experiments.