Authors: Chris Kohout
“So long as men meet in battle, there will be bloodshed. Bloodshed will ever keep up barbarous passion. To break this fierce spirit, a radical departure must be made, an entirely new principle must be introduced, something that never existed in warfare—a principle which will forcibly, unavoidably, turn the battle into a mere spectacle, a play, a contest without loss of blood…machine must fight machine.
“But how to accomplish that which seems impossible? The answer is simple enough: produce a machine capable of acting as though it were part of a human being—no mere contrivance, compromising levers, screws, wheels, clutches, and nothing more, but a machine embodying a higher principle, which will enable it to perform its duties as thought it had intelligence, experience, reason, judgment, a mind.”
— Nikola Tesla, 1910
TWO MONTHS EARLIER
NEW YORK CITY, USA
Nikola Tesla sat alone in the small rented room that served as both laboratory and living quarters. He had a clean, sharp look about him. He was thin, intense, and women said he wore clothes well.
The components of a large DC generator lay strewn before him, an exploded semicircle of magnetic coils, steel shafts, and oiled bearings. He was a handsome man, and his penetrating gaze encouraged problems to open themselves up to him.
He consulted a diagram, then hummed a tune as he lifted and inspected the heavy armature coil. The song was old, a Serbian hymn his father particularly enjoyed. As the viscous lubricant ran down his wrists, he wondered what his father would think of the work he’d accomplished.
Milutin Tesla was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and never understood his son’s preoccupation with machines. But there are many ways to be close to the divine, and Nikola chose to know God by learning how His universe worked.
The knock at his door brought his attention back to the earthly. He checked the time. Seven o’clock. That would be Mrs. Harrison with his dinner.
“Mr. Tesla?” she called out. “I have your dinner.”
He smiled. Just like his machines, the universe operated like clockwork.
“Please come in, Mrs. Harrison.” He grabbed a towel and cleaned the grease from his hands as she let herself in.
Mrs. Harrison entered, carrying a silver tray. She was a large woman, but threaded her way through the boxes and machines that littered the room. The devices came in all matter of strangeness. Some were shiny, angular, and protruding, while others were dark, hulking masses of steel. Once she’d seen lightning flying about the room as if dancing with an invisible partner.
“I do believe they have multiplied,” she said, laying out his dinner. “What on earth is that creation?”
Tesla crossed the room to her. “That is an antenna for sending wireless communications through the air.”
“Really? Goodness! You
a clever man, aren’t you?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Harrison, you’re too kind.” He waited for her to finish and leave.
“Yes, rather clever,” she continued. “In fact, I’d wager such a bright fellow would have no troubles in paying up his back rent, would he now?” She finished unloading the tray, and stood surveying the disheveled room.
“You will have your due money very soon now, Mrs. Harrison. That I do promise.”
“Yes. Well, a promise is quite nice, but-“
“Do you know of Thomas Edison, the inventor?” he asked.
“Mr. Edison? Why, of course. Bringing the electricity to people’s homes. Astounding.”
“Well, Mr. Edison has hired me to redesign his generators,” he said, waving his hand at the disassembled machine. “And I am quite close to my goal. After which I will receive a sum sufficient to pay all debts, and much, much more. So…” He gently guided her to the door.
She let herself be led away. “Working for Mr. Thomas Edison, hmm? Very nice.”
“Yes, so there’s no need to-“
She stopped short, and Tesla ran into her.
“Whatever is this device?” she asked, looking at a large wooden box. A glass camera lens peered from one side, and a thick bundle of wires led from the other, to a teletype machine.
Tesla drew in a deep breath. “It is… a mechanical brain. I hope it will one day allow machines to mine the earth, instead of risking men. Just an experiment at this point. Now, if you please. My dinner is going cold.”
She patted him on the arm. “Yes, yes, I understand. Very busy for Mr. Edison. All right, enjoy your dinner, Mr. Tesla. And do let me know when your work concludes, will you?”
“That I will, Mrs. Harrison,” he said, steering her out the door.
“A wife would be most helpful in ordering this room,” she offered.
“I have no time nor inclination for such. I have my work to do. Good evening to you.”
He closed the door and returned to his dinner. Broiled fish, vegetables and milk. He’d not realized the hunger that had crept upon him, but it was now undeniable. He began to sit, but then ran to the door, throwing it open and calling down the hallway.
“Mrs. Harrison! You have forgotten my napkins!”
She turned back. “Oh, I certainly did. I am sorry. I’ll be sure to remember them tomorrow.”
He frowned. “No, that won’t do. I need to polish my silverware before eating, as you know.”
She sighed. “That I do. Very well, I’ll be right back. How many was it again?”
“Eighteen. It has always been eighteen!”
She nodded. “Right. Eighteen it is.”
He started to close his door.
“Mr. Tesla, why that particular number? Why eighteen?”
He looked at her blankly.
“Because it is divisible by three, of course,” he said, and closed the door.
The mansion known as Glenmont was a stunning twenty-nine-room Victorian example of the Queen Anne Revival style. It was a house of arches, turrets, stone patios, and five chimneys. Nestled within fourteen acres, the three-story creation spoke of success and opulence.
Thomas Edison had purchased the house as a gift for his wife, Mina. “While a great deal too nice for me, it isn’t half enough for my little wife,” he’d told others. The large grounds were frequently put to use for parties, sports and games, and to entertain visitors.
Sitting beside a roaring fire in the reception hall, Edison smoked a cigar and watched his youngest boy roll about on the rug. He’d nicknamed the boy “Dash” from Morse code, and it seemed to suit his temperament. Upstairs, he could hear young Marion and William singing some newly invented song.
His wife, Mina, entered the room and stood beside the comforting fire, rubbing her hands behind her back. “Is everything all right, Thomas? You look pensive.”
“Hmm? Oh, I suppose I am,” he said, tapping the ashes from his cigar. “It’s this business with the generators.” He rubbed his face.
“The distance problem you mentioned before?”
“Yes, quite. At this rate we can provide DC power to the home, but we’ll need to build a substation every two miles to do it. The whole process becomes much more expensive.”
“What about this Tesla person you hired? Isn’t he working on that for you?”
“He is, and I have very high hopes in his results. The man has a head for power like no other. A bit bookish for my taste, but undeniably the right man for the job.”
“So there you go. There’s nothing to fret over, is there?” She moved behind his chair and rubbed his shoulders.
“Ah, that’s lovely, thank you,” he muttered.
He tried to quiet the panic in his thoughts. He had a successful business, hundreds of patents, and a family and home that any man would kill for. So why was he so worried?
Mina worked the knots she felt in her husband’s shoulders. “So what’s the worst that can happen? The project runs a bit expensive?”
Edison’s smile turned sour. “No, that is not the least of it. Not by a damn shot.”
She felt him tense. “I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He drew a deep lungful of smoke from the cigar. The acrid burning was darkly pleasurable.
“We’ve taken on other investors to build out the DC network. Very powerful men who did not become so by accepting failure gracefully.”
She rubbed her fingers over his temples. “Well, either Tesla will come through, or they will learn to, won’t they?”
Edison grunted. “Maybe they will,” he said, watching the flames dance, reducing the wood to smoke and ash.
BETTER THAN THE CIRCUS