David Grubin’s portrait of the eclectic inventor makes its debut on the long-running PBS history series.
As argued in Grubin’s biography, Tesla should be a household name – not as the name of an electric car, but for the man for whom that commercial vehicle is named, Nikola Tesla. Born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla displayed an early interest in tinkering and invention, developing a motor that could run on alternating current, long thought to be impossible. His idol, Thomas Alva Edison, has been unable to crack AC, and instead invested his energies in a far less efficient direct current system to create the first electrical grids in NYC. Heading to America in 1884, Tesla began working for Edison, but soon struck out on his own when his employer failed to embrace the younger man’s competing system. After some struggle, he found a supporter in industrialist George Westinghouse, who bought Tesla’s patents and surpassed Edison’s electrical distribution system. Celebrated as a forward-thinking inventor, Tesla became a celebrity, but prone to flights of fancy, he soon squandered the public’s good will, and the interest of potential investors, as he made dodgy claims about communicating with Martians as he pursued sadly unsuccessful plans to develop wireless communication and free energy for the masses. While hewing to the PBS strand’s very conventional narration and talking heads format, Grubin’s film succeeds in paying due to the inventor’s accomplishments and appeal.