Decades after he died penniless, Nikola Tesla is elbowing aside his old adversary Thomas Edison in the pantheon of geek gods.
When California engineers wanted to brand their new $100,000 electric sports car, one name stood out: Tesla. When circuit designers at microchip producer Nvidia Corp. in 2007 launched a new line of advanced processors, they called them Tesla. And when videogame writers at Capcom Entertainment in Silicon Valley needed a character who could understand alien spaceships for their new Dark Void saga, they found him in Nikola Tesla.
Tesla was a scientist and inventor who achieved fame and fortune in the 1880s for figuring out how to make alternating current work on a grand scale, electrifying the world. He created the first major hydroelectric dam, at Niagara Falls. He thrilled packed theaters with presentations in which he ran high voltage through his body to illuminate a fluorescent light in his hand. His inventions helped Guglielmo Marconi develop radio.
And his rivalry with Edison—called the Battle of the Currents because Edison had bet on direct current—was legendary. Tesla won the contest, when his AC equipment powered an unprecedented display of electric light at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
Fifty years later, the 86-year-old Serbian emigré died in obscurity at a New York hotel, unmarried, childless and bereft of friends. Meanwhile, Edison was lionized for generations as one of America's greatest inventors.
But Tesla has been rediscovered by technophiles, including Google Inc. co-founder Larry Page, who frequently cites him as an early inspiration. And Teslamania is going increasingly mainstream.
An early hint was "Tesla Girls," a 1984 single from the British technopop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Performance artist Laurie Anderson has said she was fascinated by Tesla. David Bowie played a fictionalized version of him in the 2006 film "The Prestige," alongside Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Director Terry Gilliam described Tesla in a recent documentary film as "more of an artist than a scientist in some strange way."
Tesla, in short, is cool.
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