Washington Diary: After 150 years, an inventor is finally honoured

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So little justice in the world. So unfair.

Of course, here in Washington DC, the belly of the beast, one is inclined to have such thoughts from time to time. But this week the notion was again busily buzzing around my head while at the opening of an exhibition of paintings and sculptures to mark the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Nicola Tesla.

Who, you ask? And well you might. For although Tesla was responsible for designing and developing some of the most important inventions that we all take for granted on an every-day basis, many people have never heard of him. Worse still, many of the things he invented were seized upon by others who then cynically took the credit for them.

Tesla, born in Croatia of Serbian parents and who later moved to the US, was either directly or partly responsible for everythsing from Alternating Current (AC) to robotics, from ballistics to remote control. At one point in the late 19th Century he was involved in the so-called "war of currents" with rival inventor Thomas Edison who was promoting his own development, the DC or direct current. As history shows it was Tesla’s idea that was ultimately seized on, though he was never given full credit. Indeed his rivals conspired to claim the idea as their own.

"He is one of the greatest inventors all of time. If you push them into a corner the technology historians will admit that," said the Bob Uth, who produced a 2000 documentary about Tesla and who was at the exhibition. "Every time you do something like use a light switch – that’s Tesla. Every time you use the remote control – that’s Tesla."

The art-works on display – a series of a dozen or so abstract paintings and bronze reliefs – were the work of Dejan Jovanovic, a Serbian artist living in the US capital. Dejan is a friend and over the last few months I had seen some of these works take shape in the basement of his home, where he spent hours working with black and white photographs of Tesla and his inventions.

Dejan grew up in Serbia where Tesla is a national icon and where schoolchildren are taught in the classroom of his achievements. "Everything Tesla did was an experiment at that time and I have tried to experiment with the paintings," he told me one night recently as he showed me some of his completed paintings. "There is lots of energy in these paintings – I have tried to capture the energy and the electricity. Everything is very strong, very powerful."

Seeing a painting in someone’s basement is one thing. Seeing it properly framed and hanging on the wall of the Serbian Embassy, while a busy crowd of Serb-speaking diplomats, art lovers and Orthodox priest bustled about, is another. While the paintings had looked impressive in preview, properly displayed they looked even more powerful and brighter. They positively sparkled with light and energy.

Indeed, Dejan’s aim was to capture the essence of Tesla’s experiments – many of which involved man-made lightening and were conducted in Colorado Springs, south of Denver – and the startling heat and energy they produced. He achieved this using deep oranges, yellows and reds, thickly-layered on the canvas.

Perhaps because the paintings were inspired by such primitive black and white images, some of the canvases contained an almost ghostly, ethereal quality. My personal favourite, entitled Discharge 7 and based on another of Tesla’s experiments, could be either a flood of light pouring out of a ball, or else a phantom-like person sitting and gently leaning forward, as if in quiet contemplation. I like to think it may be inventor himself, deeply immersed in an idea.

If so he might wondering what went so badly wrong. For all his brilliant achievements, Tesla died alone and virtually destitute. When he died from heart failure in January 1943 he was living in a room at the New Yorker Hotel, unable to pay his debts. Later that same year the US Supreme Court upheld a his claim on patent number 645,576 which effectively recognised him as the inventor of radio. It was too late for him but not too late for his achievements to now be recognised.

"It’s extremely important for us to celebrate his birthday - not for political reasons but for the things he gave to the world," said Jelena Cukic Matic, a spokeswoman for the embassy, one of many Serbian diplomatic missions around the world that are celebrating Tesla this year. "There are all these different things we did – especially with electricity - that unfortunately today we all take for granted. You go home and put on the electricity and you think nothing of it."