Thursday, 30 June 2011

Energetics of Tesla

After being recently occupied with waste and energy – not least to inspiration from reading lots of Sean Cubitt, and of course other great texts – these passages from a Nikola Tesla talk from 1893 seemed resonate really well with current discussions concerning post-CO2-economies. In short, we are now starting to understand that the 1990s started (marketing) hype about post-atom and hence post-co2 based mode of production is completely false, and the immateriality of digital technologies is embedded in a very energy-heavy infrastructure (see Cubitt, Hassan and Volkmer in Media, Culture & Society).

Tesla is talking in his great speech first of the primary significance of the eye for our being in the world, and then continuing how this is reliant on light – some beautiful passages concerning light’s importance there. For Tesla the eye and light make human beings the species they are – light is their specification. Yet he does this in a manner that is evolutionary, admitting that other species might have different organs for same purposes, but it is the eye that makes us man: the specific relation to the world it affords us. And indeed, this specificity of man is related to the world of physics through light, and its vibrant manner. “There is no death of matter, for throughout the infinite universe, all has to move, to vibrate, that is, to live.” (300)

He quickly however continues to talk about its material basis in waves, and hence connecting to other forms of wave-phenomena and “high frequency phenomena.” Here, he makes his move towards electricity, affiliating light with other vibrant forms of matter. What is curious is how he talks about energy economies indeed, and already then, starts talking about the post-CO2 worlds of electricity – and yet, in a manner that does not take us away from energy, but insists on alternative forms of energy production at the core of this new mediatic situation. Electricity is here the transporting force for such energy economies. And to emphasize, my interest is less in the accuracy/inaccuracy of his scientific reading, but in the vision that sees energy at the core of this coming cultural situation.

Therefore the phenomena of light and heat and others besides these, may be called electrical phenomena. Thus electrical science has become the mother science of all and its study has become all important. The day when we shall know exactly what "electricity" is, will chronicle an event probably greater, more important than any other recorded in the history of the human race. The time will come when the comfort, the very existence, perhaps, of man will depend upon that wonderful agent. For our existence and comfort we require heat, light and mechanical power. How do we now get all these? We get them from fuel, we get them by consuming material. What will man do when the forests disappear, when the coal fields are exhausted ? Only one thing, according to our present knowledge will remain; that is, to transmit power at great distances. Men will go to the waterfalls, to the tides, which are the stores of an infinitesimal part of Nature's immeasurable energy. There will they harness the energy and transmit the same to their settlements, to warm their homes by, to give them light, and to keep their obedient slaves, the machines, toiling. But how will they transmit this energy if not by electricity? Judge then, if the comfort, nay, the very existence, of man will not depend on electricity. I am aware that this view is not that of a practical engineer, but neither is it that of an illusionist, for it is certain, that power transmission, which at present is merely a stimulus to enterprise, will some day be a dire necessity. (Martin 1894: 301)


Martin, Thomas Commorford (1894) The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla (New York: The Electrical Engineer/D. van Nostrand Company).

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