The First Tesla

When one hears the name Tesla today, the first thought is the electric motor vehicle developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk. This inventor (whose name sounds like a character from another world in Star Trek or Star Wars) doubtless got his car’s name from that of another inventor who had a profound effect on our daily lives, but who most people are unfamiliar with. I’m sure Elon hopes he can do the same.

Nikola Tesla’s (1852– 1943) contribution to the development of technology of electricity delivery was overshadowed in the public mind by those of his contemporaries Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and George Westinghouse. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, a controversy emerged as to whether electricity would be delivered to consumers and industry via alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Edison argued that DC was better and safer, while Westinghouse championed AC, primarily because it could transmit electric current long distances. Tesla’s invention of the induction motor and dynamo, which generated AC in multi-phase current, was an efficient and economical device. He received a patent and licensed it to Westinghouse. This won the controversy for AC 60 cycle current that we have in the U.S. today.

Tesla has become the subject of another controversy in the present. He was born in Smiljan, Austrian Empire, which is in Croatia today. His father was a priest in the Serbian branch of the Orthodox Church, which is closely aligned with the Russian church. Tesla emigrated to the United States in 1884, became an American citizen in 1991, and spent the rest of his life in the Northeast where he created and perfected his inventions. Now, because he was born in Croatia, but in a family that was Serbian at least by religion, both countries claim his legacy. The current dispute arose this year when Croatia voted to put Tesla’s likeness on its new Euro coins. Serbia, which has Tesla’s image on its currency, protested and vows retaliation for Croatia’s “cultural appropriation.” Heard that accusation in other contexts before, haven’t we.

Some background is in order. Subsequent to World War I, Serbia and Croatia, together with Slovenia (where our most recent former First Lady was born), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia were united in a nation termed Yugoslavia. That name is an English rendition of “southern Slavs,” and was originally called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. It was a shotgun wedding from the beginning. Serbs regarded it as a “Greater Serbia” to the Croats’ and Slovenes’ chagrin. It was held together by a military dictatorship first styled as a monarchy, and then, after World War II, as a Communist regime not aligned with Soviet Russia. It was somewhat of a buffer between the Western and Eastern Blocs until the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded.

Harvard Professor and political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, in his great work The Clash of Civilizations, published in 1996, identified nine current civilizations or cultures in today’s world. According to Professor Huntington, a civilization is the broadest cultural entity. Religion (defined broadly) is the central, but not only, defining characteristic. Others include language, history, customs, institutions. Civilizations are not determined by biological race or ethnicity although often are related; individuals can and do assimilate. Religious based wars were common in centuries past, and to some degree, a religious element persists in warfare today. These civilizations/cultures generally get along, but are to some degree antagonistic to one another. What Huntington called “fault-lines” were geographical areas where cultures have mutually conflicting interests. These often create actual wars of varying intensity.

Yugoslavia was the site of one of Huntington’s fault-lines. There it was tripartite. Though each group could be regarded as ethnically Slavic, Serbs were Orthodox Christians, Croats were Western (by virtue of being Roman Catholic), and Bosniaks were Muslim/ Islamic. (Whether all or most were observant in their faith is not the point; it’s the culture that comes from the religious tradition that matters.) A similar fault-line exists in Kashmir, where Islamic and Hindu cultures meet.

In the 1990s Yugoslavia disintegrated in a series of bloody wars. These conflicts included atrocities against civilians, resulting in war crimes charges against Serbian leaders in the International Criminal Court. Most of the fighting was in Bosnia, where the three populations had mixed for many decades. The United Nations, NATO, and the United States all at one time or another became involved. When some semblance of peace was restored, six states emerged, among them Croatia and Serbia.

It is doubtful that the dispute over Tesla’s legacy will result in war between those states. Perhaps the European Union (EU), or whoever manages the Euro currency, will decide whether Croatia’s use of Tesla’s image on its coins is okay. If not, the dispute will probably go no further than an exchange of nastygrams.

Who really has the best claim to Nikola Tesla’s legacy? In my view, neither Serbia nor Croatia does. Given the level of technological sophistication in either place, it is doubtful that he could have accomplished his inventive work in either. The United States of America has the best claim. Certainly those Balkan states can honor him, but his real monument is here. We see it every time we flip on a light switch.

For another report of the present difficulty, please see: The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2021, p.1 (print edition)

See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (Simon & Schuster 1996, 367 pages). Huntington’s nine current civilizations are Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox (primarily Russian), Buddhist, and Japanese. The Western is most conflictual with the Islamic and Sinic (China). The Islamic (no surprise) is conflictual with all except Latin American, with which it has little contact. Huntington, writing in the early 1990s, also indicates that there is little Islamic-Sinic conflict. Not sure he would agree today.

See also, Council on Foreign Relations, The Clash if Civilizations? The Debate (2nd ed. 2010). A collection of essays supporting and disputing Huntington’s thesis, including his article first published in Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993). For anyone interested, the article is a summary of the book, and a lot shorter.

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