John Wagner is a man on a mission. “My ultimate goal is to gain popular recognition for Nikola Tesla,” says the retired Dexter teacher. “I know I’ll never achieve it.”
He may not. Tesla, the Serbian-American genius, more or less invented radio and essentially perfected electrical power, but his name is hardly recognized compared with those of his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison and Gugli-elmo Marconi. For the last thirty years, the eighty-five-year-old Wagner has been on a quixotic quest to change that. He started in his own classroom in Dexter, moved up to nineteen universities, and is now working on elementary and middle school libraries. And he is making progress: his website ntesla.org –titled “Nikola Tesla –Forgotten American Scientist”–has recorded more than half a million hits.
Though he’d heard Tesla’s name in high school, Wagner knew nothing about him save for the spark-shooting Tesla coils featured in Frankenstein movies. That changed in 1983 when he went to Allegheny College to pick up his daughter at spring break. “She wasn’t ready yet, so I visited the library and plucked a book at random from the shelf. It was Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla by John J. O’Neill, and I started reading.”
Discovering Tesla’s achievements changed Wagner’s life. “There have been only three great inventions in the history of the world,” he says with a true believer’s passion. “The first was the wheel, the second was the movable type printing press, and the third was the rotating magnetic field principle, the basis of alternating current, which is the basis of electrical systems used the world over. Nikola Tesla is responsible for one of the three most important inventions in the history of the world, the invention that made the second Industrial Revolution possible.
“I thought, ‘This was a great story, I could tell my students and it will inspire them to do writing.’ We introduce cursive writing in the third grade, and I told them about Tesla, and they wanted to tell their parents and relatives and friends. And they began to write letters, first to their families and then … to corporate CEOs about Tesla.
“Then one Saturday morning in 1986, a former student of mine came to my door with her father,” Wagner continues. “He was a sculptor, and he offered to make a bust of Tesla for our classroom if I paid for the materials.” When it was done, the bronze bust on a granite base was valued at $6,000, “much too nice for a third-grade classroom. I asked the Henry Ford Museum if they were interested, and they refused to take the bust. I was dumbfounded. Then I remembered that Henry Ford was good friends with Thomas Edison, and it all fell into place. They didn’t want anything to challenge the idea that Edison was the king of electricity!”
That didn’t stop Wagner. “I offered it to the Smithsonian, and they wrote back, ‘We don’t have any use for your bust.’ My wife and I went down to see what they had, and our bust was a lot nicer than a lot of their busts. Then I saw that they had a bust of Edison right next to a Tesla poly-phase alternating current generator! So I decided to circumvent the Smithsonian and gave the U-M the bust in the fall of 1989. It’s out on North Campus in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Building in a beautiful spot in the atrium.”
That was just the beginning. Acting on Wagner’s belief that “a statue gives credibility to the person,” his classes raised $114,000 over the next ten years in donations and profits from selling Tesla T-shirts, and got copies of the bust into eighteen more universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, CalTech, and Carnegie Mellon.
And Wagner’s not finished. “Next is to promote Tesla through books in elementary and middle school libraries. We’re in universities–now it’s time to go after younger students, to tell about Tesla’s childhood to children. All the time I was teaching I never saw his name mentioned in textbooks, and he’s the inventor of the most important invention in the world. And he had a fascinating childhood.”
Naturally, the former third-grade teacher wrote both books. “The first is for children aged five to eight. It’s full of pictures by an art student from the U-M. She volunteered to do the work in 1996, and she finally finished. The second book is for children aged eight to fourteen. Both came out in 2010.”
Wagner says so far Nikko, Superboy Inventor and Nikko and Macak, the Electrical Cat have sold about 400 copies. “It’s a charitable thing to keep me going. My last students in 1993 asked me to carry on the campaign to give proper recognition that no one can dispute.”
He does, in ways large and small. “Right now I’m answering a letter from a seventh-grader in Minnesota working on a history project. She saw my web page and wanted to know more.”
One reason for Tesla’s obscurity may be that after his world-changing invention, he promoted other projects that never bore fruit, including wireless power transmission and even a death ray. But he isn’t exactly unknown. A former Ford engineer and a current engineering student both know his work.
“We don’t talk a lot about him [in the department],” the student says, “but there’s a growing nerd underground that’s reasonably well informed.” If smart is the new sexy, Tesla’s day could yet come.