Tongues of Living Flame: Nikola Tesla and the Pan American Exposition of 1901

Christian Sager

"New Panoramic View of the Illumination Looking for the Triumphal Bridge". Photographer: Undetermined. Source: The Latest and Best Views of the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, N.Y.: Robert Allen Reid, 1901.
Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world's advancements. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people, and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of the people. - William McKinley's last public utterance, September 5, 1901.

The Pan American Exposition of 1901 is most often associated with the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, but it also has historical importance for Nikola Tesla's genius. While the Exposition's official theme was cooperation across the continents, Tesla's innovative use of Niagara Falls as a power source to light an entire small city is its aesthetic legacy living on well after the crowds went home and the exhibit buildings were torn down.

The Exposition was nicknamed "The Rainbow City" because of the way strings of lights covered its multi-colored buildings, fountains and plaza. Its centerpiece was The Electric Tower, a 391-foot tall beacon designed by John Galen Howard. Adorned with architectural flourishes like pavillionettes, cupolas and arcaded loggias, the tower allowed visitors to view the entire Exposition grounds as well as the Niagara river harnessed to illuminate them. Inside was an 18-foot tall statue of a torch-bearing nude angel called "The Goddess of Light." Clearly this was a monument to Tesla's success, defeating Thomas Edison in the "War of Currents" to achieve his childhood dream.

The story goes that Tesla had seen a picture of Niagara Falls as a boy and imagined a giant millwheel that could be used to channel the waterfalls' energy for other purposes. As an adult he actually ended up using three 85-ton dynamos turned by massive turbines embedded beneath the falls. These dynamos were the first actualization of Tesla's polyphase system of alternating current. They sent intense voltages to Buffalo, lighting thousands of bulbs across the Exposition. In November 1896, "The Buffalo Enquirer" said, "It was the journey of God's own lightning to the employ of man." For Tesla, it was the realization of daydreams in which he'd seen the air filled with "tongues of living flame."

Strangely, both Tesla's innovation and McKinley's assassination are connected by another moment in history: the invention of the electric chair. In an effort to discredit Tesla's alternating current, Thomas Edison and Harold Brown had previously staged public electrocutions of animals - including dogs and a horse - using Tesla's technology. Their unsuccessful smear campaign concluded with the electric chair execution of murderer William Kemmler at the Auburn, New York prison in 1890. 11 years later, even after Tesla's alternating current had won the day in Buffalo, Edison was back in Auburn assisting the prison with another execution. This time it was McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, strapped to the chair. Edison went so far as to a create a filmed re-enactment of the execution, so he could brand anything associated with electricity with his own name.

Presumably he still had to use Tesla's alternating current to achieve his macabre ends.


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