The Twain Shall Meet; Bright Sparks: Nikola Tesla (Left) and Mark Twain in Tesla's Lab

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles Legge

QUESTION

There's a novel called Tesla And Twain about inventor Nikola Tesla and author Mark Twain. Did they know each other? TESLA and Twain were close friends for many years, fascinated by each other's work.

Tesla (1856-1943), the Serbian mechanical and electrical engineer and inventor, described in his autobiography how he came under the thrall of Twain's work during a severe bout of illness.

'I had hardly completed my course at the Real Gymnasium when I was prostrated with a dangerous illness or, rather, a score of them, and my condition became so desperate that I was given up by the physicians,' he wrote.

'During this period, I was permitted to read constantly, obtaining books from the public library which had been neglected, and entrusted to me for classification of the works and preparation of the catalogues.

'One day, I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state.

'They were the earlier works of Mark Twain and to them might have been due the miraculous recovery which followed.

'Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.' Similarly, even before they met, Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910), was fascinated by science.

Most of the money he made through his writing was spent on bad investments, usually novel scientific inventions.

Twain became aware of Tesla's brilliance in 1884 when he remarked, with admirable prescience, on the inventor's newly publicised AC polyphase system: 'I have just seen the drawings and description of an electrical machine lately patented by a Mr Tesla, and sold to the Westinghouse Company, which will revolutionise the whole electric business of the world. It is the most valuable patent since the telephone.' The pair met a decade later and despite their obvious differences Tesla was a tall, slender man with peculiar habits; Twain had a booming literary voice they formed a long and lasting friendship, meeting at The Player's Club in Manhattan or in Tesla's lab.

There are several descriptions of the two working together in the laboratory, notably in 1894 when the first photographs to make use of phosphorescent light were taken. Twain went to experience the photography and 'take highvoltage sparks through [his] body'.

There is also the tale of Tesla's mechanical oscillator, an engine he had designed to produce alternating current of a high frequency.

The inventor had noticed that the machine produced significant vibrations and wondered if these might have therapeutic or health benefits. He enrolled Twain to experience these for himself.

The author is said to have enjoyed himself greatly and exclaimed: 'This gives you vigour and vitality.'

Malcolm Ash, Edinburgh..

QUESTION

The song, It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, has a reference to the '5 and 10'. What is this?

THE '5 and 10' (also known as a Five and Dime or a Nickel and Dime) was the early U.S. incarnation of what would now be called a general store or department store, selling a wide variety of reasonably priced household goods.

Most '5 and 10s' were independently owned and operated. The name Five and Dime refers to the cost of goods, similar to the Pound Shops of today, though it was just a name and not a literal promise of the prices.

Until about 15 to 20 years ago, a '5 and 10' would occupy a prominent place on the main street of most U.S. towns.

Sadly, the growth of larger chain stores such as Macy's, K-Mart and Wal-Mart drove many '5 and 10s' out of business. Though they still exist, it is rare to come across one. …