Thought Catalog
February 25, 2014

How Nikola Tesla Made Mark Twain Crap His White Suit (…And How We Can Avoid The Same Fate)

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Once upon a time, the genius inventor, Nikola Tesla, made the world-famous writer, Mark Twain shit himself. In that craptastic moment of American history, among the bodily product of the great man’s loosened bowels, we find a lesson about humanity, and if we actually take the time to learn from Twain’s stains we just might be able to save ourselves. I know, it sounds ridiculous; but like gum on the bottom of one’s shoe, stick with me. I promise there is wisdom to be found in the soiled white suit of the man who invented American literature.

No one knows for sure when the two men first met. Some suggest it was at a Broadway after-party for theater legend Sarah Bernhardt. Others say they met at a legendary private men’s club in New York called The Players Club. (Yep, just like the title of that mean and raunchy-ass Ice Cube-directed film.) Others report that the two men first met in the swirl of New York house parties, the sort of soirees where one might see John Muir, Rudyard Kipling and Teddy Roosevelt (pre-presidency) all in the same room, and off in the corner might be the two new best friends, drawn to each other like iron to magnet, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla. Although both men wrote autobiographies, neither one ever told the story of their initial meeting. All we know for certain is Tesla credited Mark Twain with saving his life.

A somewhat frail and sickly child, Tesla was hovering above the precipice of premature death. He’d been bed-ridden and given up as a lost cause by his doctors. When a nurse brought the boy Serbian translations of Twain’s earliest works, the American writer’s tales of jumping frogs and mining towns, and what would later be called the Old West, fired young Tesla’s imagination, and the stories gave him the spiritual vigor to carry on. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense since the two men shared a similar willful temperament – they’re both iconoclastic and eccentric by nature, to put it mildly.

The story goes Nikola Tesla was born during a terrifying thunderstorm. At the moment of his birth a flash of lightning cracked and split the darkness with a great profundity of light, a wonderful terrible heavenly discharge of electrical energy. The midwife attending to his mother warned her that her newborn son would be a troublesome and tempestuous child. Tesla’s mother corrected the midwife and asserted that her son was a child of light.

Similar to Tesla’s entry into the world, Samuel Clemens was also born during extraordinary circumstances. Halley’s Comet lit up the night sky the night he was born as it streaked across the cosmic darkness. Later, as an adult, after he’d taken his new name of Mark Twain, he famously proclaimed that just as he came in with the comet, so too, he would leave with its return.

I came in with Halley’s Comet… It is coming again … and I expect to go out with it… The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’

And sure enough he was right. Seventy-six years later, as the comet once again marked the sky with its brilliance the great writer left the earth. That’s some enviable style. To be certain, both of geniuses came into this world accompanied by biblical-sized portent.

When the two men finally met in America they became fast friends. It’s reported by witnesses to their friendship that at New York house parties they were often found sequestered together in the quiet of some shadowed corner of a room; the two men engaged in private conversation, as others buzzed about them excited to share the same air with such luminaries but intimidated to interrupt their conversation.

Just after the holiday season, a few weeks after the turn of the New Year in 1894, during those dreary January days along the eastern seaboard when snow huddles on the shoulders of the avenues of New York, locked away in his flashing and sparking building, Nikola Tesla was playing in his laboratory. He’d been teasing out new ways to transform and utilize the promise of what one might do with electricity.

And remember, Tesla was a genius but he was still a dude; so he wanted to show off some of this new cool shit to his friends. I mean he’s playing with like the coolest shit of the day. Like, here’s a photo Nikola Tesla took of Mark Twain in those heady first days of 1894. This is one of the first photos to ever use phosphorescent light to illuminate the subject.

Mark Twain 01-1894 Tesla Lab exposure time 10 minutes 1895-03

Now, just as keen as Tesla was to show off his crazy new inventions, Mark Twain wanted to play with whatever new technology he could get his curious hands on. Twain was equally eager to marvel at Tesla’s inventions as the genius was to share them. They were a perfect pair — a match made in a tempestuous heaven. Twain regarded Tesla’s genius as something akin to an Olympian power, to his understanding the man bent forces of nature to his earthbound will.

From a story published in Century Magazine  April, 1895:

High Tension Current Passing ThroughMark Twain Into Light Tesla Lab 1895-012

“IN Fig. 13 a most curious and weird phenomenon is illustrated.  A few years ago electricians would have considered it quite remarkable, if indeed they do not now.  The observer holds a loop of bare wire in his hands.  The currents induced in the loop by means of the —resonating— coil over which it is held, traverse the body of the observer, and at the same time, as they pass between his bare hands, they bring two or three lamps held there to bright incandescence.  Strange as it may seem, these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest.  The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.”

In the past, Mark Twain had complained to Tesla about recurring bouts of constipation. (He was often backed-up like a drug mule with an ass stuffed full of cocaine condoms.) Tesla suggested to Twain that he avail himself of the therapeutic benefits he’d find standing atop one of his new inventions, a vibrating humming oscillating metal disc. (What can I say? These were very different times.) But this was no normal oscillating disc.

Tesla looked at the skeptical writer and sold him on the notion his new invention “imparted vitality.” He further piqued Twain’s curiosity with a promise of a pleasing and relaxing effect felt throughout the human body. Mark Twain leapt up on that oscillating disc faster than Tesla could say Calaveras County. Before the electrical genius turned on his electrical wonder machine, he warned his friend — he told him that whenever he indicated it was time for Twain to step away from the disc, it was time for him to step off. No arguments. Or a calamity could occur.

Mark Twain nodded. Tesla tripped the switch. Electricity surged through cables. The disc began to vibrate. High tension voltage crackled in the air around Mark Twain. Just imagine that picture. Both wild-haired geniuses, Tesla most likely in a lab coat, goggles, black rubber apron and matching long gloves; and Twain in his signature white suit, halo’d by bluish-white crackling fingers of electricity snapping at the air all around him.

As promised, it was a pleasing sensation. I imagine it felt something like a massage from a pair of blind masseuses while you’re double-dipping on MDMA. Mark Twain laughed and remarked how terribly good it all felt. It felt so good, Twain began to dance around on the platform, his arms flailing and sweeping through the buzzing throb of electricity. One could say, Nikola Tesla watched his dear friend Mark Twain do the Humpty Dance inside that flashing electrical cocoon of the arcing high tension field. (And that, my friends, is a really fucking funny moment in human history.)

Tesla had warned Twain he’d shouldn’t dance about. Twain ignored him. When he felt it was time, Tesla told Twain he’d been on the machine long enough, it was now time for him to step away. Naturally, Mark Twain ignored him.

The stubborn-ass writer continued to enjoy the ticklish hum of the electric field of Tesla’s oscillating disc. He was basically tripping out on all the cascading vibrations rippling through his body. And there it is. That was his critical mistake of judgment. We’ve all been there. We ignore the advice of the ones who know best — because in the moment it all feels sooo damn good. Why stop? What could possibly go wrong?

When a scientist (preferably, one unbeholden to the corporate teet) offers advice one ought to listen. When a group of scientists all concur, you really ought to hear them out. When the majority of scientists you can round-up and give their opinion on the same subject all agree, you should probably consider what they have to say. Especially, if they’re the leading minds in their fields of expertise. Better question to ask — Why wouldn’t you listen to them? (Who the hell are you?)

But Mark Twain ignored Tesla. And if I were there, I imagine I’d have ignored Tesla, too. We all tend to make that choice. We’re all just like Mark Twain, in that when we get hold of a good feeling we just want to keep feeling good for as long as we can, ignoring bad news or clear indications of danger or doom. And then, suddenly, well, it’s too late. And it all goes to shit.

Feeling the first dribble run down his leg, Twain leapt out of the charged field of the arcing tendrils of high tension electricity, as he sprang from the oscillating disc. Clutching his cheeks together with an ambitious hand, running in a way most undignified, Mark Twain yelled over his shoulder to his dear friend, “Tesla! The water closet! Where is it?”

What Tesla had neglected to tell Twain, the calamity that might occur if one stayed on his new machine too long, there was a tendency for a person to lose control of his bowels and shit himself. And that, my friends, is how Nikola Tesla ruined Mark Twain’s white suit with some rather historic shit stains.

The moral of this story should be clear: When one chooses to ignore the warnings of our best and brightest scientific minds, often enough, bad shit happens.

At the present moment, we’re choosing to ignore the warnings of our modern day Teslas. For reasons future generations will likely curse us, we choose to ignore the warnings and continue to debate whether or not our world is changing. We’re willfully ignoring a dire situation we’ve nicknamed “climate change.” The name doesn’t matter. The patterns do. As James Lawrence Powell has pointed out:

“I have brought my previous study (see here and here) up-to-date by reviewing peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals over the period from Nov. 12, 2012 through December 31, 2013. I found 2,258 articles, written by a total of 9,136 authors.”

Against this sea of scholastic papers published in peer-reviewed journals, climate change deniers argue the debate is unsettled but what do they use to back their claims?

“Only one article, by a single author in the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, rejected man-made global warming.”

You might get a laugh from this perfectly succinct infographic. Their evidence is laughable. Like, I hurt myself laughing, it’s that paltry. Climate-deniers can hold up one peer-reviewed paper recently published in a journal. One. This is sufficient evidence for them to argue against the 2,258 articles published in that same time period. This one paper from the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences is why we can continue to delay action and engage creative energies to confront this problem. One paper is why we continue to argue about if we’re headed into a shit storm of global significance. What?! That must be one hell of a paper.

Thanks to this “debate” of whether or not climate change is real and occurring, all of us on planet Earth are, in one metaphoric sweep, Mark Twain ignoring Tesla until the shit was literally running down his leg. I love Mark Twain, but don’t you think it’s time we listen to our Teslas? It’s really hard to get shit stains out. We only have this one white suit.

(After-Party: If you have a few minutes, this video imagines what it would be like if Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla had a time machine. It’s cheap humor, but it’s funny.) TC Mark

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