Nikola Tesla in Golden Age Comics: Top Secrets, #9, “Discoverer of Alternating Current” (1949)

Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest inventors and scientists of all time. He is referred to as “the man who invented the modern world”. In The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, Robert Lomas argued that Nikola Tesla was the most important of the inventors who made modern life possible. His discovery of alternating current revolutionized American industry and society. The Tesla AC polyphase system is still how the U.S. and the world are powered. Tesla  also discovered the fluorescent bulb, neon lights, patented the automobile speedometer, the automobile ignition system, and developed the groundwork that made radar, radio, robotics, the electron microscope, and the microwave oven possible.

In 1949, Nikola Tesla appeared in a Golden Age comic book, Top Secrets, in the May-June issue, #9, published by Street and Smith. In this issue appeared a comic story on Nikola Tesla’s discovery of alternating current, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time. The cover art was by Bob Powell who did both the pencils and the inks.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

The story was entitled “Nikola Tesla: Discoverer of Alternating Current” in the “Top Secrets of Nature” series, consisting of 12 pages drawn and signed by Mike Arnes, who did both the pencils and inks.

The Top Secrets comic book was published bi-monthly. Issue #9 consisted of 52 pages. The editor was William J. deGrouchy. The publisher was Street and Smith in New York. The format was Standard Golden Age U.S. size; full color; newsprint interior; glossy cover; and, saddle-stitched.

Street and Smith’s Top Secrets comic book series began in 1947 and ran for 10 issues, from November, 1947 to July-August, 1949. Street and Smith Publications, Inc. was a major New York City publisher of magazines, paperback books, sporting yearbooks, and comic books. They published the seminal science fiction magazine Astounding Stories, which was purchased from Clayton Magazines, from 1933 to 1961. Mademoiselle (1935-1959; 1959-2001 by Condé Nast) and Detective Story Magazine (1915-1949) were also successful magazines published by Street and Smith. Street and Smith was founded in 1855 by Francis Scott Street and Francis Shubael Smith in New York. The company was acquired by Condé Nast in 1959, which continued to use the Street and Smith imprint on his sports magazines. The company published 24 comic book titles, including Sport Comics, Super-Magician Comics, Bill Barnes Comics, and Trail Blazers. The most successful Street and Smith comic book series were The Shadow (1940-1948), Doc Savage (1940-1943), and The Avenger (1939-1942). They stopped publishing comic books in 1949.

On the title page, Nikola Tesla is pictured next to an alternating current induction motor and the Niagara Falls.

“The thousands of high-powered, electrically driven factories throughout the world, producing an abundance of machines, clothing, tools, weapons, etc., beyond the wildest dreams of man fifty years ago… Radio, television, radar and one hundred and one other things that are in normal usage today, but in grandfather’s day weren’t considered at all possible—All these are due to one man’s discovery of one of nature’s top secrets!!”

The account begins in 1862 in the town of Gospic, then in Austria-Hungary. Tesla was born in Smiljan on July 10, 1856. A water pump is displayed in the town of Gospic by firemen. The pump, however, does not work. The gathered townspeople leave in disappointment. Nikola Tesla, the son of the Serbian Orthodox priest in the town, volunteers to fix it. He jumps into the river as spectators watch in dismay.

Nikola Tesla tells the firemen to start pumping. He dives in to fix the pump. He locates the hose on the river bottom. “Just as I saw it in my mind! There’s a kink in the hose!” He is able to get the pump to run again. Asked how he was able to fix the pump, he tells them: “I saw it in my mind.” His parents are told that he has “an extra vision! .. He will be a great man someday!”

Nikola Tesla is shown in a school classroom solving a mathematical problem. His teacher cannot believe that he can solve the problem. She suspects him of cheating. He tells her: “You can give me any problem and I see the whole process of work in my mind .. with the answer!” She gives him more problems which he is able to solve. She is finally convinced that he can solve any problem that she gives him. The other students in the class insult him. After school, Tesla confronts his classmates to apologize about the statements they had made against him. They refuse and a fight ensues.

Tesla is able to defeat them. He shuns sports in order to pursue a career as an engineer. He tells his mother Georgina-Djuka: “I’d rather read .. There are so many books and so much to learn.” His mother tells his father Milutin that Tesla does not want to pursue a career as a priest. He tells his parents: “It’s a force in me that’s strong and urgent. … I’ve got to study engineering.”

Tesla then devoted himself to study after his family relented. He then becomes ill. His parents plead with him to give up his goal to become an engineer. He refuses to do so. His father tells him that he has to give up that goal. Tesla’s condition then worsens. His father finally relents and allows him to retun to school to continue his studies.

Buoyed by his father’s approval, Tesla recovered and was able to continue his studies. He tells his mother: “I have so much to do, mother… I have plans in my head.. Things, I think, that no other man has thought of… ways to make life for millions easier and freer by making nature work for them! I will go to America someday and harness the power of the great Niagara Falls… I will bring light power from it… I will invent a light that burns as bright as fire but is as cold as ice… And I will be able to let people talk to each other from thousands of miles away through the air! I couldn’t give these things up and live, mother! …. I see them all so clear… I just need time and study to work them out!”

Tesla returned to the institute, the Polytechnical Institute in Graz, Austria, where a professor, Jacob Poeschl, demonstrated a machine from Paris, the Gramme Dynamo, which if turned mechanically it generated electricity but if supplied with electricity it worked as a motor producing mechanical energy. He notices a problem with sparking. He is told that because it relies on direct current a commutator is needed to change or reverse the direction of the current. Tesla suggests that the commutator be discarded and that alternating current be used instead. His professor tells him that it is impossible: “You speak of the impossible.. If alternating current could be controlled, not only would sparking be eliminated but a limitless source of electrical power unleashed that would change the world!… But it is impossible. No man, not even you with your fantastic imagination can accomplish he impossible!” Tesla replies: “Because it is not accomplished yet does not mean it’s impossible…. I know it can be done…. I’ll find out how!”

Tesla spent months attempting to devise a system to replace the direct current system of electricity generation with alternating current. He told his friend Anthony Szigeti: “It is not impossible… I see it in my mind, the machine working… It is all there except for one detail.” Szigeti tells him to relax and to forget about the problem, to focus on the beauty of the sunset. Tesla quotes him Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s lines from the tragedy Faust (1808), First Part, Scene II: “The glow retreats, done is the day of toil; It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring…” Tesla then suddenly stops and stands still in concentration. Szigeti asks him if something is wrong. Tesla remains concentrated on the problem. He sees the solution: “I turn the switch… and it reverses…. No sparks… No noise… It works!… Just as I knew it would work!” Szigeti remains flabbergasted and seeks to escort him home. Tesla exclaims: “I’ve found the secret of alternating current… a rotating magnetic field… I can do it using two circuits out of step with each other… It is so simple!” Szigeti asks him if it will work. Tesla tells him: “Certain!… Every detail…. Each wire in each circuit is as clear in my mind as though the completed machine were before us this instant… It will work!”

Tesla moved to Budapest in 1880 to work under Tivadar Puskas in the National Telephone Company, a telegraph company. He continued to design motors, dynamos, and transformers in an alternating current system. He informed Puskas of his designs and inventions and sought funding to construct them. Puskas told him: “If your machine will do what you say, Tesla, you’ve done a big thing.” He informs Tesla that financing cannot be provided in Hungary to develop his plans and designs. Tesla then informs Puskas that he will go to Paris where a branch of the Edison Company had been set up. Puskas tells Tesla that he will write a letter of introduction for Tesla but that it is up to Tesla to convince them of the viability of the alternating current system. Tesla exclaimed: “I’ll sell the Edison Company the idea for letting me build it even if I have to give them all the rights!” Tesla then thanked Puskas and departed for Paris.

Tesla moved to Paris in 1882 where he worked for the Continental Edison Company on building and improving direct current dynamos. Tesla thinks to himself: “If the boss would only let me explain my alternating current plan to him, he’d save time and money…” Tesla was able to devise improvements to the direct current dynamos. He suggested to his supervisor that his alternating current designs be considered: “If you’ll give me a chance, I can show you things that make this pale by comparison!” His AC designs, however, were always rejected with disgust: “For the last time, I’m not interested in your crazy plan for building alternating current dynamos!…” Tesla is shown being thrown out of the office of his supervisor. Tesla suggest that he at least consider his plans for improving the direct current motors.

Tesla was sent by the Continental Edison Company to Strasbourg to repair a new direct current lighting system which had been installed at the German Railway company in February, 1883. Strasbourg had been ceded by France to Germany in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War. The system had been damaged on a trial run. The government approved the job after the repairs, but Tesla never received the amount he was promised for the work. On June 10, 1883, Tesla, who was fluent in German, demonstrated the newly completed alternating current induction motor to the mayor of Strasbourg and potential investors. They examined the motor but did not comprehend the value of the invention.

Tesla is able to envision the AC system in his mind: “In my mind, I worked everything out to the millionth of an inch—the plan in my mind is more accurate than a blueprint!”

The mayor tells Tesla: “If it does, we are seeing the greatest advance in science since Faraday discovered how to produce electricity by induction!” Tesla responds: “It will work… I know it…. Watch!” Tesla turns on the switch.

“It works!” Tesla successfully demonstrates the alternating current induction motor. The mayor exclaimed: “There, gentlemen… You’ve seen it with your own eyes—The greatest electrical discovery of all time..!” The investors all reject the new system: “I can’t see why the Edison Company wouldn’t take it if it is so great…” Tesla, however remains confident: “Someday, somewhere I will convince the world that my machine is right!”

When he returns to Paris, Tesla finds that the promised bonus is not forthcoming. He quits the company. An administrator at the Edison Continental Company tells him that he should go to America and work with Thomas Edison: “Listen, Nikola — Why don’t you go to the States and work with Thomas Edison?.. Perhaps, after you’ve proved yourself, he’ll give you a chance to demonstrate your alternating-current motor..” Tesla replies: “America!.. Yes… Why not?.. I must go someday… Perhaps it is meant for me to go now!!”

Tesla departs for the United States, arriving on June 6, 1884 in New York City: “And so, selling his books to pay his passage, Nikola Tesla boarded a boat with four cents in his pocket but a secret of nature in his mind worth billions of dollars!” Tesla declares: “I must have time to work and think… There are so many new and greater inventions in my mind that will make man’s life on this earth easier and fuller!” Several weeks after his arrival in the U.S., Tesla, with a letter of recommendation from inventor Charles W. Batchelor, is introduced to Thomas Edison: “The two great geniuses of electricity—one, world famous, the other, struggling for recognition—meet for the first time!” Tesla tells Edison: “I’m honored, Mr. Edison… I hope you will give me the chance to demonstrate my ideas which will revolutionize the electrical field!” Edison replies: “You will have a chance to work… Ideas will come later, when you have proven yourself, Mr. Tesla.” Tesla makes his case for AC: “But when you hear of my alternating current machine that works, I know you will give me a chance to give it to the world…” Edison, however, rejects alternating current out of hand: “Alternating current!.. Never.. Even if you have a machine that works, it is far to dangerous… The Edison Company would have nothing to do with it… I.. We believe in direct current and nothing else!” Tesla replies: “Very well, Mr. Edison—I will work on whatever you say.. But someday, you will see… Yes and even endorse alternating current.” Tesla worked for the Edison, becoming an employee of Edison Machine Works, designing 24 types of DC dynamos but “always hoping for the chance of proving his alternating current theories…” Edison, however, continued to reject AC: For the last time, Tesla… No… I’m not interested in alternating current!” Tesla replied: “And I, Mr. Edison.. Am … not interested in working for a man who won’t accept anybody’s ideas but his own!” Tesla quit and became a laborer, digging ditches: “Thus began the blackest period in Nikola Tesla’s life… Unable to find work, penniless, he was forced to accept a laboring job… while in his head remained the fabulous idea.”

Tesla discussed his plans for alternating current with the foreman of the ACME Construction Company where he worked. The foreman told Tesla that he knew someone who may be interested in developing and financing alternating current. Tesla was introduced to A. K. Brown of the Western Union Telegraph Company who was convinced that alternating current could be successfully developed. Brown agreed to provide financing for Tesla’s “experimental machines” to develop AC systems. Tesla obtained patents for his AC motors and system. W. A. Anthony of Cornell University attests that AC is as efficient as DC. Tesla gave his first lecture and public demonstration of his AC motors and AC system of electrical power generation. The response was positive and supportive: “Amazing!!” “It makes electricity man’s greatest servant!” “Revolutionary! It means a new era…” Tesla thanked his enthusiastic supporters. They responded: “You’re the greatest electrical genius of our time!!” “Tonight saw the death of direct current!”

The alternating current motor and system were not the only discoveries that Tesla would make in his lifetime. He would be a pioneer of radio, television, and neon illumination. He would design giant dynamos that would harness the energy of Niagara Falls in 1895 with the construction of the hydroelectric power plant based on alternating current. In 1893, his AC current and neon lights would illuminate the Chicago World’s Fair and mark his final and decisive triumph over Edison’s direct current system. Tesla would continue to make scientific and technological breakthroughs and discoveries during his lifetime: “But Nikola Tesla’s great triumph was not the end, but the beginning … He rushed back to his laboratory to work upon the other ‘impossible’ visions that cluttered his mind and from which came today’s radio and television, the neon and flu[o]rescent lights, the giant dams and dynamos that have brought light to the remotest parts of the world… To this man, who had vision and genius beyond that of almost any other man, the world owes a great debt. He made the world a better place to live in by giving his life to the discovery of nature[‘]s top secrets.”