Few things are as effective of stripping meaning from a word as branding. Apple. Blackberry. Ice Cream Sandwich. You weren’t thinking of food, were you? After a few fits and starts, it looks like Elon Musk’s ambitious (and admirable) Tesla Motors is going to become a viable player in the automobile industry. The Model S has swept the industry’s major awards for the 2013 model year, and Musk claims it has turned its first quarterly profit. With this bold future comes the risk that the company’s namesake, science hero Nikola Tesla, will fall along the wayside. Future generations will know Teslas for their mileage ranges and not their circus mustaches. And you know what? Good.
Sure, Tesla was one of the most important scientists of the Twentieth Century, and his vision of wireless technology looks eerily prescient. Sure, his public debates with world-class knob Thomas Edison furthered the adoption and safety of electricity (unlike Edison, he never electrocuted an elephant to prove a point). And sure, as a persecuted genius, he makes an obvious candidate for a cult figure. But if there’s anything that degrades a name more than becoming a brand, it’s becoming a meme. And at the moment, that’s exactly the danger Nikola Tesla is facing.
Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman has wrapped up a successful multimillion-dollar Kickstarter campaign to convert Tesla’s laboratory of Wardenclyffe into a museum. In a country where evolution is still considered a theory, any effort to make science a part of the pop cultural discourse counts as progress. Even then, though, there’s something tacky about the idea of a gift shop selling Tesla coils in snowglobes. In the unwashed hands of the internet, Tesla’s unkempt appearance and quixotic pursuits of wireless energy (and the accidental devastation he may have wrought in the Tungaska incident) play too easily into the crudest caricatures of the mad scientist. The latter disaster even picked up an eerie synchronicity with the present when a meteor wrought a similar scene of destruction in Russia this past month.
Jeff (Bone) Smith’s recently completed graphic novel RASL does Tesla few favors either. Smith’s admiration for Tesla is clearly genuine, and the extensive footnotes suggest that he did his research. Unfortunately, by including Tesla’s genuinely bold experiments in a science-fictional story about parallel universes, Smith manages to both exoticize and diminish Tesla’s actual adventures.
There is probably no ideal endgame to the current course. The press reaction to the Tesla S Motorcar is a fait accompli: it’s likely to supplant the Prius as the status symbol among the well-heeled looking to offset the carbon emissions from their Gulfstreams, and “Tesla” will be a snarkily charged status signifier; you can hear the jokes already. “Did you hear about the drive-by in Austin? They did it in a Tesla.” Even then, though, as Nikola Tesla saunters into the posthumous nightclub with Edsel Ford and Abraham Lincoln (in addition to inspiring the Continental, he also found time to free the slaves), it’s still a more dignified end than winding up on the “I Fucking Love Science!” Facebook page. ◥