Tesla Shocks the Springs

The Prestige, a Christopher Nolan-directed flick about turn-of-the-century magicians that stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, has received generally positive reviews from critics at area publications, including Westword; to read Scott Foundas' take, click here. Somehow, though, such scribes have only made passing reference to the large chunk of the action that takes place in Colorado Springs. Likewise, they haven't contrasted the fictionalized version of scientist Nikola Tesla, portrayed by David Bowie, with the genuine item, who actually lived in the Springs during the period dramatized in the film.

Getting too specific about the plot will cause the yarn to snag. But suffice it to say that Jackman's character, who holds a grudge against a rival magic man played by Bale, travels from England to Colorado Springs. There he asks Tesla, who's been working on assorted electrical experiments, to create a machine for a trick known as the "transporting man." At first, Tesla's contraption seems like a flop -- but the magician subsequently discovers that it works far better than anyone could have expected. The device catapults him to fame even as it sets into motion the deadly consequences that conclude the tale.

The scenery in the Colorado sequences looks authentic for a reason. As revealed in this April article from the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, segments were shot near the Redstone Castle and assorted locations near the community of Marble. Likewise, a scene in which Tesla causes lamps spread across a field to suddenly illuminate without the assistance of wires was inspired by an actual event.

A biography of Tesla assembled by the Tesla Society of New York explains the lamp-lighting in this brief synopsis of the time the scientist spent living near the community:

Tesla built an experimental station in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1899, to experiment with high voltage, high frequency electricity and other phenomena.

When the Colorado Springs Tesla Coil magnifying transmitter was energized, it created sparks 30 feet long. From the outside antenna, these sparks could be seen from a distance of ten miles. From this laboratory, Tesla generated and sent out wireless waves which mediated energy, without wires for miles.

In Colorado Springs, where he stayed from May 1899 until 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery-- terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency. He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers) and created man-made lightning. At one time he was certain he had received signals from another planet in his Colorado laboratory, a claim that was met with disbelief in some scientific journals.

Given such history, it's easy to understand why Colorado Springs has been a hotbed of Tesla interest over the years. The Nikola Tesla Society was based in the city, and as this document points out, many Tesla-oriented symposia were staged there during the 1980s and 1990s. The society lost its spark in 1998, but J.W. McGinnis, its director, continued to tout Tesla. This 2000 feature from the Colorado Springs Independent spotlights McGinnis and other Tesla boosters devoted to making sure the inventor receives the historical credit they believe he's due.

Then as now, it's all about prestige. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts