Tesla in Beograd

5 Nov

By 1901, a zone of industrial development had begun in Beograd along the shores of the Danube, in areas such as Palilula and Karaburma. Along Topchidar Road and in Cukarica, factories arose that were able to take advantage of transportation on the Danube and its confluence with the Sava.

A trio of industrialists met early that year to decide on a bold scheme envisioned by one of them, Kosta Ilic. The latter had a proposal to make to his fellow textile manufacturers, Aleksa Obradovic and Evgenije Mihel.

“I have been in correspondence with the great Serbian inventor, Nikola Tesla, who has been so successful in the United States of America. He has become a second Thomas Edison, all the newspapers everywhere proclaim. He has been working on electrical experiments out in the West of that gigantic country, in the state of Colorado. But the genius has exhausted all his financial resources and cannot continue his work.

“He has a miraculous plan to create a wireless form of electricity. But there are no American capitalists willing to finance his research. The man is desperate for the means of bringing his project to successful completion.

“This is what I propose: that we three bring him to Serbia and support his efforts with funds. It will have colossal results and profits, according to the inventor. Science will take a great leap ahead. And our industries will end up with a benefit unknown to any competing nation with industries.

“I believe in Tesla’s hopes and promises, and I think that I can convince you to do likewise, my good friends.”

Indeed, Kosta Ilic succeeded in converting the others to his trust in the aspirations and visions of the electrical pioneer, Nikola Tesla. By the spring of 1901, the inventor arrived in Beograd with his plan to transmit electricity through the aether on invisible electromagnetic waves.

The Municipal Power Station had been built near the Danube in 1892, yet the capital of Serbia lacked the abundant, cheap electricity needed for its full industrialization. Food, textiles, timber, and chemical plants dominated the compact industrial zone on the right bank of the Danube. A Belgian-owned slaughterhouse was the newest addition to the places that used power carried over wires. Nikola Tesla surveyed and visited the riverside areas, foreseeing an ever-growing, insatiable hunger for electricity in the future.

The tall, thin scarecrow with dark hair, moustache, and sparkling eyes seemed to bubble with exuberant enthusiasm for what his project promised to the Serb population and the world. He expressed himself in a rhapsodic swoon to his guide, Kosta Ilic.

“I will need a lot of advanced electrical equipment and a high tower from which to broadcast energy pulsation. Beograd contains many high points and elevations where construction can be completed. My choice of location is on Kalemegdan, the old Turkish citadel and fortress where the Danube and the Sava meet and flow together. Can you obtain permission to build on the wide plateau that surrounds the old fortress? That would be a perfect site for what I am planning to accomplish.”

Ilich, a short and heavy man in a frock coat, hesitated. “I cannot say for sure. The parkland now belongs to the city of Beograd. It will depend upon convincing the former mayor of our city, Nikola Pasic. His opinion will be the decisive one because of his great political influence.”

“Arrange an interview for me with him,” asked Tesla. I am certain that my arguments can convince this powerful figure.”

Within two days, the inventor met and converted the Serbian leader to what he proposed to do on top of historic Kalemegdan.

“We shall construct a high tower from which the city, the region, and most of the Kingdom of Serbia can be supplied with abundant electricity,” promised Tesla to the bearded giant who had been educated to be a civil engineer, but was fated to become his country’s primary political leader in future years.

“Since you have the financial support of Kosta Ilic and his associates, I see no great risk in clearing the way in Beograd for constructing this experimental facility. We should begin at once.”

The inventor and the politician smiled warmly at each other.

A downtown hall was rented so that Nikola Tesla could present his ideas to the educated middle class of Beograd. He gave a detailed lecture on the original scientific basis for his project for wireless electricity. First came a description of his nine months of experimentation at the experiment station he built near Pikes Pike in Colorado.

“I proceeded on the assumption that the atmosphere of the Earth is a cavity resonator that can transmit electrical energy to any site on our planet. My objective was to create pulses or disturbances that will travel in all directions between the Earth and the Ionosphere. By expanding the range and circumference of this radiation to the maximum, the electric waves can be made to meet at an antipode at the opposite side of the globe. The waves will then be reflected back to the point of original transmission. They can then be sent out again, in a reinforced form. This will be perfectly efficient, with little or no loss of energy.

“The atmosphere is already alive with electrical vibrations. In Colorado, I used a giant copper ball atop my tower to create bolts of man-made lightning. Huge arcs of blue electricity moved up and down the central coil. I was able to generate enormous voltages that illuminated tubes of vacuum miles away.

“I was able to send signals from the tower to considerable distances. It has been established by actual experimental tests that the atmosphere beneath the ionosphere, rising up eighty kilometers, is a highly conductive medium of transmissions, both of energy and communications.

“This is what should be constructed upon a ridge on Kalemegdan Park: a tower 300 meters high, with a steel sphere on top weighing 55 tons. A score of iron pipes must be driven into the ground so that added currents can travel through the Earth. The ionosphere will be our cavity resonator, transporting electricity everywhere on the Earth. There has been nothing similar in all of human history.”

The stunned crowd of listeners appeared to be breathless. They had caught the contagious spirit of wonder from the visionary inventor and were now believers in what he said he was going to do in Beograd. Hopes soared ever higher.

The construction of the tower was slow and careful, with Tesla supervising every step and portion of the work. By the spring of 1902, the structure was ready for its final phase: the completion of the dome frame and the gigantic steel sphere at the top.

Out of the blue, came a royal order from the palace of King Alexander I. All work must cease at once. No reason was given for the command. The supporters of Tesla and his program could only guess at what was behind it.

Kosta Ilic explained the situation to the anxious inventor at his company office in the business district of central Beograd.

“I believe that this absurd decision is the result of political considerations, both external and internal. Let me describe the situation for you. King Alexander is a mercurial, unstable ruler. He lurches from one scheme to a new one. Rumor has it the Austro-Hungary has focused its influence upon halting the plans concerning our tower, and the monarch leans toward satisfying our northern neighbor. There is also the need for Alexander to placate his volatile Queen, the unpopular widow named Draga who was known at one time to be his mistress. Most of his royal family and relatives have turned against him because of this marriage of his. There is no heir yet, and the Obrenovic hold on the throne is a precarious one. The pro-Russian party, the Radicals including Nikola Pasic, have turned against this clown of a king. We industrialists have little hope for progress while he reigns in Serbia.”

“What should I do now?” inquired a heated Tesla. “Must I leave Serbia and return to America?”

Ilic thought several moments. “Can you carry out research experiments outside the Kalemegdan tower? My colleagues and I are willing to finance and assist your activities as if this ban were not in effect.”

The scientist had an answer at once. “I can continue my work started in the United States on wireless telegraphy and messaging. There are many experiments that could be carried out at ground level, without the high broadcasting tower.”

It thus came about that Tesla was compelled by circumstances to turn his attention back to what became electromagnetic radio communication.

He had already written articles in American popular magazines about a future global system of wireless message transmission. Tesla foresaw the Earth becoming “one huge brain” some day. The so-called Tesla coil had permitted ever wider expansion of telegraphy. Could voice sounds be sent by radio wave? He was positively certain that it was possible.

Men carrying crystal receivers using galena were sent out from Beograd to test the frequencies and strength of transmitted waves. How were electromagnetic waves going to be transmitted? That was the problem, the question foremost in the thinking of Nikola Tesla. He went to Kosta Ilic with a request for aid in obtaining what he believed to be the most feasible solution.

“I need you to obtain for me the right to use the tramway electric lines as my transmitting antenna. Their wide area of expanse provides a great surface for the sending out of telegraphic signals on a wireless basis. This provision can determine the success or failure of my projected hopes in the field of electrical communications.”

Ilic was successful in winning this use of the overhead wires in the streets of Beograd for the radio pioneer. In a few months, this new system of transmission was operating as Tesla had planned it. Distant telegraph stations in Nish, Leskovats, and Zajechar were reached by using crystal receivers placed in those towns. A working network of public messages from the capital existed into the Serbian provinces.

But the inventor did not feel much victory or triumph due to his inability to make use of the tower that had been constructed for him on Kalemegdan.

How could he regain his right to use that building for the hoped for transmission of wireless electrical energy? he wondered late into each night.

It was soon after New Year in 1903 that Kosta Ilic called Tesla to his factory office with an idea that had been brought to him by others.

“I wish to present you with a proposal that has come my way from a source I never expected to be thinking this way,” said the industrialist, sitting behind an enormous mahogany desk. “It may impress you, or perhaps not. But I thought you would like to hear what a certain factor here in Serbia is considering.”

“What are you referring to, Kosta?” asked the scientific visionary with a certain amount of impatience.

The capitalist lowered his voice. “I have met with an important officer of the capital unit of Army Intelligence. It appears that they are extremely interested in the possibilities of your wireless successes using the trolley lines as antennas. This colonel wishes to talk with you. He says that he could visit your apartment in the Skadarlija district, if you wish.”

“I have no objection, none whatever,” responded Tesla. “What is the man’s name?”

“Dimitrijevic,” said Ilic. “Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic.”

The very next afternoon, the unusually tall, dark-haired and dark-complected intelligence official arrived at the inventor’s place in his shining gray uniform and military hat. He impressed Tesla with his seriousness, never smiling even once in the course of their time together that day.

The two sat down and got down to business immediately.

“What I have come here about is a serious concern for the security of our Serbian fatherland. We are surrounded in all directions by enemies or untrustworthy neighbors. It is of vital military importance that we possess the best communication means possible. I myself have kept my eyes on what you have done through using wireless telegraphy. It is an advantage that even the richest and most advanced nations of the world lack, at least for now. I visit you with a proposal. Let me outline it for you.

“Will you allow the Serbian Army to utilize the system you have created for its own military intelligence aims? You hold a tool that could greatly increase our operational efficiency. We would no longer be dependent upon commercial telegraph companies as we now are. If we had use of what you have created here in Beograd, the military security and effectiveness of our forces would be literally multiplied. What do you say, sir?”

Tesla at that moment saw the possibilities for his other project, the one stalled by the closure of the tower, if he agreed to cooperate in the field of communication with the nation’s military.

“Of course, Colonel Dimitrijevic,” he said with genuine enthusiasm. “I am eager to help my people and its army the way that you indicate.”

Thus began the alliance of advanced science and Serbian Army intelligence.

Nikola Tesla had no knowledge of this officer’s secret involvement in political intrigue around the throne and the century-old feud between the Obrenovic and Karageorgevic families over who would reign over Serbia.

The royal post had changed hands several times through coups and political conspiracies. Alexander Obrenovic ruled in 1903, but there was a rival pretender who lived in Paris, Peter Karageorgevic. And there was a cabal of Army officers plotting to overthrow the present monarch and replace him with a pro-Russian candidate of the contending dynastic line. Much of the military had grown impatient with the pro-Austrian foreign policy they saw being followed by Alexander. They shared the popular distaste and hatred for the upstart queen, Draga. Why did he have to marry his mistress, who had proven unable to give him an heir? Why was the King considering making her brother next-in-line to succeed him?”

The group of officers called themselves the Serbian Black Hand.

The events of the night of June 11, 1903 changed the course of both Serbian and world history.

The conspirators led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic stormed the Royal Palace in Beograd. They first captured General Laza Petrovic, head of the Palace Guards, forcing him to reveal the internal chamber where the King and the Queen were hidden from the noise made by the attackers.

The royals were dragged out of their shelter and brutally murdered in a vicious craze. The bodies were disemboweled and dismembered, then thrown out of an upper window into a large pile of horse manure behind the Palace. Vengeance ran amuck and a form of insanity seemed to rule.

That same night saw the assassination of the Prime Minister, the Minister of War, and the Queen’s two brothers.

In the course of the killings, Colonel Dimitrijevic was wounded. He carried three bullets inside his body for the rest of his life. Within days, the Serbian Parliament named him “the savior of the fatherland.” The conspirators said that they were motivated to act by rumors of the King negotiating a treaty with Austria that endangered Serbia’s claims over Bosnia.

The throne now fell into the hands of the Karageorgevic royal line and its claimant, Prince Peter. A new pro-Russian ministry was appointed to power. The plotters were rewarded with promotions, Colonel Dimitrijevic eventually becoming chief of Army Intelligence.

The closure of the experimental tower on Kalemegdan was immediately ended and Nikola Tesla was informed he could restart his work there.

The inventor felt a joyous optimism about what he would now achieve. He expressed his renewed dream to Kosta Ilic when the two men returned to the high tower and watched as the ground door was unlocked by guards sent there by Dragutin Dimitrijevic.

“I foresee Beograd becoming the electrical capital of Europe, and then the entire planet. We shall soon be able to send wireless electricity, as well as telegraph communications, everywhere in the country and then throughout the continent. The prospects ahead are unlimited. Science and imagination will join together to revolutionize all aspects of human existence. And our country will march in the forefront, leading the way.”

The future had never appeared so reachable to Nikola Tesla.

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