According to legend, explorer Christopher Columbus could make an egg stand on its end. (If you're curious and near a fridge, try it now before you read on.) Columbus demonstrated this in defence of his discovery of the New World. Surely if he hadn't found it, he was told, someone else would have. Historian Girolamo Benzoni wrote the tale in 1565:
Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said: 'Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain, which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.' Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said: 'My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.' They all tried without success and when they egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with the, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.
Nikola Tesla, I imagine, laughed when he heard this story almost 300 years later. He knew what to do.
At the Chicago's World Fair in 1893, Tesla demonstrated his constructed which he called the "Egg of Columbus." It was Columbus' trick, Version 2.0. Using a rotating magnetic field and an induction motor, he demonstrated how an egg (made of copper) was able to stand on its end—this time due to gyroscopic action.
Of course, even hearing the explanation and watching the demonstration with a reproduction of Tesla's Egg of Columbus at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, I still had no idea how to do it myself. I would have to stick to humble Columbus' low-tech version of the party trick. And it was clear much of I would hear at this museum would go right over my head.
I WAS IN BELGRADE ON NIKOLA TESLA'S 160TH BIRTHDAY (10 July 1856) and decided to go to his eponymous museum to celebrate and learn more about this man. While he was born in Croatia, Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor, and the whole city seemed proud to call him their own.
This tall and slim man, according to my tour guide, had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He was obsessed with the number three; his steps and touches had to be divisible by three. He was considered by some to fit the "mad scientist" stereotype. He had an eidetic memory. He ate dinner at the same time every night. He rarely slept. He was also obsessed with his work; he never married or owned a home because he felt it was too great of a responsibility, and he wanted to focus all his time on his work.
All that time and attention paid off. The list of his inventions and scientific breakthroughs is extensive, but his most famous invention is his coil. According to my tour guide, wifi, bluetooth, infrared technology—any modern technology that has two devices communicating wirelessly—all use Tesla's coil as a base. And this was invented around 125 years ago.
Besides pursuing the 12000 random artifacts from his life and respecting his ashes in a golden sphere (both of which make this the—self-proclaimed—most authentic Tesla museum in the world), the biggest draw is watching the demonstration of Tesla's coils.
A big group of us crowded around the coils. Some volunteers were given what looked like fluorescent lights to hold. They looked like giant glow sticks. They were carefully instructed to hold them vertical; it would be dangerous if the sticks leaned in too close to the coils. I elbowed my way up near the front, but not too close; I didn't know what to expect.
The machine started up, and soon those light sticks were actually glowing. What was happening? Something about current passing from the primary to the secondary coil until it creates a charge. Apparently, the primary coil receives a massive charge, creating a magnetic field, but that massive amount of energy causes the magnetic field to quickly collapse and generate a current in the secondary coil. This goes back and forth really quickly, until the charge in the secondary capacitor gets so high that it escapes in a burst of electric current. It's that current that was illuminating the fluorescent bulbs. (Thanks, LiveScience!)
And because we were lucky enough to be in Belgrade on Tesla's birthday, we would be able to witness the really really big demonstration at Kalemegdan Park near the Belgrade Fortress later that night. They did not exaggerate.
Tesla is enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days. While others often get the credit (ahem Edison, Marconi), Tesla's work was integral in creating many of the electrical devices we know and love today: the light bulb and radio. His renewed popularity since the 1990s probably has to do with his (credited) idea for our beloved smartphones way back in 1926. He envisioned a handheld device that could allow us to
communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.
But Tesla was no god. Like those inventors before and after him, he alone did not create these amazing wireless machines. If he hadn't thought of these ideas, maybe someone else would have. And just as Tesla improved Columbus' egg trick, so have others, like Elon Musk, improved upon his ideas. But it's pretty nice that this solitary visionary from the Balkans is becoming more well-known in today's wireless world.
The museum is located at Krunska 51, 11000 Beograd (Belgrade) and open from 10 am to 6 pm Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets are 500 dinars (about $5) for a guided tour in English—or free if you happen to be there on Tesla's birthday.