One may see the small value God has for riches by the people He gives them to.
We could all use a bit more cash. As Spike Milligan put it, “All I ask is a chance to prove money can’t make me happy.” Even Oscar Wilde ruefully admitted that it is “better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.” There are many ways to become rich—noble birth, fame, genius, hard work, good luck—but getting wealth is no guarantee of keeping it. Someone in the world today goes bankrupt every four seconds, and history is littered with extraordinary men and women who at first carried all before them but went to the grave unable to pay their own funeral expenses. Mozart, Rembrandt, and Napoleon all died without a penny to their names—although Napoleon simply ignored the technicalities, bequeathing millions of imaginary francs in his will. The father of printing, Johannes Gutenberg, was ruined by his own investor; Georges Méliès, the Frenchman who invented the cinema, was reduced to selling toys in a Paris railway station; Frank X. McNamara, creator of the first commercial credit card in 1949 and named by Life magazine as one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century, died broke, aged forty; and Billy Crapo Durant, founder of General Motors, ended up running a bowling alley.
For almost a hundred years after her death, Emma Hamilton (1765–1815), Nelson’s celebrated mistress, was airbrushed from the official record. She had tarnished the reputation of England’s most glorious hero, something the establishment could not possibly tolerate—even her own daughter refused to acknowledge her as her mother. From the most unpromising beginnings, she had risen to become not only wealthy but the most famous and glamorous woman of her age—only to lose it all in a mess of drink, debt, and bitter disappointment.
Emy Lyons was born in a hovel in Ness, a miserable coalmining hamlet in the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire, England. Her father, Henry, was a violent, heavy-drinking blacksmith who died within a month of her birth. During a drunken argument with her mother, he fell—or was pushed—fatally and Mary Lyons fled with her baby back to Hawarden in North Wales, where her family lived. The house, already full to overflowing, stank permanently of dung. The family horse provided the fuel they were too poor to buy. Emy slept with her mother on a straw pallet and as the youngest, and a girl, was always the last to be fed. She probably owed her life to the fact that Mary was having an affair with an unidentified man of means—probably a high-ranking servant at the local stately home—who would slip her food and money. As a result, Emma grew up tall, strong, and with lustrous black hair and a clear complexion.
Mother and daughter were very close, and although neither of them had ever been to school, they were both highly intelligent and resourceful. Throughout Emma’s golden years, her mother was always there in the background, acting as her confidante and personal assistant. When she left the claustrophobia of Hawarden to follow her lover to London, she took Emy with her and found her a suitable position in the capital. Though only twelve, Emy began work as a nursemaid to the children of a respectable doctor’s family in Blackfriars. It was here that she met Jane Powell, an aspiring actress, and the two became close friends. Then as now, the lure of the West End was strong, and when Emy was sacked for staying out all night in Covent Garden, she turned her back on domestic service to pursue a career in the theater. Starting on the lowest rung, as a maid to a wardrobe mistress in Drury Lane, she soon found something altogether more to her liking.
Late eighteenth-century London was the largest sex resort in the world. In the square half mile of St. James’s alone there were 900 full-blown brothels and 850 lesser whorehouses providing “entertainment for gentlemen.” Even in this broad-minded neighborhood, Dr. James Graham’s Temple of Health caused something of a stir. He was an unqualified, charismatic Scottish con man who, though remarkably enlightened on social issues such as slavery and women’s education—and a vegetarian to boot—knew that the serious money was in sex. The centerpiece of his business was the Celestial Bed, a huge ornate couch raised up on eight brass pillars, which looked (and sounded) like an unholy cross between a Greek temple and the orgasm-inducing Excessive Machine in Roger Vadim’s 1968 film Barbarella. It was a giant conception device. James Graham believed having healthy children was a patriotic duty, and what he promised was not just bedsprings, but offspring. Under a dome swirling with fragrant vapors and live doves, customers were surrounded by forty crystal pillars, mirrors offering a view from every possible angle, a frieze of erotic scenes, and pipes sparking with mysterious “electrical energy,” which were connected to five hundred magnets underneath the mattress. The bed, which could be tilted to reach the perfect angle for entry, delivered mild doses of “electrical fire” designed to promote “superior ecstasy” in a woman, which guaranteed conception. It also incorporated an organ whose tunes reached a crescendo in time to the occupant’s exertions. It cost £50 a night (about $5,250 in today’s money) and was patronized by some of the great men of the day, including the Prince of Wales and the noted parliamentarians Charles James Fox and John Wilkes. The whole experience kicked off with a seductive live show of scantily clad goddesses, who danced suggestively around the bed. One of them was young Emma Lyons, whose striking, straight-nosed classical profile was to make her a star.
Despite all the publicity, Graham proved to be a poor businessman. After running out of money he became a born-again Christian, convinced that human health (and God) were best served by fasting and “earth bathing.” He delivered public sermons in Charing Cross, buried up to his neck in a vat of soil. Emma moved on to Madame Kelly’s, the most prestigious whorehouse in St. James’s, where her erotic dancing bewitched the MP for Portsmouth and notorious brothel frequenter, Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh. Sir Harry bought her freedom and installed her as his mistress in a cottage near his huge country estate Uppark, in Sussex. Still only fifteen, Emma worked as a maid during the day and danced naked on the table for his friends in the evening. It was one of these friends, the Honorable Charles Greville, MP for Warwick, who stepped in after the oafish and intolerant Featherstonehaugh threw her out when, to her horror, she found she was with child. Greville was mesmerized by Emma and offered to take her on as his permanent mistress, as long as she refused to see other men. Pregnant and destitute, she leaped at the chance. She moved into his London house in Paddington as “Emma Hart” and was joined by her mother, who now called herself Mrs. Cadogan. The baby—a girl, also called Emma—was hurriedly fostered and her existence kept a secret.
This domestic arrangement worked well for a while, but Greville couldn’t help showing off Emma’s beauty to others. A connoisseur of painting and sculpture, he arranged for her to pose as an artist’s model. Her loveliness and poise so enchanted his friend, the rising portrait painter George Romney, that he became obsessed, producing more than sixty paintings of her in various poses until her image was famous all over Britain. She is still, in fact, the most painted Englishwoman of all time. But Emma was not only pretty, she was spirited, bright, and altogether delightful. Greville’s plans to keep her as his private mistress were swept away by the arrival of a social sensation, whose exquisite good looks were matched by a direct and witty sensuality. Emma Hart was soon lusted over by gentlemen from London to Leeds.
This was a disaster for Greville. He was not a wealthy man—he had started hiring Emma out as a model for pocket money—and he needed to find a wife with a substantial dowry. That wasn’t going to happen with Emma hogging the limelight on every social occasion. She had become particularly matey with Greville’s uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples, whom she called Pliny because of his passion for antiquities, and he called her the fair tea-maker of Edgware Row in return. Greville hatched a plan to transfer his mistress to his uncle in return for his wiping out a considerable debt. Telling Emma she was to visit Sir William for a holiday, he packed her off to Naples and several months later wrote, making it clear he didn’t want her back. She was devastated, writing him a stream of angry and imploring letters until, once more, she succumbed to pragmatism. Life in Naples, after all, was civilized and glamorous and she was feted for her beauty wherever she went. Sir William was sweet natured and devoted; his household was renowned for its lavish hospitality and aristocratic good taste. She soon became his mistress and then in 1791, much to the surprise of his friends, his wife.
“Am I Emma Hamilton? It seems nearly impossible!” The pauper-turned-prostitute, who still spoke with a pronounced northern accent, was now the wife of an ambassador. Hamilton, thirty-four years her senior, was delighted. “It has often been remarked that a reformed rake makes a good husband. Why not vice versa?” Emma became both a favorite of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (the sister of Marie Antoinette) and a fixture in the highest echelons of Neapolitan society. She had reached the very top of the social ladder, mixing with royalty and many of the great artists and thinkers of the day. This stirred Emma’s ambition: She wasn’t content merely to fulfill her role as hostess and dutiful wife. She was a performer at heart and wanted to create something new, something only she could do. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Calling on her experience as a model for George Romney and Sir Joshua Reynolds, she developed what she called her “Attitudes,” a series of evolving tableaux in which she transformed herself into great women from history. With Sir William providing a narrative and accompanied by music, she began her performances draped in Indian shawls, gradually divesting herself till she was revealed in only a figure-hugging “chemise of white muslin, her fine black hair flowing in ringlets over her shoulders.” Ariadne would merge into Medea, Medea into Cleopatra, and so on. For some it was little more than a classy striptease; for others, it was as if the history of Western painting had come to life. In his Italian Journey, Goethe writes of being captivated by this “young English girl … with a beautiful face and perfect figure.”
The spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would have liked to express realized before him in movements and surprising transformations, standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining, serious, sad, playful, ecstatic, contrite, alluring, threatening, anxious, one pose follows another without a break…. As a performance it’s like nothing you ever saw before in your life.
Lady Hamilton’s “Attitudes” caused a sensation. The grace and presence that had distinguished her from the other tarts capering around the Celestial Bed in London’s red-light district propelled her to international stardom. She became one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions, inspiring copycat performances all over the Continent. Even her critics were impressed: The society diarist Mrs. St. George noted how “graceful and beautiful” Emma’s costumes were, though she couldn’t help adding caustically, “her usual dress is tasteless, loaded, vulgar and unbecoming.” Vulgar or not, back in London, Lady Hamilton fever took hold. Her trademark white crepe and satin dresses were all the rage. The Times bemoaned the padded bosoms that went with them, blustering that they had “lowered the character of many young ladies.” People were at once fascinated and appalled, and the gossipmongers and caricaturists had a field day. But for Emma Hamilton, it had only just begun.
She met Horatio Nelson by chance in 1793. He was forty, already renowned for his leadership and tactical flair, but not yet a commander of the fleet. Europe, still reeling from the shock of the French Revolution, was on the brink of war. Captain Nelson had been sent to recruit troops from King Ferdinand IV of Naples to reinforce the port of Toulon, then held by the British but threatened by a French force that included a young artilleryman called Napoleon Bonaparte. Nelson hit it off splendidly with the Hamiltons and Emma flirted with him as she did with everyone else. But a definite impression was made on both sides.
They weren’t to meet again for five years. By then, Emma had grown seriously porky. In 1796 Sir Gilbert Elliott, the Viceroy of Corsica, remarked: “Her person is nothing short of monstrous for its enormity, and is growing every day.” The famous hostess Lady Elgin was crisper: “She is indeed a Whapper!” A Swedish diplomat was distinctly undiplomatic: “She is the fattest woman I’ve ever laid eyes on, but with the most beautiful head.”
When Nelson returned to Naples in 1798, he was a hero. His victory at the Battle of the Nile had saved the city from a French invasion. Emma wrote to him in breathless anticipation:
I walk and tread in the air with pride, feeling I was born in the same land with the victor Nelson…. For God’s sake come to Naples soon…. My dress from head to foot is alla Nelson…. Even my shawl is in Blue with gold anchors all over. My earrings are Nelson’s anchors; in short, we are be-Nelsoned all over.
The “be-Nelsoning” grew ever more fervent as the victor approached, and the outpouring of joy as his ship entered harbor was close to hysterical. Nelson’s travails had aged him visibly; one eye was damaged beyond repair and he was suffering from the effects of a head injury. If Nelson noticed that Emma was plumper than he remembered, he never mentioned it. She assumed the role of his nurse, Sir William threw him parties, and the three of them quickly became inseparable. So began a ménage à trois (they preferred the more sophisticated Latin, tria juncta in uno) that would last until Sir William’s death in 1803.
By the end of 1798 King Ferdinand’s Neapolitan army had disintegrated in the face of French aggression, and Nelson was charged with escorting the royal family and their friends to safety in Sicily. On the way, they sailed into the worst storm Nelson could remember. He was amazed by Emma’s courage, in contrast to the complete panic of his other distinguished passengers. As Sir William prepared to shoot himself rather than drown, Emma gently tended the king’s young son, who had gone into convulsions and later died in her arms. By the time they reached Palermo, the flirtation had become a torrid affair. Emma and Nelson dropped all pretense of decorum, entering into a nonstop round of drinking, gambling, and late-night partying that only ended with Nelson’s recall to London.
By early 1800 Emma was pregnant with his child and Nelson had formally separated from his wife, Fanny, leaving her to fend for herself in Norfolk. He bought Merton Place, a ramshackle property on the outskirts of Wimbledon, and Emma started doing it up. She designed it as a home fit for a hero—as well as a hero’s mistress, a hero’s mistress’s husband, and a hero’s mistress’s mother. Emma’s taste wouldn’t have looked out of place in People magazine. The effect was a queasy cross between a celebrity mansion in Beverly Hills and a maritime museum:
The whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of her and him, of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour.
The vulgarity and brazenness of it all provided an unprecedented feast for the popular press. Everything was avidly dissected in minute detail. In January 1801, Emma gave birth to twins, but only one survived. To avoid any doubt over the girl’s origins, the proud parents named her Horatia. Then, in a halfhearted attempt at discretion, they added the surname Thompson, the nom de plume used by Nelson in his secret correspondence with Emma. Polite society was shocked: “She leads him about like a keeper with a bear,” commented one affronted hostess. Even Nelson’s closest friends were traumatized. Sir Gilbert Elliot, now Lord Minto, wrote angrily:
Nothing shall ever induce me to give the smallest countenance to Lady Hamilton…. She is high in looks, but more immense than ever. She goes on cramming Nelson with trowelfuls of flattery, which he goes on taking as quietly as a child does pap. The love she makes to him is not only ridiculous, but disgusting.
Nelson and Emma were oblivious, busy making the most of their brief moments together. As she wrote to a friend:
I love him, I adore him, my mind and soul is now transported with the thought of that blessed ecstatic moment when I shall see him, embrace him…. I must sin on and love him more than ever. It is a crime worth going to Hell for.
Eventually, even the gentle, indulgent Sir William lost patience. By the end of 1802, he was warning Emma that he might have to consider a separation if things continued as they were. But in the spring of the following year, he died, much as he had recently lived, in his wife’s arms, holding Nelson’s hand. More or less at once, the war with France demanded Nelson’s attention again and he was on the high seas when little Emma, his second daughter, was born. She lived only a few days and her grief-stricken mother had to pay double for the undertaker to keep the details out of the press. The loneliness and the long separations from Nelson began to tell on Emma. She took to drinking heavily again, and gambling, and the debts soon mounted up. Nelson knew nothing of all this. He was fired by his love for her. “If there were more Emmas,” he wrote, “there would be more Nelsons.”
In September 1805, after barely a month’s leave, the newly created Viscount Nelson left home for the last time. Five weeks later, he fell at Trafalgar in the midst of his greatest victory. He was already the most famous man in England, and the deluge of public grief at his death was like nothing the country had ever seen. Emma retired to bed for three weeks, utterly bereft, but the powers that be had done with her and took their revenge. Ignoring Nelson’s specific requests in his will and on his deathbed for the nation to “look after Lady Hamilton” and to allow her to sing at his funeral, they didn’t even invite Emma to the ceremony.
Worse was to come. Emma had inherited Merton Place and a small annual income for its upkeep, but already spending more than she earned, she felt duty-bound to continue decorating it obsessively. Pursued by creditors, blackmailed by family members and former servants, shunned by many of Nelson’s friends, her facade of wealth quickly began to crumble. Within three years of the admiral’s death, she owed £15,000, about $1.5 million at today’s value. The house went up for sale, but the market was at its worst point in a generation and buyers were put off by the bizarre nautical decor.
On January 14, 1809, Emma’s mother died. Apart from being an emotional body blow, the funeral costs stretched her credit to breaking point. Then her private correspondence with Nelson was stolen and published, destroying the last vestiges of support from public opinion. A few remaining friends rallied around with gifts, loans, and advice but it was never enough. In 1813 she was arrested and taken to the King’s Bench Debtors’ Prison in Southwark. Granted parole to live in nearby lodgings, Emma and Horatia escaped to France. They arrived in Calais in August 1814, with just £50 to their names. They found a shabby two-room apartment in the center of town, where Emma went back to bed and methodically drank herself to death. Horatia, then just thirteen, was smuggled back to England dressed as a boy and fostered by a family in Burnham Market in Norfolk, barely a mile from where her father had been born. She lived out the rest of her life uneventfully, marrying the handsome local vicar and raising a large family. The children’s mysterious grandmother was never mentioned.
Emma was not without her faults, but she didn’t deserve the vilification and neglect she endured after Nelson’s death—or after her own. Doing her best to survive a succession of self-regarding lovers, she was no mere gold digger. By the time she met Nelson, Emma was already famous, and the intensity and depth of their relationship went far beyond sexual intoxication. Nelson had lost his mother young. Emma, increasingly maternal in shape, was warm, witty, and endlessly adoring. She filled the emotional hole his mother’s death had left and gave him the solid platform he needed. A happy Nelson was an unbeatable naval commander, as the nation came to realize. They made a contented and generous couple, and if their infatuation seemed desperate at times, it should be remembered that in the seven years of their relationship, they spent only two and a half years together.
Emma Hamilton’s reputation has recovered considerably since the Victorians. During World War II, Churchill calculated that the morale-boosting film Lady Hamilton (1942), starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, was worth four divisions. And although she died in penury, Emma Hamilton was a remarkable woman. As the Morning Post obituary reminded its readers at the time: “Few women, who have attracted the notice of the world at large, have led a life of more freedom.”
If Emma Hamilton was destroyed by love and war, Dr. John Dee (1527–1609) was reduced to poverty by magic. One of the most brilliant men of his age, he would have called himself a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and seeker after truth. History remembers him as the archetypal magician, the model for countless fictional characters from Prospero in The Tempest to Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. And he certainly looked the part.
He had a very faire cleare rosie complexion; a long beard as white as milke. He was tall and slender; a very handsome man…. He wore a black gowne like an Artist’s gown, with hanging sleeves and a slitt.
The seventeenth-century diarist John Aubrey got this description from an old woman who knew Dr. Dee in his final years. Add this to the personal possessions he left behind—conjuring table, crystal ball, gold amulet, obsidian mirror—and it’s easy to see how he got his reputation. But just because John Dee looked like a wizard, it doesn’t necessarily mean he was one.
Today we would call him a scientist, though the word science didn’t exist then, and didn’t appear in anything like its modern meaning until 1725. In the sixteenth century, those who sought to identify the rules of nature were called natural philosophers. Like Pythagoras, John Dee believed that the universe was written in the language of mathematics (which he called a ravishing persuasion). His most important “scientific” legacy was to edit and introduce (in 1570) the first English translation of the most successful textbook ever written, Euclid’s Elements.
Dee was a Neoplatonist. He thought that everything—both matter and spirit—was interconnected and that the physical world was merely the external manifestation of an intangible realm of “forms,” in which all real chairs, for example, emanate from the idea of a chair. Dee called these ideal forms the pure verities, and he thought that if the laws by which they operate could be found, a universal religion, uniting all people in a single faith, would follow.
For Dee and many of his contemporaries, scientific inquiry, pure and applied mathematics, philosophy, and what we would call magic were all aspects of the same search for truth. Like modern physicists, Dee was looking for a Theory of Everything: something that made sense of all the observable facts. For men of his age, alchemy (forerunner of chemistry) and astrology (indistinguishable in Renaissance times from astronomy) were just as “scientific” as geometry. And before pointing out the “obvious flaw” that these things aren’t “true,” remember that it was men like Dee, probing the unknown in search of invisible forces, who laid the groundwork for Newton and Faraday, without whom we would have no understanding of gravity or electricity.
The challenge, then as now, was how to fund a life of pure research. Dee lived in an age of superstition and paranoia. He was a devout Protestant at a time when the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe was at its height and the fledgling Church of England still in turmoil. Any new ideas might easily be denounced as witchcraft or blasphemy and punished by imprisonment or death. Royal patronage was essential and young Dee was luckily well placed to take advantage of this. His father was a cloth merchant and “gentleman sewer” at the court of Henry VIII, so Dee was educated well, at Chelmsford grammar school and St. John’s College, Cambridge. He performed brilliantly, especially in mathematics and Greek, establishing the work pattern he would maintain throughout his life: eighteen hours of study, four hours for sleep, and two set aside for meals. It was at the university that he was first, quite absurdly, accused of witchcraft. For a production of Aristophanes’ comedy Peace he had built an impressively realistic giant mechanical beetle that carried one of the actors up to the “heavens” in the Great Hall at Trinity College, terrifying some of the more unsophisticated members of the audience. Dee cleared his name but left Cambridge in disgust, determined to pursue his studies abroad.
From 1548 to 1551, Dee built a reputation as one of Europe’s leading scholars. His lectures on Euclid in Paris attracted large and appreciative audiences. He met the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who told him of the revolutionary theories of Copernicus, and he became close friends with the cartographer Gerard Mercator, working with him to develop a new set of tools for making accurate maps. He also began to collect books; this would remain a lifelong passion. Dee amassed more than four thousand volumes, the largest library of any kind in Europe, and twenty times as many books as were held at Cambridge University. The breadth of his interests is astonishing. From magic to mathematics, subjects included the Church in Armenia, botany, chastity, demonology, dreams, earthquakes, Etruria, falconry, games, gymnastics, horticulture, Islam, logic, marriage, mythology, the nobility, oils, pharmacology, rhetoric, saints, surveying, tides, veterinary science, weather, women, and zoology.
Dee was offered the job of scholar-in-residence at several European courts but turned them all down to return to England as the teenage King Edward VI’s special adviser on “philosophical” (i.e., scientific) matters. This came with an annual pension of a hundred crowns and guaranteed him lucrative additional work tutoring the sons of senior courtiers, such as the Duke of Northumberland. This was the perfect outcome for Dee, providing financial security to enable him to continue his studies, and a position at the center of things with a chance to put his theories into practice. This happy state of affairs lasted just two years. The accession of the Catholic queen Mary brought a wholesale purging of the court’s inner circle, and in 1555 Dee was arrested and charged with casting horoscopes for the queen’s sister, Princess Elizabeth, and “conspiring by enchantment” to subvert the queen herself. His main accuser was George Ferrers, once a rival stage designer and no doubt jealous of Dee’s talent. Soon after Dee’s arrest, one of the Ferrers children dropped dead and another was struck blind. This hardly helped Dr. Dee’s reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts, but he defended himself eloquently and Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, cleared him of heresy. Dee was released, and eager to prove himself a scholar not a sorcerer, he made a detailed proposal to the queen for establishing a national library, gathering together all the books and manuscripts scattered during her father’s dissolution of the monasteries. It was a bold and ambitious plan and would have turned England into the research powerhouse of Europe. Mary listened politely but declined.
Meanwhile Dee’s father, Rowland, had lost his position at court and all his assets had been stripped, leaving his son without an inheritance. Dee returned to Europe, where his services as an astrologer could be charged at a much higher premium than in England. At the same time, he discovered the works of the hermetic philosopher Cornelius Agrippa, which quickened his interest in alchemy. When Mary died in 1558, Queen Elizabeth offered him his old job back, though at a substantially lower rate of pay, which caused Dee great annoyance. He came back all the same, becoming one of her most trusted advisers, and even casting the horoscope to select the date for her coronation.
Over the next decade Dee made many practical contributions to public life. He was the first person to apply geometry to navigation and trained many of the great navigators of the age both to read maps and to make them. He also prepared the intellectual and legal case for Britain’s expansion into the New World, coming up with justifications that stretched back into the mythical past, in particular the supposed discovery of North America by the Welsh prince Madog in 1170. He was the first person to use the phrase “British Empire,” and the first to suggest a voyage to map the Northwest Passage that was believed to link the Atlantic and the Pacific. And he became a spy for the queen, going on secret missions to Europe and communicating by means of elaborate codes of his own devising. He signed his letters to her “007.” Dee was also summoned to the royal presence whenever something out of the ordinary occurred; on one occasion he was asked to comment on a wax effigy stuck with pig bristles that was found in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and on another he was asked to explain a “blazing star” that had appeared in the sky. His job under these circumstances was always to come up with plausible explanations that reduced rather than encouraged superstitious speculation.
We know very little of Dee’s personal life until 1577, when he started to keep a diary. It is one of the many paradoxes running through Dee’s life that the very scrupulousness that made him such a good scientist also furnished the evidence that was to damn his reputation. The diary is meticulous. From it we know that he was married for the second or (possibly) third time in 1578, to Jane Fromonds, a lady-in-waiting at Elizabeth’s court. He was fifty-one and she was twenty-three and she bore him eight children. The couple seem to have been devoted, in Dee’s case almost to the point of mania. The diary contains detailed, cryptic records of her periods, carefully logging not only when they occurred but also how heavy they were, whether the “show” was “small” or “abundant.” He also noted down when they had sex, giving not just the date, but also the time. But much more damaging is the revelation in the diary of Dee’s developing fixation with “angelic communication.”
In 1578 Dee’s beloved mother died, bequeathing him her house in Mortlake. He was an only child and they had lived under the same roof for most of his life. Perhaps as a result of this loss, and inspired by a sequence of strange and powerful dreams, he became entranced by the ethereal otherworld. Using his “scrying” mirror of polished black obsidian, rumored to be an Aztec treasure stolen by the conquistador Hernán Cortés himself, he attempted to make contact with the spirits. Nothing materialized. “I know I can not see, nor scry,” he confessed to his diary. A crystal he had tracked down from a collector of curiosities in Glastonbury seemed to provide tantalizing glimpses, but he struggled to “see” anything at all. So in 1582 he began using the services of a medium called Edward Talbott. Talbott was an unprepossessing man from Lancashire who always wore a cowl over his head to hide the fact that his ears had been cut off for counterfeiting. He had a basic grounding in alchemy from his time as an apothecary’s assistant and claimed to have the gift of divination. Almost at once, Talbott was able to summon up richly detailed visions for Dee. Most of them came via an “angel” called Madimi, who spoke a language called Enochian. According to Dee, she was “a spiritual creature, a pretty girl of seven to nine years of age, half angel and half elfin.” For Dee, there was nothing “occult” or un-Christian about these proceedings; indeed, he prepared for each session with prayer and fasting. He was delighted with the results and the two men formed a partnership, Talbott renaming himself Kelley to shroud his checkered past.
In the meantime, Dee continued at court as a successful practical scientist. In 1583 he devised a scheme to bring the English calendar into line with the astronomical one. It was even more accurate than the one Pope Gregory XIII had recently imposed on the rest of Europe, and the neatness of Dee’s math was widely admired, but the Archbishop of Canterbury blocked it: He saw it as capitulation to Rome. Later that year, the queen introduced Dee and Kelley to Prince Albrecht Łaski, a visiting Polish diplomat. He was keenly interested in the occult and invited them to bring their “philosophical experiments” to his country. Encouraged by the positive endorsement of their spirit guides, Dee, Kelley, and their families set off for Poland.
Over the next six years, the two Englishmen practiced astrology, alchemical experiments, and spiritual divination in the grand palaces of Europe. The king of Poland and the eccentric Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II (an ardent alchemist himself) were enthusiastic patrons. Dee and Kelley finally settled at the court of Count Rosenberg in Bohemia. Here, their waiflike angelic interlocutor Madimi suddenly evolved into Uriel, a full-breasted siren. She instructed Kelley that no further progress toward mystical enlightenment would be made until the two men shared everything, particularly their wives. Dee’s diary records his distress, not least because Jane had always professed to dislike Kelley, but he allowed the matrimonial exchange to take place as instructed. Soon afterward the spirit conversations ceased, the partnership broke up, and the Dees returned to England in 1588.
At first sight, it looks as if Kelley manipulated the whole thing. By playing on the spiritual ambitions of the elderly Dee, he had his way with his partner’s pretty young wife and then managed to be rid of them both. Certainly he got rich quite quickly after Dee left; for ten years he conned European monarchs into believing he could manufacture gold at will. In recognition of his work, he was even made a baron by Rudolf II. Eventually, however, the lack of any actual gold became something of an issue, and he died in 1589 attempting to climb out of a tower where the emperor had imprisoned him. But Dee’s diary tells a different story. Five weeks after what he called his Covenant with Kelley, Jane found she was pregnant. When the baby was born, the Dees and the Kelleys were reunited at the christening and the child named Theodore—“beloved of God.” Far from falling out, Dee and Kelley continued to correspond and Dee’s diary records his great sorrow on hearing of Kelley’s death. If that were not sufficient evidence, the Dees named their next daughter Madimi.
Meanwhile, on their return to Mortlake, the Dees found their house had been ransacked: many books and instruments had been stolen and a maid had used a collection of Dee’s scientific papers to line pie tins. The queen’s enthusiasm for Dee had cooled, doubtless fanned by gossip from the Continent, and the best position she could offer him was the wardenship of Christ’s College, a religious institution in Manchester. Not only was his income much reduced, but he found his authority with the Fellows undermined by constant mutterings about his being a conjuror. In 1603 Elizabeth died, and was replaced by James I, a man famously averse to witchcraft in all its forms. The following year Dee wrote to him professing his loyalty and reassuring him that “none of all the great number of the very strange and frivolous fables or histories reported and told of me are true.” The king didn’t even bother to reply.
The next year, plague swept though Manchester, pitilessly claiming the lives of Jane Dee, Theodore, Madimi, and all of John Dee’s younger children. He returned sorrowfully to Mortlake with his surviving daughter, Katherine. For the next four years, until his death, aged eighty-two, he lived in desperate poverty, selling his books one by one in order to eat. His only solace was to get back in touch with the angelic domain through a new medium called Bartholomew Hickman. It was at this point, at the very end of his life, that Goody Faldo of Mortlake (the old lady who described Dee to John Aubrey) met him when she was a young girl and fixed him forever as the white-bearded, black-gowned sage of legend. She told Aubrey he was the model for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist but also sweetly said of him: “He was a great peacemaker; if any of the neighbours fell out, he would never let them alone till he had made them friends.” Her final verdict was simple: “A mighty good man he was.”
Posterity is a fickle thing. Had John Dee’s diary and his book of spirit conversations, A True & Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, not been discovered and published by an enterprising bookseller in 1659, it is possible he would have been mainly remembered as a pioneering scientist alongside his close contemporary Sir Francis Bacon. He might have been discussed as the man who used geometry to map the globe, or as the greatest book collector of his age, rather than the wife swapper who talked to angels, the inspiration for the esoteric excesses of generations of self-styled magicians and occultists.
One such occultist, also a brilliant scientist, was born almost four hundred years later. Jack Parsons (1914–52), the maverick pioneer of American rocket technology, invoked Satan for the first time when he was only thirteen. He was born in Los Angeles on October 2, 1914, on the exact date that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had predicted the Apocalypse. Named Marvel by his father, Captain Marvel Whiteside Parsons of the U.S. Army, his mother always called him John or Jack. She had caught his father having an affair while she was pregnant and he played very little further role in the boy’s upbringing. Jack had a lonely childhood. His only real friend was Edward Forman, who shared his obsession with fireworks, science fiction, and the arcane. Together they pored over old books of incantations, enacting spells to jinx older boys who bullied them at school.
Jack and Edward dropped out of high school to join the Hercules Powder Company, a Californian armaments manufacturer. Jack’s unique talents as a self-taught explosives chemist soon got him a job with the “suicide squad,” a bunch of rocket-obsessed misfits at Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. By the outbreak of World War II this had evolved into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, backed by substantial military funding. Wernher von Braun later said it was not himself but Parsons who was the real father of the U.S. space program. Still only in his midtwenties, Jack created solid fuels that would be used in the Apollo space missions, and liquid binders later employed in the propulsion of Polaris missiles. He was regularly called as an explosives expert at courtroom trials. In the meantime, still fascinated by the black arts, before each experiment he would invoke the spirit of Pan, the horned pagan god of fertility.
When Parsons was twenty-eight, he and Forman and four colleagues formed their own rocket corporation, Aerojet Engineering. Parsons left after the war, selling his shares for just $11,000. Aerojet is still a major player in the industry, making the propulsion units on NASA’s space shuttle. Had Parsons kept his shares, he would have been a multimillionaire in less than a decade. Instead, he used the proceeds to start a Laundromat chain, which failed.
Parsons was never good with money and he was even less adept at managing his personal life. His relationship with his mother was intense and very probably incestuous. He was extremely good-looking, tall, and promiscuous, working his way through the secretarial pool at Aerojet, even though he had a physiological disorder that caused him to sweat profusely. He dealt with the resultant chronic body odor by dousing himself liberally in strong-smelling cologne. Opinions about Jack were divided. To some he was the office clown, “a delightful screwball”; to others he was dangerous, possibly even psychotic.
It was this darker side of his character that led him to fall in with the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), the so-called Templars of the East, a Masonic-style organization under the leadership of the mesmeric necromancer Aleister Crowley. Variously known as the Beast, 666, Frater Perdurabo, and Master Therion, Crowley claimed to be the reincarnation of John Dee, among many others. He had taken over the English-speaking arm of the order in 1912, when he discovered they already practiced some of the ancient Hindu “sex magick” rituals he was keen to revive. The essence of Crowley’s philosophy was the notion of thelema, translated as “do what thou wilt.” In his magnum opus, The Book of the Law (1925), he is at pains to point out that the “wilt” in question does not refer to mere egotistical willpower, but to the dictates of the true or inner soul. According to Crowley, thelemic practice, or “magick” (the k is important to differentiate it from stage magic), was a path to spiritual development, not sensual indulgence. Having said that, for the philosophy to flourish, participants needed to “de-condition” themselves from restrictive social inhibitions to allow the subconscious mind to express itself—essentially by having prodigious quantities of wild, abandoned sex.
Crowley had come to California in the early years of the war. He was almost seventy, broke, and addicted to heroin, and dependent on the generosity of wealthy young acolytes like Parsons, who embraced Crowley’s teachings wholeheartedly. In 1941 Jack and his wife, Helen, joined the Agape Lodge of the Order. The master of the lodge was an expatriate Englishman, Wilfred Smith, another legendary womanizer. He wrote to Crowley full of excitement about his new recruit: “I think I have at long last a really excellent man…. He has an excellent mind and much better intellect than myself.” Crowley agreed, and within a year he had installed Parsons himself as lodge master.
In 1942 Jack’s father died, leaving him a large house in one of the wealthiest suburbs in Pasadena. He and Helen moved in and turned it into a center for lodge activities, much to the annoyance of the neighbors. Parsons loved to play classical music at a very high volume and throw noisy parties. He would place advertisements in local newspapers offering rooms to “Bohemian types,” adding the requirement “Must not believe in God.” Police were called to the home on a number of occasions to investigate allegations of backyard rituals and sex orgies, but Parsons always managed to talk them down, reminding them of his place in the community as an eminent rocket scientist.
As they became more deeply involved in the cult, Jack and Helen agreed to divorce. She was having an affair with the former lodge master Wilfred Smith, and Jack had taken up with Helen’s eighteen-year-old sister, Sara, whom he renamed Betty. Jack encouraged Betty to take other lovers, as he did himself, claiming that as “superhumans,” they were above petty jealousy. One of Betty’s lovers was a young science-fiction writer called L. Ron Hubbard, who later went on to found the most successful alternative religion of all, Scientology. By early 1946 Ron Hubbard had moved in with Parsons and been fully initiated into the order. Parsons enlisted his help in enacting the most extreme of Crowley’s rituals, the birth of a “magickal child,” or Thelemic Messiah, who would usher in a new apocalyptic age. First, using the “Enochian” language recorded by John Dee and Edward Kelley, they had to summon up Babalon, the Goddess of Pleasure, so that she would incarnate before them as “the Scarlet Woman.” Over eleven nights Parsons invoked the goddess by masturbating furiously (“manipulating his magickal wand”) as Hubbard performed the role of scribe, recording the ritual in precise detail. A day after its completion, Marjorie Cameron, a beautiful redheaded artist, appeared on Parsons’s doorstep. “I have found my elemental,” Jack wrote exultantly to Crowley. He renamed her Candida (meaning “white” or “pure”) and she was initiated into the order and agreed to help Cameron produce his “moonchild.” They married soon after.
Meanwhile, Betty and L. Ron Hubbard talked Parsons into setting up a joint venture, Allied Enterprises, into which all three would pool their earnings. Parsons had already sunk most of his money into the lodge but put what was left—about $12,000—into the new company. Hubbard invested $1,200 and promptly disappeared with Betty to Miami, where he used all the Allied Enterprises capital to buy a pair of yachts. Jack, with nothing in his bank account, had to take a job at a gas station to pay for food. When he eventually tracked the couple down in Florida, they swiftly absconded on one of the boats. Furious, Parsons summoned up a storm (or so he claimed) at sea that forced them to return to port.
Jack sued Hubbard but got only part of his money back. He returned to Pasadena, resigned from the OTO, and broke with Crowley. Crowley was indifferent. He had regarded Parsons and Hubbard’s Babalon ritual as ridiculous and wrote to a friend despairing of the “idiocy of these goats.” Parsons seemed equally disillusioned:
Now it came to pass even as BABALON told me, for after receiving Her Book I fell away from Magick, and put away Her Book and all pertaining thereto. And I was stripped of my fortune (the sum of about $50,000) and my house, and all I Possessed. Then for a period of two years I worked in the world, recouping my fortune somewhat. But that was also taken from me, and my reputation, and my good name in my worldly work, that was in science.
The last sentence refers to his investigation by the FBI when he was under suspicion, not only for occult activities but also for associating with known communist sympathizers. This cost him his government clearance, which meant he could no longer work on official rocket projects. Financially ruined and pushed to the edge, he contemplated suicide, but then, with Candida’s support, he decided he was ready to go beyond even Crowley. He took the Oath of the Abyss and declared himself the Antichrist.
This sounds ludicrously overdramatic, but Parsons’s idea of the Apocalypse was different from the one in the Bible. In fact, it reads more like a vision of the countercultural movements that would sweep America in the 1960s.
An end to the pretense and lying hypocrisy of Christianity. An end to the servile virtues, and superstitious restrictions. An end to the slave morality. An end to prudery and shame, to guilt and sin, for these are of the only evil under the sun, that is fear. An end to all authority that is not based on courage and manhood, to the authority of lying priests, conniving judges, blackmailing police, and an end to the servile flattery and cajolery of mods, the coronations of mediocrities, the ascension of dolts.
Jack Parsons, “the James Dean of the Occult,” never got to see his satanic Utopia. By early 1952 he had begun to manufacture bootleg explosives at home. He and Candida planned to move down to Mexico to create one that was “more powerful than anything yet invented.” Before they left, on June 17, 1952, Parsons, sweaty-palmed as ever, accidentally dropped a vial of the extremely volatile compound known as fulminate of mercury. The explosion blew off his entire right forearm, broke his other arm and both legs, and ripped a hole in his jaw. It was heard more than a mile away. Parsons died an hour later, protesting: “I wasn’t done.” Shortly after hearing the news, his mother committed suicide.
Marjorie “Candida” Cameron went on to become a successful painter and actress in avant-garde films. She is sometimes cited as the inspiration behind the Eagles song “Hotel California.” In recognition of his work on the space program, Parsons had a crater named after him on the moon—on the dark side, naturally.
In 1946 Parsons, a great believer in UFOs, claimed to have met a Venusian in the Mohave Desert. Venusians were very much in fashion at the time and it was only a couple of years since the death of the Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), who some believed had been sent from Venus to modernize earthly technology. Tesla was one of the great innovators of the modern age, often so far ahead of his time that he might as well have been from another planet. Honored as “the man who invented the twentieth century” and nicknamed “the patron saint of electricity” for developing the alternating current system that underpins all today’s electrical networks, he held more than seven hundred patents in his lifetime, for innovations in electromagnetics, robotics, remote control, radar, ballistics, and nuclear physics. He invented the Tesla coil, which gave us radio, X-ray tubes, and fluorescent light. Some of his ideas were so advanced that science has still not caught up with them, and his almost extraterrestrial gifts as a scientist were matched by a strange and otherworldly personality. If John Dee and Jack Parsons fall into the category of madly brilliant eccentrics, Nikola Tesla is in a class of his own.
Were he born today he would be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, with a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But those labels weren’t available in the mid-nineteenth century. Mental illness was put down to “nerves” or “hysteria,” and real oddities were either tolerated or committed to the asylum. Tesla’s peculiarities meant that the scientific community would never truly come to accept him, nor did he receive either the acclaim or the financial rewards his work should have commanded.
He was born into a Serbian family in Smiljan, then part of Austro-Hungary, now in Croatia: It was his proud boast to be both Serbian and Croatian. The fourth of five children, he recalled his early years as exceptionally happy, growing up in the country surrounded by farm animals. Later in life he would tell how it was witnessing the sparks generated by stroking the family cat that made him want to understand what electricity was. “Eighty years have gone by since,” he wrote, “and I still ask the same question, unable to answer it.” The Teslas were a clever family, blessed with exceptional memories, and Tesla’s father, Milutin, a Serbian Orthodox priest and poet, devised mental exercises to keep his children’s minds supple and alert. He had an impressive library of books but said it wouldn’t matter if he lost them because he had memorized the classics by heart. Tesla’s mother Duka was barely able to read but could recite thousands of verses of Serb sagas and long passages from the Bible. Her needlework was famously intricate—using only her fingers, Tesla claimed, she could tie three knots in an eyelash. She also improvised ingenious labor-saving devices, even constructing her own mechanical eggbeater. “I must trace to my mother’s influence,” Tesla wrote, “whatever inventiveness I possess.”
The great tragedy of Tesla’s youth was the death of his older brother, Dane, in a riding accident. Nikola was only five, but he had vivid nightmares about it for the rest of his childhood. A conscientious, sensitive boy, he felt his parents’ grief keenly, and no matter how hard he worked, he was conscious that he could never make up for the loss of his brilliant sibling. Dane and Nikola shared at least one outstanding talent: the ability to visualize things in precise, three-dimensional detail. Vivid images of memorable or traumatic events would return to Tesla at any time of night or day, often accompanied by flashes of light, and refuse to disappear. “Sometimes they would remain fixed in space even though I pushed my hand through them,” he recalled. Though distressing for a child, this pictorial clarity would be very useful to him as an inventor.
Young Nikola was hopelessly accident-prone and had several brushes with death. He fell headlong into a kettle of boiling milk, nearly drowned after swimming under a raft, was almost swept over a waterfall at one of the nearby dams, and suffered serious bouts of both malaria and cholera. These shocks provoked a general sense that the world was out to get him, and worsened the long list of obsessions he suffered from:
I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever by looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house it caused me the keenest discomfort. I counted the steps in my walks and calculated the cubical contents of my soup plates, coffee cups and pieces of food, otherwise my meal was unenjoyable. All repeated acts or operations I performed had to be divisible by three and if I missed I felt impelled to do it all over again even if it took hours.
At nineteen Tesla went to study electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. He was an astonishing student, able to solve mathematical problems almost before his teachers had finished writing the formulas on the blackboard. In his spare time, he taught himself five languages, committed large chunks of Goethe and Shakespeare to memory, and plowed his way through the complete works of Voltaire. “I learned, to my dismay, that there were close on one hundred large volumes in small print which that monster had written while drinking seventy-two cups of black coffee per diem.” Like John Dee, he set himself a punishing work schedule, studying for up to twenty hours a day and sleeping less than three hours a night. He also indulged in more traditional student pursuits: drinking, smoking, gambling to excess, and, briefly, falling in love with a girl called Anna. This period of his life came to an abrupt end when he lost all the money his father had sent him for his studies in a card game. Deeply ashamed at what he had done, he gave up gambling and smoking for good and forswore all further contact with women.
While at Graz, Tesla encountered the Gramme dynamo, the cutting edge of electrical engineering at the time. It was a dual-purpose machine that when supplied with mechanical energy generated electricity, and when supplied with electrical energy could be used as a motor to drive things. Tesla was enchanted by it but puzzled by its constant sparking. The basic principle of generating electricity by “induction”—introducing a rotating wire into a magnetic field—had first been described by Michael Faraday forty years earlier. The electricity Faraday had produced was called “alternating current,” because it continually switched direction as the electrons in the rotating wire swept past first the north and then the south pole of the magnet. In order to produce useful electricity, this alternating current had to be converted into direct current, similar to the electricity produced by a battery, where the electrons all flow in one direction, from the positive to the negative terminal. To achieve this, a switch, called a commutator, short-circuited the generator at each half spin so that the current continued its flow in the same direction. This shorting was what caused the dynamo to spark. Tesla thought this an overly complex, even clumsy solution. Why not find a way of harnessing the alternating current, he asked? His professors laughed at him, pointing out that it would be tantamount to producing a perpetual motion machine. Early attempts to produce motors with alternating current had been dismal failures.
Tesla never completed his degree. In 1881 he moved to Budapest and found work as a telephone engineer. This suited him much better than academia, and it was during this time that he came up with his first invention, a kind of early loudspeaker. Toward the middle of that year, Tesla began to suffer from a peculiar condition: a multiple sensory overload where sunlight blinded him, the ticking of a watch sounded like the blows of a hammer, vibrations from traffic made him lose his balance, and his pulse spiked and plummeted wildly. His doctors were baffled and at one point thought they would lose him, but then it stopped, as suddenly as it had started. Soon afterward, walking in the park as he was convalescing, and reciting a passage from Goethe’s Faust to a friend, he had an epiphany:
As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick in the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Engineers. The images were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal.
What he had seen that afternoon was to change the world. It was a detailed vision of the electrical Holy Grail, the alternating current motor. His solution was brilliantly simple: to rotate the magnetic field as well as the coil and instead of a single circuit, to have two, but each timed differently so that like the firing of pistons in a combustion engine, when one was down the other would be up, and the forward momentum of the motor would be maintained. No sparks, no loud vibrations—and the motor’s motion was reversible. Tesla had literally “seen” the future. But his vision went even deeper. His recent illness had made him sensitive to both light and vibration. Now he saw the connection between the two. Alternating current produced a frequency, a wave, as the electrons whizzed backward and forward. It was a relatively low-frequency wave, but light was also a wave, a vibration, though at a far higher frequency. Suddenly the whole universe was revealed as a vast symphony of electrical vibration. And if this alternating current could be transformed into usable power, what might be achieved if he harnessed the potential of those higher frequencies? Exploring the implications of this insight would dominate the rest of his life.
In 1884 the twenty-eight-year-old Tesla turned up at Thomas Edison’s office in New York with four cents and some Serbian poems in his pocket. He had spent the previous two years working for Edison’s company in Paris, and built his first alternating current (AC) motor there in his spare time. Now he was ready to share it with the world. He handed over a letter from his employer in Paris, Charles Batchelor. Addressed to Edison, it said, simply: “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”
Edison wasn’t interested in Tesla’s ideas about AC power; he was building direct current (DC) generators. These were proven to work and his customers liked them. It was Tesla himself who intrigued him. He was an exotic figure: 6 feet 4 inches tall, a cultured, poetry-loving European, always immaculately dressed in morning coat, spats, and gloves. Edison was a shambolic mess of a man who cut his own hair and wore the same food-spattered black clothing every day. About the only thing they had in common was the capacity to survive on virtually no sleep. Tesla’s spooky ability to know the answer to mathematical problems halfway through the question and to conjure phantom engineering diagrams from thin air were in marked contrast to Edison’s “99 percent perspiration” approach. As Tesla would later remark: “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.” But Edison was a shrewd judge of people and had had plenty of practice in turning their ideas into his own money. He hired Tesla for the miserly sum of $18 a week, promising a $50,000 bonus if the young Serb could find a way to make the company’s temperamental DC generator system more efficient.
Tesla set to the task with his customary application. At first, he was in awe of his new boss. When Edison told him he ate Welsh rarebit every day to increase his IQ, Tesla took the joke to heart and ate barely anything else for weeks. He found Edison’s sense of humor a lot less amusing when, almost a year later, having solved the problem of the DC generator, Edison refused to pay his bonus: “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.” He offered him a raise to $25 per week instead. It was a mistake Edison would live to regret. Tesla was incandescent with rage and resigned, spending the next year earning his living as a laborer (ironically at one point digging ditches for Edison’s expanding network of DC cables) and working on his inventions at night.
By early 1887 Tesla had saved enough money to register seven patents covering the full range of AC generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors, and lighting. These were awarded unopposed and would become the most valuable patents registered since the telephone. At a stroke, they solved the thorny problem of long-range power distribution. Direct current required a generator to be located within a mile of where the electricity was being used and was inconveniently inflexible: electricity from the same DC generator couldn’t be used to run machines requiring different voltages. To increase the voltage in a direct current circuit meant also increasing the amperage, which meant thicker copper wire and greater loss of energy through heat. With Tesla’s AC solution, power could be generated at a low voltage, then, using a simple device called a transformer, it could be “stepped up” for transmission and “stepped down” again at the customer’s house or business premises. Taking the analogy of a water pipe—the higher the pressure (voltage), the farther and faster the same amount of water (electrical energy) will travel, but the hose attachments (transformers) will determine how that water is used at the other end. The elegant simplicity of Tesla’s system attracted the attention of Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse. He hired Tesla, purchased his patents for $60,000, and agreed to pay him royalties of $2.50 for every horsepower of AC electricity sold.
Whether or not Edison saw the writing on the wall, he knew that Tesla and Westinghouse had to be stopped. His war machine rumbled into action. His line of attack was that AC was dangerous. While direct current was “like a river flowing peacefully to the sea,” he alleged, alternating current was “a torrent rushing violently over a precipice.” To make his point in the most brutal way, he began using AC to electrocute animals in public. Twenty-four dogs (bought from local children for 25 cents each), two calves, a horse, and Topsy—a zoo elephant that had killed its keeper—were all “Westinghoused.” Scenting blood, Edison developed the electric chair, secretly acquiring three Tesla generators to make it happen. The first person to die by legal electrocution was messily dispatched using AC at Auburn, New York, in 1890. “They could have done better using an ax,” commented Westinghouse dryly. But Tesla and Westinghouse got their revenge by underbidding Edison for the contract to light the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the world’s first major “all-electric” event. Thanks to Tesla’s AC system, Westinghouse could quote a price that was less than half of Edison’s, because so much less copper wire was needed. Edison retaliated by refusing to supply them with Edison lightbulbs, but the game was up. Twenty-seven million people visited the Fair, and from that moment on, 80 percent of all electrical devices bought in the United States were AC. In 1898 the final nail was hammered into DC’s coffin when Westinghouse and Tesla built the world’s first hydroelectric plant, harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to generate alternating current and piping it the seventeen miles to their new power station in Buffalo, New York.
Tesla had used the money Westinghouse had paid him for his patents to set up a lab on West Houston Street in New York City, and the 1890s were a decade of creative overdrive for him. He discovered X-rays three years before Wilhelm Roentgen and was the first to point out their biological risks. He devised the first radio-wave transmitter two years before Marconi and he invented and patented radio control, demonstrating the first radio-controlled boat in Madison Square Garden in 1898. Having mastered the transmission of AC by wire, by the end of the decade he was sending it through space without wires. Showing unexpected talents as a showman, he would enthrall and horrify audiences at public demonstrations by running hundreds of thousands of volts through his own body, lighting electric bulbs from a distance while flames shot from his head and his hands sparked. In 1899 he moved his lab to Colorado Springs to unveil his pièce de résistance. This, he believed, of all of his inventions, would prove the “most important and valuable to future generations.” It was a massive “magnifying transmitter” able to send radio waves and electricity through the air over long distances. At 51 feet in diameter it could generate 4 million volts, and light two hundred lamps, without wires, from twenty-five miles away. Even more astounding, he used it to make artificial lightning, generating electrical flashes more than 130 feet long. In 1900 the banker J. P. Morgan agreed to invest $150,000 in an even bigger wireless transmitter, the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island. Tesla’s plan was global: to unite telephone and telegraph systems in a single wireless network, transmitting pictures and text from one side of the globe to the other in minutes, and delivering mail between special terminals, using electronic messaging. He had, in effect, envisioned the World Wide Web a hundred years early, not only with universal wi-fi, but one where computers could operate without batteries and would never need to be plugged in.
Tesla was forty-four at this point and almost exactly halfway through his life, when, at the peak of his fame and influence, things began to unravel. In 1903 Morgan pulled out of Wardenclyffe, claiming Tesla had sold it to him as a radio transmitter, and betraying a complete lack of understanding of the potential of Tesla’s vision. In 1904 the U.S. Patent Office incorrectly awarded Marconi the patent for radio, even though Marconi’s work had all been achieved after Tesla, actually using Tesla’s own patented instruments. The insult was made worse by the award of the Nobel Prize to Marconi in 1909, just as Roentgen had been awarded his in 1901. Tesla never received one. By 1905 he had run out of funds and was forced to close his lab. Two years later George Westinghouse was almost wiped out by a stock market crash and by the long and expensive turf war with Edison. In desperation, he asked Tesla’s permission to amend their contract. In one of the noblest gestures in modern business, Tesla released Westinghouse completely, saying:
You have been my friend, you believed in me when others had no faith;you were brave enough to go ahead … when others lacked courage; you supported me when even your own engineers lacked vision … you have stood by me as a friend…. Here is your contract, and here is my contract. I will tear both of them to pieces, and you will no longer have any troubles from my royalties. Is that sufficient?
Westinghouse paid Tesla a one-off fee of $216,000. At that time, the value of Tesla’s royalty stood at more than $12 million, enough to make him one of the richest men in the world. If he had kept that royalty until today, even if no more electricity had been generated than the relatively tiny amount that existed in 1890, he would now be worth $40 billion. In 1914, however, the outbreak of World War I cut off the remaining income he had been earning from his European patents, and two years later, he was forced to file for bankruptcy. He never recovered financially, living out the last ten years of his life in room 3327 of the Hotel New Yorker, his bills settled by his friends.
This falling apart of his financial affairs was matched by increasingly unstable personal behavior. His fetish for cleanliness grew to Howard Hughes–like proportions. He went to great lengths to avoid shaking hands, placing his own behind his back when meeting people. At the dining table, he asked that each item of silverware be heat-sterilized before being brought to him. He would then pick up each item with a napkin, clean it with another napkin, and then drop both napkins onto the floor (he got through fifteen napkins a meal on average). If a fly landed on his table, he had to move to another seat and make an entirely fresh start. He gradually abandoned the two-steaks-a-night supper he had once enjoyed, becoming a vegetarian and eating exactly the same food in the same restaurant every night: warm milk, bread, and a concoction made from a dozen vegetables. But he continued to dress nattily. (In 1910 he had announced to a secretary that he was the best-dressed man on Fifth Avenue and intended to maintain that standard.) He wouldn’t go out without his gray suede gloves, which he wore for a week and then discarded. He bought a new red or black tie each week and would wear only white silk shirts. Collars and handkerchiefs were used only once, and he developed an aversion to jewelry. He could not sit near a woman who was wearing pearls. Most poetic of all, he was sure the hours he’d spent thinking were draining the color from his eyes.
His work became similarly unhinged. He claimed to be getting radio messages from Mars and Venus. He talked about using electricity to control the weather. He proposed a form of eugenics leading to women becoming dominant, so that human society would more closely resemble that of the honeybee. In his late seventies, he announced he was working on a device with which to end all wars, a weapon that
would send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.
Inevitably, the media dubbed this Tesla’s “death ray,” and it confirmed his passage in the public mind from revered genius to mad scientist.
He died in 1943, aged eighty-six, heavily in debt, alone in his hotel room. In 1944 the U.S. courts finally found in his favor and confirmed that it was Tesla and not Marconi who was the inventor of radio. Much has been done since to restore his reputation, but Edison and Marconi are still the names everyone remembers. Tesla, like Dee and Parsons and even poor Emma Hamilton, was too absorbed in his own passions to be bothered with mere accountancy. He lived with the burden and the joy of having glimpsed a much deeper reality than most people ever see, and that sense of his special destiny never deserted him. Marriage was not for him, not because he was homosexual or afraid of women, but because nothing could be allowed to interfere with his mission: “I have planned to devote my whole life to my work and for that reason I am denied the love and companionship of a good woman; and more, too.”
Weeks before his death, he had a final feminine visitation. He had befriended a pigeon that came every day to his windowsill in room 3327. She had become his favorite, “a beautiful bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings.” He had always loved birds, but this one “he loved as a man loves a woman…. She understood me and I understood her.”
Then one night as I was lying in my bed in the dark, solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. I knew she wanted me; she wanted to tell me something important so I got up and went to her. As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me—she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes—powerful beams of light. It was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.
When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life’s work was finished.
Two years after Tesla’s world-changing vision of the revolutionary alternating current motor in a park in Budapest, the revolutionary political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83) died penniless in London. Marx would have had no truck with Tesla’s mysticism, but history was to unite the life’s work of both men in 1920, when the Marxist regime of the Soviet Union took the momentous decision to transform their vast country by electrification. Lenin believed the success of the revolution was entirely dependent on the rapid rollout of new technology; his favorite slogan was “Communism is socialism plus electrification of the whole country.” In 1948, when George Orwell wanted to personify the evil of the Soviet system in Animal Farm, he had the animals build an electrified windmill.
Marx’s journey to penury was less tortured than Tesla’s: As an asylum-seeker and infrequently employed freelance journalist, he never had much money to lose. He wasn’t a “worker” in the way it is usually meant in Marxist mythology. A friend once teased him that she couldn’t imagine his living happily in a communist state as it might mean getting his hands dirty. “Neither can I,” he agreed. “These times will come, but we must be away by then.” Even his adoring mother complained: “I wish you would make some capital instead of just writing about it.” Luckily for him, he found a benefactor (and true friend) in Friedrich Engels—fox-hunting mill owner by day, radical socialist by night—who looked after him, as a recent biographer puts it, “like a substitute mother, sending him pocket money, fussing over his health and reminding him to study.” Marx may not have been a manganese miner or a tractor driver, but he certainly worked hard: His collected writings come to more than a hundred volumes and would spawn a political ideology that, at its height, controlled half the world’s population.
Karl Marx was born into a German Jewish family, the scion of one of the most famous lines of rabbis in all of European history, but his father, Heinrich, was a successful lawyer, the first non-religious Marx in generations. When Prussia banned Jews from practicing law, he cheerfully converted to Protestantism, holding it to be the most progressive of all religions. Young Karl was baptized a Christian at six years old. He had a happy childhood and was a precocious student. He was also a hothead, known for picking fights in taverns. While studying law at the University of Bonn, he lived student life to the full, running up huge debts and taking part in a duel. His father rapidly transferred him to the more academic environment of Berlin, where Karl switched to philosophy and history, graduating with a thesis comparing Epicurus and Democritus, whose antireligious materialism he found attractive. His first job was as editor of the radical Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, but after the paper was suppressed, he went to Paris, the nineteenth-century’s drop-in center for European revolutionaries. Here, in 1844, he met Engels, with whom he at once formed a close personal and professional bond. Engels was already calling himself a communist and it was his recently published The Condition of the Working Class in England that first drew Marx’s attention to the plight of the industrial workforce and convinced him, too, to embrace communism. He began writing for Vorwärts, the most radical newspaper in Europe, run by a secret society called the League of the Just. When, in 1845, the paper heartily praised an assassination attempt on the king of Prussia, the French authorities ordered Marx, along with many others, to leave Paris. He went to Brussels and renounced his Prussian citizenship. From then on, he was officially classed as stateless.
In 1849 Marx moved to London, where he lived in various degrees of acute poverty for the rest of his days. He came with his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, a Prussian baron’s daughter (Marx was rather proud of having married a beautiful society girl). She called him her “little wild boar” after the bristly hair that sprouted all over his body, as well as by his family nickname, “the Moor,” from the huge mane and beard framing his face and his swarthy complexion. Marx’s health was a source of continual anguish. He suffered from liver trouble, rheumatism, shingles, ulcers, insomnia, bronchitis, laryngitis, pleurisy, and above all, gigantic boils on his backside, which meant that he had to pen most of Das Kapital, his colossal masterpiece, standing up. Engels always said he could tell the passages that had been written under the worst pain. Marx responded, “At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember the carbuncles until their dying day. What a swine they are!” Like another stateless émigré, Sigmund Freud, he was addicted to cigars. In the later years of poverty, though, he was constantly pawning his clothes and furniture to feed his family. He adored his six children, of whom only three made it through childhood. The brutish, bullying intellectual, prone to getting into fights in the pub, was an absolute pussycat at home, with his offspring riding on his back, pulling his hair, and being indulged with endless pets—three dogs, two cats, and two birds. At bedtime he would read to them from his favorite novel, Don Quixote by Cervantes.
The Marxes were always delighted when Engels knocked on the door of their house in Kentish Town, not least because they lived in constant fear of the bailiffs. The family affectionately called him General or General Staff. As well as bringing money, he loved to entertain the household with ribald songs. Sometimes “Staff” and “the Moor” did duets, each singing one song’s lyrics to another’s tune. In 1868 they played a parlor game where Marx’s daughter Jenny got both men to fill in her “confessions” album. The contrast between them is revealing. Under “Your favorite maxim,” Marx put “nihil humani a me alienum puto” (“I think nothing human is alien to me”), while Engels put “not to have any”; under “Your favorite motto” Marx had “de omnibus dubitandum”(“doubt everything”), while Engels preferred the splendid “Take it easy.”
Marx spent thirty-four years in the Reading Room of the British Museum. After hours, he addressed small political meetings (where his lisp and heavy accent made him a rather underwhelming speaker) and then got drunk on beer at Jack Straw’s Castle on Hampstead Heath, the highest pub in London. Out on the town, he would sign his name in hotel registers as “Mr. Charles Marx, private gentleman of London.” On one occasion, he and his fellow socialists Edgar Bauer and Wilhelm Liebknecht set out to drink a beer in every pub from Oxford Street to the Hampstead Road. There were eighteen pubs on that route; by the end, they were so inebriated that they decided to throw paving stones at gaslights, narrowly escaping arrest. Unsurprisingly, Marx was never granted British citizenship. A police report of 1874 declared that “he is the notorious German agitator, the head of the International Society and an advocate of communistic principles. This man has not been loyal to the King.” More intimately, a Prussian spy who had seen his family life at firsthand concluded: “Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk.”
Engels and Marx conceived their history of capitalism, Das Kapital, in the late 1840s, but the first volume wasn’t completed until 1867, well behind schedule. Marx died before he could finish parts two and three. These had been written with the help of his daughter Eleanor (known as Tussy), who later played an important role in the early British Labor movement, and were completed and published posthumously by Engels. Marx, suffering from a swollen liver, lost his wife in 1881 and his eldest daughter, Jenny, within a year. He died, heartbroken and destitute, only two months later. Only eleven mourners attended his burial at Highgate cemetery, at which Engels delivered the funeral address. Although exasperated at times by Marx’s endless grumbling about his troubles and constant demands for money, Engels was his first and greatest admirer: “I simply cannot understand,” he wrote in 1881, “how anyone can be envious of genius; it’s something so very special that we who have not got it know it to be unattainable right from the start.”
Engels’s short speech to the little knot of people gathered at Highgate Cemetery on that Saturday in 1883 began: “On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think.” It ended: “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.” He compared Marx to Darwin, saying that just as one discovered “the law of development of organic nature,” so the other discovered “the law of development of human history.” With the benefit of hindsight, surveying the wreckage of communism, it’s tempting to be dismissive. But though Marx the man, with his boils and his beer, the revolutionary who never led a revolution, the historian of capital who couldn’t organize his own finances, is long gone, his analysis is arguably more relevant than ever. Globalization, rapacious corporations, the decline of high culture, the triumph of consumerism—it’s all there in Marx. Almost no one today calls himself a Marxist (as Engels pointed out, neither did Marx), but we have all taken on board his ideas. In a British radio poll in 2005 a shocking number of listeners voted him the nation’s favorite thinker. Perhaps he did not, after all, discover the hidden laws of history, but his work—and his life—show that you can’t make sense of human existence without first understanding its economics.
It’s astonishing to think that the people who gave us electricity, space travel, and communism made no money from their endeavors, but there are plenty of innovators—equally eccentric, equally influential—who did and who still do. Fame and lasting importance are not commodities to be bought and sold, and there is no correlation between money (or the lack of it) and the value of a human life. More money, or better management of money, would not have saved Nelson from a sniper’s bullet. John Dee didn’t seek enlightenment to turn a profit, nor did Tesla conceive of a world network of wireless energy in order to monetize the intellectual property rights.
There is something oddly liberating about those who die with nothing. The French writer André Maurois captures it beautifully:
If men could regard the events of their own lives with more open minds, they would frequently discover that they did not really desire the things they failed to obtain.