Friday, March 31, 2006

Croatia, Serbia race to honour 'wizard' inventor

March 30, 2006 Thursday 4:34 AM GMT
Agence France Presse

He was an ethnic Serb born in a Croatian province in the old Austro-Hungarian
empire who went on to win fame in the United States as one of the world's
greatest inventors.

Now 150 years after the birth of Nikola Tesla, a race is on to secure
bragging rights to the legacy of this scientist dubbed by his biographers as a
"wizard" and "the man who invented the 20th Century".

A pioneer of the days when electricity was changing everyday life, Tesla was
touted last year as one of the 100 greatest Americans by Discovery Channel, the
US cable TV science and nature network.

But his Balkan homeland is reasserting its right to this native son in the
run-up to the July anniversary -- in what some suggest might encourage post-war
reconciliation and boost tourism.

"We believe that Tesla's anniversary can, in a sense, be an occasion for a
further rebuilding of trust between Croatia and Serbia," Croatian Serb MP
Milorad Pupovac told AFP, "especially since he does not belong only to one side.

The competition began late last year when the Croatian government declared
2006 "The Year of Nikola Tesla".

The move sparked a scramble in the Serbian capital Belgrade, Zagreb's
traditional rival and erstwhile enemy during their war in the early 1990s, to
organise its own year of tributes.

On the surface, the governments are cooperating to mark the sesquicentennial
of a man they say symbolises their shared past before the bloody breakup of the
old Yugoslav federation.

After years of neglect, Croatia announced plans to restore a war-damaged
memorial complex -- now nearing completion -- in the south-central village of
Smiljan where Tesla was born in 1856, and to reopen a Tesla museum in nearby

In a bitter reminder of the conflict, red flags and signs still dot the
snow-covered terrain warning of land mines near Tesla's childhood home and the
nearby church where his father, a Serb Orthodox minister, used to preach.

Once the area is de-mined, Croatia's main event will be the reopening of the
Gospic museum on July 10. Exhibits will focus on the early years and first
inventions of this gifted child who defied his father's wish he follow in his
footsteps and become a priest, according to the museum's curator Vesna Buncic.

She said the complex will include a new multimedia centre connected to the
Niagara Falls power plant in the United States, which was designed by Tesla, and
the Tesla Museum in Belgrade.

In Serbia, Mining and Energy Minister Radomir Naumov conceded that Belgrade
reacted "at the last moment", according to a recent interview.

But it one-upped Croatia by last month renaming Belgrade's international
airport after Tesla, who also devoted a large part of his life to trying to
create what he called the "perfect flying machine".

Belgrade will also sponsor its own series of tributes to a man Serbians
consider their most famous son, according to an ongoing opinion poll of more
than 40,000 respondents in the weekly NIN magazine.

But a key concession was a decision by Belgrade's own Nikola Tesla Museum to
provide copies of his original documents to the rebuilt complex in Smiljan.

Along with an urn containing his ashes, the Belgrade museum houses Tesla's
personal archive including manuscripts, drawings and correspondence, though they
have been kept under lock and key for years, fueling mystery about the scope of
his work which, at one point, was said to include a "death ray" system to shield
against military aircraft and weapons.

For unknown reasons, researchers have now been granted limited access to the
archive of around 160,000 documents brought to Belgrade in 1949 by Tesla's sole
inheritor, his nephew Sava Kosanovic, a former Yugoslav ambassador to the United

"We have contacted the Belgrade museum and asked for copies of some exhibits,
which will be displayed in Smiljan," Buncic said.

The two states will also cooperate in restoring a statue of Tesla that was
partly destroyed during Croatia's war, using a similar bust in Belgrade as the

"It is hard to understand that in 1991 his monument was dynamited out of
revenge, and that people of his native region renounced such a great man only
because of his Serb origins," Pupovac said.

"It speaks of the scale of irrational hatred that reigned then and still
exists," he added, though the inventor himself once said he was equally proud of
both his Croatian homeland and Serb descent.

Legend has it that Tesla was born during a thunder storm at the stroke of
midnight on July 10, 1856.

After his early schooling in Gospic, he studied in the Austrian town of Graz,
then Prague before working in Budapest and Paris.

At the age of 28, the scientist moved to the United States where he found a
job working for another famous inventor who later became a fierce rival, Thomas
Alva Edison.

Tesla's eccentric genius blossomed as he churned out a vast of array
inventions, the most famous of which was the alternating current (AC) motor that
enabled the sort of generation and transmission of power used the world over

He patented more than 700 inventions over the years including wireless
communication, remote control and fluorescent lighting.

Though he made the cover of Time magazine in 1931, Tesla, by then a
naturalised American who saw himself as a citizen of the world, died alone in a
New York hotel 12 years later at the age of 86.

MP Pupovac noted with irony that some rural, war-damaged areas near Tesla's
birthplace -- notably those fled by ethnic Serbs who are now slowly returning --
have still not had electricity restored.

"We would like that these villages ... do not see the end of another year, a
year in which we remember Nikola Tesla, without electricity," he stressed.

Gospic, meanwhile, is hoping the prodigal son will attract some of the
thousands of tourists who flock every summer to Croatia's Adriatic seaside, only
a 50-minute drive away.

"Even now, people often come to us and ask if we can show them Tesla's house,
and that is why we are certain that once it is open to the public we will be
seeing many more tourists," Buncic said.

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