Your Engineering Heritage: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla as Science Fiction Characters

Your Engineering Heritage: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla as Science Fiction Characters

Cover of recent unabridged translation of “L’Ève future”

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are in the class of historic engineers who remain household names to the present day. Their legacies, more than a century in popular culture, not only extend to fictionalized biographical films, but also appearances in television programs, novels and video games. The appearance of Edison and Tesla in fiction is not a new phenomenon, as in Edison’s and Tesla’s lifetimes, each appeared as characters in a number of what would today be considered science fiction novels.

The earliest of these works is the French novel “L’Ève future”, sometimes translated as “Tomorrow’s Eve” or “The Future Eve,” published in 1886 by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. While Villiers immediately states in-text that the Thomas Edison of his novel is meant to be a fictionalized version of Edison, he still retains the name of the inventor, though some abridged translations of the novel have Edison’s name replaced with “Professor X.” The majority of the novel revolves around Edison at Menlo Park, where Edison creates what he calls an Android, which he has named Halady. Over the course of the novel, by means of “electromagnetic power and Radiant Matter,” Edison works to impart the physical appearance of a theatre singer onto the android. He does this on behalf of an English nobleman as a solution to remove what he perceives as her undesirable personality, while preserving her beauty. The antifeminist overtones of the novel undercut what is otherwise an interestingly written work that bears little in common with contemporary French science fiction novels like the adventures of Jules Verne.

Tom Edison Jr.’s Electric Sea Spider, an example of an Edisonade story

Another novel to feature Edison as a character is Garrett Serviss’s “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” which was serially published in the New York Journal in 1898. Written as an unauthorized sequel to H.G. Wells’s 1897 “The War of the Worlds,” Serviss’s novel is set after the devastation inflicted on the planet by the events of Wells’ famous novel. The Martian invasion was halted by the spread of bacterial infection, which left much of the Martian technology intact. Thomas Edison examines and repurposes these devices to design a spaceship, and uses this to launch a counter-strike against Mars.

In the “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” John Clute and Peter Nicholls use the term “Edisonade” to describe the numerous pulp stories from the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century that involve tropes of a boy inventor. These include series of dime novels, such as the Franke Reade, Jack Wright and Electric Bob series, many of which were influenced by the 1868 novel “The Steam Man of the Prairies.” Edison’s name is also lent to Philip Reade’s “Tom Edison, Jr.” series. Many of these Edisonade stories were aimed at a young audience, and, like “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” often revolve around themes of American imperialism and forceful expansionism.

The first appearance of “To Mars with Tesla” in New Golden Hours

One of these Edisonade stories features Nikola Tesla as the main character. In J. Weldon Cobb’s “To Mars with Tesla,” a novel serialized in the boys’ magazine New Golden Hours over two months in 1901, Tesla is in the process of constructing a device which can signal to Mars. In a series of newspaper articles published earlier that year, the real-world Tesla claimed that he had detected radio signals from Mars, and had an apparatus that was easily able to signal with the planet, which inspired the premise of Cobb’s novel. In an ironic choice of characterization, the boy inventor character role is fulfilled by Tesla’s assistant, “Young Edison”, who is Thomas Edison’s college-age nephew.

Tesla’s claims he could signal with Mars also inspired a plot point in H.G. Wells’s 1901 novel “The First Men in the Moon,” whose criticism of imperialism is in stark contrast to the tone of the Edisonades.  Here, the signals Tesla claimed to have received are revealed to be from one of the main characters, Cavor, who is signaling from the Moon after being deserted by his partner, Bedford. After Bedford returns to the Earth, he is told about Tesla’s claims, and uses this information to also receive the signals, and then decodes a series of messages sent from Cavor on the moon. In addition to Tesla’s Martian signaling, Wells also mentions the work of radio pioneers Guglielmo Marconi and Oliver Lodge.

Wells does not go as far as using Tesla himself as a character, but that his claims regarding receiving signals from Mars inspired plot points in two novels from 1901 is an indicator of his popularity with the general public. Copyright protections would be expanded by the 1909 Copyright Act, but in 1901 the laws were much looser, and novelists like Serviss were able to use what would now be considered someone else’s intellectual property or likeness in a commercial work, which would be very unlikely to occur in the modern publishing landscape. Edison and Tesla persisted as figures in popular culture for decades after their deaths, which extends to the current day. Recent biographical films such as “The Current War” (2017), “Tesla” (2020), or fictionalized versions of the engineers, like the film “The Prestige” (2006) Doctor Who episode “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” (2020) are some of the latest additions in a long line of media that shows the ongoing fascination with the two inventors.

References and Further Reading

Adams, Robert Martin, “Translators Introduction,” Tomorrow’s Eve, University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Carlson, W. Bernard, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press, 2013.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “Edisonade,” available: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/edisonade.

Israel, Paul, Edison: A Life of Invention, John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Nevins, Jess, “Fantastic Victoriana: E,” available: https://web.archive.org/web/20160304201011/http://reocities.com/jessnevins/vice.html.

Reade, Philip, Tom Edison Jr’s Electric Sea Spider, 1892, available: http://jessnevins.com/edisonade/electricseaspider.html.

Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Future (in French), 1886, available: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26681/26681-h/26681-h.htm.

Serviss, Garrett, Edison’s Conquest of Mars, 1947 available: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21670/21670-h/21670-h.htm.

U.S. Copyright Office, A Brief History of Copyright in the United States, available: https://www.copyright.gov/timeline/.


Nathan Brewer is archival and digital content specialist at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html


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