Sunday, April 25, 2010

Nikola Tesla (w/ Special Guest!)

Everyone decided this guy was a Main Dude of History, like, ten years ago, even though his deeds are of a previous century:

NOT Nikola Tesla

But which Nikola Tesla is the real one? Is it the mad genius?

Or is it history's greatest chump?

Nobody ever portrays both of them together as a man in total; he always serves as a better symbol as one or the other. He's the modern avatar of the Roman God Janus, the patron of doorways and new beginnings who symbolized the transition from past to future.

NOT Janus, usually

Tesla's Alternating Current was better, but everyone preferred Edison's Direct Current. It presaged a famous confrontation between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, decades later.

Steve Jobs: We're better than you are! We have better stuff.
Bill Gates: You don't get it, Steve. That doesn't matter!
-The Pirates of Silicon Valley

Tesla getting ripped off, the mad scientist getting ripped off, is the basis for every supervillain origin. He also built a death ray, his "teleforce weapon." Except when he called it a "Peace Ray."

He also studied radiation, laying the groundwork for the study of cosmic rays.

Tesla's story is the quintessential American one, right down to its fractured identity. Even his supervillain persona speaks to modern America's desire to mystify the creative impulse. But what mad scientist with the potential for supervillainy would be complete without a universally beloved hero, with a recognizable costume, assumed name, and arsenal of quips?

Nobody is as beloved as Mark Twain, nee Samuel Clemens, whose very name is a unit of measure. People love putting Mr. Twain up against the modern day or the future. He's always meeting time travelers, and especially robots - who else has been on the Enterprise and met the Transformers? (*That'd be ubiquitous superhero pop star Wolverine! --Point Missin' Pete)

Mark Twain's folksy wisdom, wry wit, and subversive attitude has made him one of America's true MAIN DUDES OF HISTORY. Aside from his obligatory book bannings, it's hard to find anyone who'd argue against his assured place in the pantheon. He's become a symbol for everything that we wish America was.

When really, we all know deep down that America is more like Tesla: occasionally brilliant, sometimes misunderstood, but a little bumbling and very likely dangerous, with two sides at war within itself and very possibly just a passing fad.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Aaron Burr

I think everyone is familiar with this Main Dude of American History responsible for MORTALLY WOUNDING Alexander "Ten Dolla'" Hamilton. But his story doesn't end there. Burr was a major conspiratorial dude. According to some, he was planning on launching his own Empire in the smack-dab of North America, centered in the land we know today as Texas. 

Jefferson had some bad vibes about Burr and so had him replaced by George Clinton as his VP.

The legend of the Burr Conspiracy states that he wanted to take a chunk of Texas, Mexico, and Louisiana Territories, then referred to as "the West," and build his own Empire using an army of farmers and recruits with ideas of secession. 

He had some powerful and rich friends to lend him support.
Burr-stick'em's homies included, but were not limited to, dudes with names like Blennerhassett and Marquis de Casa Yrujo. Blennerhasset, from what I know, is not a Main Dude of History, but has an island in the Ohio river named for him. He had a zany secret laboratory cum mansion on said island, and according to wikipedia that is where he met Burr. Marquis of Casa Yrujo was a fiery little ambassador who was well connected. They were the financial backbone of the Burr Conspiracy. 
Burr went to his old army pal, General Jimmy Wilkinson for muscle. JayWilks had a serious booze problem, but he was commander in chief of the US forces, and could mobilize heat at a moment's notice, free to move about the largely unsettled Louisiana territory as he pleased. Burr had convinced Jefferson to name Wilkey as Governor of The Louisiana Territory. When it came time for the United States to strike out against Spain, who also laid claim to the lands to the west, Burr would take control of the disputed lands of Mexico under the guise of US actions. He attempted to recruit men and ships from the British, in exchange for some of the lands he was planning on taking from the US. He even tried making a few deals with the Spanish. 
But eventually his cover was blown. Wilkinson turned in a coded message known as the Cipher Letter to the courts, and laid out Burr's plans without directly naming him. But rumors of Burr's deviousness had already begun to spread throughout the country, mainly because of his own recruitment campaign. There was a price on his head, and eventually he was arrested under charges of treason. His effigy was burned in the streets, his face was on all the papers, and he was basically labeled as a wicked crazy dude. 
He was acquitted, mainly because what his plans were didn't fall under the Constitutional definition of "treason."
He fled the country, traveling around Europe trying to hatch all kinds of kooky schemes, and eventually wound up in New York practicing law in obscurity. 

Here's some kids doing a school project about Burr: