Rudy Schwartz's Reviews




One summer day in 1904, Nikola Tesla dropped in on Thomas Edison to do bong hits and listen to some wax cylinders that Edison had been raving about, during the rare moments when he wasn't whining about how a bank clerk named Rita had been spurning his sexual advances. These private conversations had occurred with laser transmissions, a technique they had jointly developed, but not yet commercialized. Tesla had taken the ferry over from New York that day to catch "Jersey Summer Jam 1904," primarily because of his cultish devotion to pop vocalist Byron G. Harlan, but also due to rumors about an up and coming death-metal banjoist named Vess Ossman. Coming from a strict Serbian upbringing, Tesla had been letting his hair down in the United States, acquiring a taste for recreational drugs and music from the dark side, sandwiched between scientific epiphanies leading to the invention of induction motors.


Tesla took a deep hit from Edison's bong, and noticed that Tom was having problems separating the pot seeds from the buds. You fucking dumbass, Tesla said, you must be pretty ripped to be trying to seed your weed with a cardboard cylinder box, why don't you use something flat instead? Edison, already weary of Tesla's condescension, quietly ignored him, knowing that a twelve inch LP cover actually would be more suitable. Edison had already successfully transferred to vinyl numerous recordings by Billy Murray and the American Quartet, but he had decided to defer the technology, wanting to roll it out with full stereo sound and The Bert Kaempfert Orchestra.


There were other points of friction between the two. Tesla had clearly humiliated Edison with the superiority of alternating current as a means of delivering electrical energy, so the growing bitterness was palpable. And for his part, Tesla resented Edison's refusal to acknowlege the obvious, and his deplorable publicity stunts, such as electrocuting a live elephant and recording the event with that bullshit moving picture device that he wouldn't shut up about. Knowing the underlying greed in Edison's motives, Tesla changed the subject.


You know, Tom, Tesla said, we really should do something with these laser transmitters. I mean, I don't mind corresponding this way, but don't you think we could make some serious cash from these things? Edison had zoned out. Ripped to the gills on some seriously good weed, he was giggling his ass off to a situational comedy recording by Cal Stewart, Uncle Josh Gets a Prostate Exam at Punkin Center. Tesla raised his voice and repeated, Tom, why don't we try to make some money off of these goddamn laser transmitters?


Edison's bloodshot, stoner eyes suddenly widened, and Tesla chuckled as he saw tiny cash registers lighting up in Edison's retinas. Stupid, money grubbing bastard, he thought to himself. Hey, maybe you're right!, Edison squealed. I mean shit, the frequency response is a lot better than with these crappy telephones, and we could probably triple our profit margins! Why the hell didn't I think of that? Tesla smiled, and quietly marveled at what a predictably venal scumbag Edison was. But you know, Nick, Edison continued, if we really want to put it over, we're going to need a gimmick...


And so on that fateful summer day, permeated with marijuana smoke, Edison and Tesla hatched what has since been coined the Great Zontar Hoax of 1904. Conceived as a publicity stunt, it would panic an entire continent, cause countless suicides and religious conversions, and delay the introduction of laser technology for another 56 years. The plot involved Tesla returning to his New York apartment and posing as Zontar, an alien from Venus communicating with Thomas Edison via laser transmission. The first transmission would be staged with over a dozen journalists present from major newspapers, and it would include demands that Earth surrender to Venus, or have its major cities be subjected to a bubonic plague "a hundred times worse than The Black Death." After waiting a couple of weeks for the panic to spread, President Theodore Roosevelt would then be pulled away from negotiations over the Panama Canal, brought to New Jersey, and treated to a second threatening transmission. To heighten the effect, Tesla employed a helium balloon to make his voice an octave and a half higher, and referred to the President as "dude" on three occasions.


The news reports of the threats from Venus were effective, but Edison and Tesla overplayed their hand when they used Tesla's transmission of magnetic waves to shut down all steam and coal powered energy supplies in North America. Edison also hired hundreds of philosophers to disperse and spread existential angst among horses and other livestock throughout America, having them trespass on private farms and explain the finite nature of mortality through amplified megaphones, also of Tesla's design. This eliminated horse drawn carriages as a means of transportation, and reduced dairy production by more than half by the end of August. The effect on the U.S. economy would be felt for more than a decade, and by October when no plague had erupted, Edison was the target of highly critical press coverage regarding the true origin of Zontar. Tesla found the whole affair hysterical, but it further strained his relationship with Edison. And when Edison confided to Alexander Graham Bell at a Greenwich Village whorehouse, Bell told him that it was "the stupidest fucking idea" he had ever heard of. In any case, the public relations nightmare would only be made worse by revealing the technology behind it, so Edison and Tesla agreed never to mention it again, and the credit was left to those who subsequently rediscovered it.


Ironically, around the same time that Robert N. Hall was demonstrating the first laser diode, Larry Buchanan released a film recounting the Zontar incident, still unaware that it had been a hoax. Buchanan updated some elements of the story (substituting cars for horses and bourbon for reefer), and cast Tony Huston as Edison and John Agar as Alexander Graham Bell. To avoid lawsuits, he also renamed Edison Laboratories as "Zone 6," and used "hyperspace hypnotism" as a euphemism for existential despair. Theodore Roosevelt was played by an eighteen inch flying plastic lobster.


When the hoax was finally revealed in 1973 by the last surviving employee of the original Edison Labs, it received little more than a blip of media attention. America was too distracted by the Watergate hearings, the release of Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the cinematic spectacle of Ned Beatty being sodomized by a giggling hillbilly. A more jaded America with a dwindling attention span had long ago forgotten Nikola Tesla and barely remembered Edison. Perhaps it's for the best that the reputations of two of science's great inventors would not be sullied by their bad judgement on one of the many days they pissed away getting completely blasted on weed.


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