A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Christopher Dow
Nicola Tesla was one of the world’s greatest inventors and innovators. We owe much of our current state of technolgy to him—pun intended. He invented, among other things, the AC electric generator, the AC motor, radio remote control, florescent lighting, and the loudspeaker. His patents for radio transmission were used illicitly by Guglielmo Marconi in the latter’s “invention” of the radio, and that fact was eventually recognized by the U.S. Patent Office, which upheld Tesla’s rights to the technology, though this judgment occurred after Tesla’s death. He also attempted but failed to use the idea of transmission of radio waves to transmit electrical power without wires, and he purportely invented a “death ray” that utilized similar technology.
More to the point of Tai Chi, Tesla was fascinated by oscillation—both wave motion and vibration—not just on an energetic level, as with radio transmission, but on a mechanical level. The following story about Tesal is apocryphal. Some insist it actually happened, while others say it is just a tall tale told about this wizard of science. But Tai Chi folks might readily recognize the possibilities.
At the time, Tesla’s laboratory was located on the sixth floor of a building in New York City. Once day, people from the neighborhood around the building began flocking to the local police station, complaining that an earthquake was shaking their homes. The supposed earthquake could not be felt at the police station, but because of the number of complaints and the sincerity of the witnesses, the police chief went out with a team of officers to investigate.
Sure enough, as the police entered the neighborhood, they felt the ground shaking and saw the effects of the movement on the surrounding buildings. The deeper they went into the neighborhood, the greater the shaking became. The chief then realized that Tesla’s lab was located at the quake’s epicenter, and he and his men entered the building, where the shaking was almost nonexistent. They rushed up the stairs and burst into the lab. As they did, the chief saw Tesla raise a heavy hammer and smash it down on a small box affixed to a steel support pillar. The shaking immediately stopped.
Supposedly, Tesla had been researching mechanical oscillation and had devised a small wave-effect oscillator that sent a tiny but rhythmic pounding against the support pillar. This pillar was fastened solidly to the New York City bedrock, and over time, the oscillations created by his device, minute though they were, set up a series of ever larger waveforms. These eventually began to oscillate the bedrock, which in turn, sent concentric waves through the ground, outward from the building, mimicking an earthquake. When Tesla smashed the device, the oscillations—and the earthquake—halted.
This story is, as I said, apocryphal, but on one level, it illustrates energy propagating outward from a solid center grounded with single-weightedness: the steel support pillar fastened to the bedrock. It also shows how relatively small inputs of energy properly amplified, channeled, and applied can have wide-ranging and damaging effects. And on yet a third tack, I once saw a demonstration by T. T. Liang that achieved the same effect in miniature, and I’ve heard that other masters have the same ability. Liang, who was then in his mid 90s and using a cane, was accompanied by his student, Stuart Olson. Liang stood next to Olson, placed his palm on Olson’s abdomen, and started vibrating his hand. In just a few seconds, Olson was vibrating, too, and after the vibrations built up over several seconds, Olson was forced to fall over backward.
I like to think that the Tesla story is genuine, but I know that Liang could utilize the same sort of effect on another person because I witnessed it. Good thing that Olson wasn’t firmly fastend to the floor or maybe the whole auditiorum eventually would have shaken!