As the world was trying to figure out the best way to safely and most efficiently move electricity from one place to another, Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition created a City of Light like had never before been seen.
Both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla visited the Pan-Am in Buffalo. Both stayed at the Iroquois, then Buffalo’s most swank downtown hotel, and both spoke of the unparalleled display of electrical wonder on the expo grounds.
But while Edison was lauded as the greatest electrician of the day, and even then, called “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Tesla was afforded respect with a healthy dose of derision — as his work leading up to the expo involved developing wireless communications to Mars.
In early March, a representative from Edison’s lab came to Buffalo with plans to display some of “the famous electrician’s” inventions.
When Edison arrived at the fair in late July, he was hailed again as “a wizard,” and a photo of him in Buffalo was on the front page of the Buffalo Courier.
“To this man, who has made a life study of electricity,” gushed the Courier, “and who is regarded the world over as the greatest electrician of the age, the grand display appeared as the most successful construction of the kind ever attempted by man. It thrilled him. He was charmed with the effect of the illumination.”
The News quoted Edison as he stood on the expo’s Triumphal Bridge, looking out as he saw the illumination of the grounds and buildings for the first time.
“It is beautiful,” said Edison. “It approaches more nearly the sublime than anything I have ever saw in electric displays.”
Edison spent a week in Chautauqua with his family, and returned once again to wonder at the Pan-Am.
“ 'This is the apotheosis of the incandescent light!’ Thus exclaimed the great Edison as he stood on the Esplanade last night, looking right and left at the overwhelming and dazzling radiance about him,” reported the Courier.
“It is the largest area which has ever been illuminated,” said Edison. “I can readily say that I have experienced a subtle pleasure in seeing this stupendous accomplishment. It is fine! It is magnificent! There is so much I crave to see and understand, that I feel like a schoolboy who has just understood for the first time, the appetizing acid of the fruits of the tree of knowledge.”
The Wizard of Menlo Park rode the “Trip to the Moon” amusement ride, and left the expo at the Elmwood Gate at Elmwood and Amherst.
On the day Tesla visited Buffalo, the Buffalo Times reported that he delighted the hotel staff by experimenting with the hotel’s corridor lights and telephone system.
His stop at the Pan-Am came following a visit to Pittsburgh, where he bought equipment to use in his radio wave experiments for transatlantic and then alien planet communication. In strolling the expo grounds, Tesla used the word “grand” several times.
“Nicola Tesla, the wizard of electricity, who, by his vast learning of the mysterious power, has been enabled to learn the musical pitch of the sphere which men call Earth, will be in Buffalo (on his way to) place a contract on machinery which he will use in his next test of wireless telegraphy,” reported the Courier.
“It is understood that the great Tesla … is at work on some of the greatest sensations known to modern electrical science. He expects to be able to send a wireless message across the Atlantic in the near future. After that, he will endeavor to make good his promise to communicate with the planet Mars.
“When do you expect to be able to reach Mars?" he was asked.
“ 'I shall first send a wireless message across the Atlantic,’ was the reply of the famous electrician.”
The Buffalo Commercial painted a deathly picture with the physical description written of Tesla during that Buffalo visit.
“Mr. Tesla is an inch or two above six feet in height, very slender and broad shouldered, has thin, angular features, dark, quick eyes, think short hair, fidgety manner and a pallid skin. He looks weak, physically, be he isn’t,” reported the Commercial, which also reported the same questions and answers as the Courier, with one more added.
“Are your experiments progressing satisfactorily?”
“Very,” replied Tesla. “It may not please my enemies, but they are even surpassing my expectations.”
With the Buffalo Review, Tesla spoke more about the future of the science both he and Edison were pursuing.
“There is no question but that little is known of electricity and its uses at the present day; it is merely in its infancy,” Tesla said shortly before boarding a train back to New York. “This may seem strange in view of the many improvements that have developed with the advent of magic fluid but nevertheless it is true and people in generations to come will look back at our humble efforts and speak of this period as the time when people first learned of electricity.”