History lessons

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Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), inventor
Artwork: 1997, by R. Farrington Sharp
Corridor between Dunham and Becton

While exploring the buildings on Hillhouse Avenue, I happened upon another interesting sculpture, situated in the corridor connecting Dunham Laboratory and the Becton Center. It was a bust of Nikola Tesla, described on the accompanying plaque as an “American Inventor, His Name Marks an Epoch.”

I realized I was near the Department of Electrical Engineering, and later I discovered that Tesla had received an honorary degree from Yale in 1894. So I wasn’t too surprised to find a monument to Tesla in this location—but I was curious as to how this particular bust wound up at Yale.

A 1997 entry in the Yale Bulletin and Calendar solved the mystery. With an attention-grabbing title—“Efforts of schoolchildren bring honor to inventor who helped ‘power our world’”—the entry described the exertions of Michigan teacher John Wagner to properly acknowledge a man who had been overlooked by the scientific community.

Wagner assigned his third-grade students the task of writing letters to corporate leaders, asking for donations to help commission commemorative bronze busts to honor the inventor who designed the electrical alternating current (AC). Over ten years, the efforts of Wagner and his students resulted in Nikola Tesla busts on the campuses of nineteen major American universities.