Episode 57 – Lech Walesa versus Nicola Tesla

From the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket, we present two figures who changed our world, the first, the man who led the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s, a movement that would help lead to the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, Lech Walesa. The other was a genius who gave us a means of distributing electricity from generators in faraway places to our homes and workplaces, known as AC, Nicola Tesla.

My primary sources for our first contestant are Lech Walesa: The Struggle – An Autobiography, the Triumph and Empowering Revolution: America, Poland and the End of the Cold War by Gregory Domber and The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown. For the second contestant, I used Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson and Tesla: Inventor of the Modern by Richard Munson.

Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa was born in Popowo, Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia, Germany on September 22, 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. His father, Bolesław Wałęsa was put into an internment camp and was part of the forced labor group. After his liberation, he died, supposedly from exhaustion and illness in 1945. His mother, Feliksa Wałęsa, was a strong woman who remarried her brother-in-law Stanislaw when Lech was nine years old. He had three older full siblings and three younger half-brothers. 

His mother and stepfather emigrated to the United States in 1973 where they lived in Jersey City, New Jersey. Feliska was to die in an automobile accident in 1975 and Stanislaw dying of a heart attack in 1981. In 1969, Lech married Mirosława Danuta Gołoś, a woman who would be by his side during the difficult times he was to face including accepting the Noble Peace Prize Walesa was to receive in 1983. The two were to have eight children together, with one of them Jaroslav being a member of the European Union parliament today.

Early on in his career, working at Polish shipyards, Walesa encouraged his fellow workers to strike for better conditions and to support students during the Polish 1968 political crisis. It was a time in Poland that major student, intellectual and other protests against the communist regime sprung up. It coincided with the Prague Spring going on in neighboring Czechoslovakia. Unlike the Czech’s, who used troops from various Warsaw Pact nations and the Soviet Union, Poland and their Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs crushed the protests rather mercilessly. Walesa believed that the shipyard workers were a powerful group that could stand up to the communist party.

Lech Walesa was seen as a charismatic leader who had that knack to get people motivated and excited about pretty much anything, he believed in. 

What started the whole movement was, surprising to me, an anti-Semitic movement in Poland. Ninety percent of Poland’s Jews had been exterminated by the Nazi’s during the Holocaust. The government was looking for scapegoats for the poor economic situation that the Polish workers were suffering through and the picked on the intellectuals and Jews. 

Wladyslaw Gomulka was the head of the Polish government, and he attempted to hold on to power that the persecutions grew in size. Many of the remaining Polish Jews fled the country. The sad state of the economy should have caused his removal, but it was the December protests at the Gdansk and Szczecin shipping docks on the Baltic Sea that did him in. 

As Archie Brown put it in his book The Rise and Fall of Communism, “Following a decade in which there had been very little increase in the real incomes of workers, price increases were announced just a fortnight before Christmas, thus adding insult to injury in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.” While protests were being held in Warsaw and other cities, the big ones were at the shipping ports. Gomulka ordered the army and the police to squash those protest leading to the death of sixteen workers. On December 20, 1970, Gomulka was removed from office replaced by Edward Gierek.  

The new Polish leader impressed the future leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa. Early on, things got better for the workers, but in reality, it was all smoke and mirrors as the real reason for the economic improvement was that the government of Poland was borrowing boatloads of money from the West. They eventually began to default on the loans, which started to cripple the economy. Gierek somehow stayed in power during this time, but his broken promises angered the people, and in particular, Lech Walesa.

Between 1970 and 1976, Walesa was involved in multiple protests, many illegal, which culminated in his firing from the Gdansk shipyards in June of 1976. He and his family were always being watched by Gierek’s police, with Lech being arrested numerous times. In May of 1978, he joined the Founding Committee of Free Trade Unions of the Coast, an underground protest movement.

1978 would be an important part of the coming end of the Soviet Union and the whole of the Warsaw Pact, and it wasn’t where you would think it emanated from, it came from Rome, Italy, and in particular, Vatican City where they announced that the new Pope was the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, now known as Pope John Paul II. While the communist leaders had tried to suppress the Catholic Church for a while post-World War II, it had no chance of success. Polish pride told the very Catholic people that God was now on their side. Lech Walesa would begin to ride the new Pope’s coattails in his effort to improve the lot of the workers of Poland.

Lech, along with other leaders, would cobble together a coalition of workers, intellectuals and the Catholic Church, groups that had never joined together before. One of their early ideas was to form free trade unions, away from the government-approved ones. Protest continued, but it wasn’t until July of 1980 that things began to get rough for both the government and the free trade union movement.

On July 1, 1980, the government decided to increase prices on consumer goods and to deregulate the price of meat. This caused prices to shoot up 60 to 90 percent. Going back to Archie Brown’s book, “This followed several years of growing inequalities of income and increasing popular resentment of the privileges of the Communist Party and government elite. All that added to the sense of injustice which the price rises provoked, even though from a strictly economic standpoint, a reduction in the enormous subsidies was overdue.”

Lech Walesa called for a monument to be erected in honor of those killed in 1970 as well as a significant increase in wages. The government gave the workers 75 percent of what they asked for which placated the older men, but not those like Walesa. The whole movement almost ended on August 16, 1980, with the government’s proposal. It was here that thirteen people, led by Walesa that the movement began with the first strike bulletin on August 22 at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, a newsletter known as Solidarity. 

Quickly after that, 253 factories were on strike, and by the end of August, 700,000 workers joined in. In October, three million people belonged to the new movement, and by December it topped eight million and the man leading the campaign was the 37-year old, Lech Walesa. Gierek was ousted as the Polish head, replaced by Stanislaw Kania.

By this time, there was not only panic in Moscow, but in the capitals of the other Warsaw Pact nations, especially East German head, Erich Honecker. Leonid Brezhnev, head of the Soviet Union urged caution, in part due to the power of the Catholic Church in Poland. Another significant change came with the appointment of General Wojciech Jaruzelski became prime minister. Military intervention was considered as the Solidarity movement was growing by the minute.

On December 13, 1981, martial law was imposed, and Lech Walesa along with a few thousand Solidarity activists were arrested. Walesa was to stay in jail for over 11 months. In 1983, Lech Walesa was awarded the Noble Peace Prize. He would not go to Stockholm to accept the award as he feared that Lech would not be allowed back into Poland if he did. His wife, Danuta, went instead.

For the next five years, Walesa would continue to protest and instigate numerous strikes throughout the country. By 1988 he co-founded Solidarity Citizens’ Committee which was to become a political organization. In the June 1989 election, his party was to win all of the seats in the parliament that it was allowed to try for. In August, he convinced the members of other, formerly communist aligned, to form a non-communist coalition government, the first of many in the Warsaw Pact. Communist governments throughout the Eastern European region began to crumble with the Soviet Union ceasing to exist in late 1991. All this started by a charismatic electrician from Poland.

In December of 1990, Walesa won election as the President of Poland using the slogan, “I don’t want to, I have to.” He was the first freely elected head of Poland in over 63 years. The coming years of privatization and negotiation of a reduction of the foreign debt transformed Poland from a communist nation to one build on capitalism. 

Walesa’s style of governance was confrontational, which, while it worked as an effective means of fighting the powers that be, was not effective when in power. By 1995, Walesa’s popularity dwindled, and he lost the Presidential election that year by just a few percentage points.

Since then, while not terribly popular in his own country, Lech Walesa is popular in the West. There have been accusations that in the 1970’s an 80’s he was a spy for the secret police, and there may be some proof of it. Still, Walesa was an essential lynchpin in the collapse of Communism in Europe and the Soviet Union.

Now to turn over to the man whose inventions changed the world, Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

Say the name Tesla to a young person, and they will immediately think about the car company founded by Elon Musk. It is especially true in my town of Reno, Nevada as just outside of it is the enormous battery gigaplant which helped start the economic boom for the region. But the man born in the Austrian Empire, present-day Croatia on July 10, 1856, to Serbian parents, would change the world. His inventions were the basis for the type of electricity we use today, AC or alternating current. Tesla’s work would be the foundation for both radio and television, yet, at the end of his life, he was pretty much forgotten.

Tesla, as a child, had a very inventive mind and had studied engineering in Graz, Austria. He was in awe of his mother Djuka, whom he claimed always invented new methods of doing housework all the time. His father, Milutin, was an Eastern Orthodox priest who instilled a deep-seated belief in God, very similar to that of another great inventor we met in episode 9, Michael Faraday.

During his teens and early adulthood, he was known to be a very hard worker. So hardworking, that his professors warned his parents that he would burn out if he didn’t ease up.

Between 1878 and 1881, Tesla moved about Eastern Europe going from job to job. What was consistent was at every stop, he was noted for his tinkering with the equipment he worked with, making improvements to many of them much to the amazement of his employers. Then, in 1882, he moved to Paris where Nikola got a job with the Continental Edison Company.

Management was extremely impressed by the now 26-year-old, especially his knowledge of engineering and physics. They sent him off to troubleshoot machines throughout France and Germany. Tesla would improve and upgrade generating dynamos and motors wherever he was stationed. Luckily for Nikola, the manager of the Paris department of Continental Edison was a man named Charles W. Batchelor who was an inventor, close associate, and friend of Thomas Edison, a man we will learn more about in episode 93. 

When Batchelor returned to the US, he requested that Tesla join him as he respected and admired his work. Traveling on the City of Richmond, he arrived on June 6, 1884. As Bernard Carlson writes about Tesla’s arrival in his book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, “As was the case with many immigrants, the customs officer had trouble understanding the nervous man in front of him, and he recorded Tesla as a native of Sweden when in all likelihood he had told the officer his birthplace as Smiljan. Years later, he recalled the process of formally entering the United States consisted of a clerk barking at him ‘Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!'”

Tesla thought America to be a terribly crude place, unlike Paris, Prague, and Budapest. Instead of dwelling on the differences, he plunged right into his work as he was so want to do. His first job was to repair the dynamos in the transatlantic passenger ship the SS Oregon. Within two days, he and his team completed the task and the ship went off and set a new record on an eastern bound trip to Europe.

The work Tesla did impress Edison, but all the while, he was thinking about his idea for an AC motor. Edison on the other hand was working on an arc lighting system for streetlamps. He created the design and the patent but handed the detailed work to Tesla. After completing it, Nikola expected to be given a bonus, but none was forthcoming. This was to be a recurring theme within Edison’s company. He would leave them after working there for only six months.

 Tesla was approached by two men Benjamin Vail and Robert Lane to work on arc lighting. They formed the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing company. Nikola developed many patents for his new system and transferred them to the company in exchange for shares. Quickly after the patents were rewarded, Vail and Lane abandoned the company leaving Tesla holding the bag. Since he assigned the patents to the company and the company was now worthless, Tesla could not use his own work. He was flat broke and had to find odd jobs as a day laborer. As he wrote in his memoirs, “I lived through a year of terrible heartaches and bitter tears, my suffering being intensified by material want.”

In 1886, amid his hardships, Tesla applied for a patent for a thermomagnetic motor. Nikola was introduced to two men, first Alfred Brown and later Charles Peck. They would help fund his work. They would turn to George Westinghouse by giving him a licensing agreement to use Tesla’s magnetic induction motor. The problem that came up was the monetary crisis of 1890 which caused Westinghouse to ask Tesla to forgo his $15,000 royalty payment as he would lose control of his company if he didn’t get the royalty burden off the books. Tesla agreed. Luckily for him, George Westinghouse was an honorable man, and six years later, he paid Tesla $216,000 a substantial sum for the time.

Over the next few years, Nikola worked in Manhattan at several locations developing things like the Tesla coil, wireless lighting, steam-powered oscillating generator and of course, the polyphase alternating current system known to us today as AC power. Tesla was to consult on the energy production generator at Niagara Falls after the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Westinghouse showed off the safety, reliability, and efficiency of AC power. This was in opposition to Thomas Edison who was in favor of direct current, known as DC. Edison realized his error and embraced AC taking many construction contracts away from Tesla. 

Tragedy struck Nikola when on March 13, 1895, his lab caught on fire. Many of his early writings, along with all of his equipment, were destroyed. Still, Tesla continued on with his work, creating the first radio-controlled boat. He pitched the idea of radio-controlled torpedoes to the military, but he was quickly rebuffed. Tesla also believed that he could transmit messages through the air in 1899, but Guglielmo Marconi would do it first in 1901.

Another idea of Tesla’s that he spent a great deal of money on was a project on transmitting power not through wires, but through the earth itself. He created two experimental stations, one in Colorado Springs and one on Long Island, New York. Problem was, nobody wanted to invest in his projects as they didn’t see any money in them. Most of what Tesla was coming up with was theoretical and challenged the status quo.

Tesla’s project at Wardenclyffe Long Island was shut down in 1905, which many believe is what precipitated Nikola’s nervous breakdown. Things would continue to go downhill for Tesla. As Carlson states in his biography, “he had a spectacular ascent (1884-94) followed by an equally dramatic descent (1895-1905).” The author also pointed out a quote from Laurence A. Hawkins “Ten years ago, if public opinion in this country had been required to name the electrician of greatest promise, the answer would without a doubt have been Nikola Tesla. Today his name provokes at best a regret that so great a promise should have been unfulfilled.”

Tesla would continue to receive patents for many years, but few would ever generate much income. His last was in 1928 for a VTOL aircraft that would take off vertically. It never got off the ground. Tesla lived at the Waldorff-Astoria in Manhattan from 1900 until he was made to leave because he had many unpaid bills. Tesla would go from hotel to hotel, with the same outcome, tossed out due to large unpaid bills. 

In 1934, Westinghouse began to pay Tesla $125 a month and his rent at the Hotel New Yorker. In 1937, at the age of 81, Nikola was hit by a taxi causing him grave injuries. He would never fully recover as he refused to see a doctor. On January 7, 1943, at the age of 86, Nikola Tesla would die alone at the New Yorker Hotel.

Now it’s time to head on over to the scorers’ table.

We start with the 15 points for how long they were a rebel, rogue, or scholar. With Lech Walesa, we begin in 1968 with his first protests and end in 2006 when he quit Solidarity for a total of 38 years. With Nikola Tesla, we start in 1881 when he first began his innovations in Budapest, Hungary at the Tivadar Puskás telegraph company and end in 1928 with his last patent for a total of 37 years. Walesa gets 15 points, Tesla 14.

Next up is 20 points for how they affected the world in their time. This is a hard one to judge for one side versus the other. Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement helped to bring down the Soviet Union and the entirety of the Warsaw Pact while Nikola Tesla created the AC power system that is used throughout the world. I’m going out the twenty points to both men as I feel that their accomplishments were of equal stature.

Next up is the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on history. Again, we have a really tough decision to make here. Lech Walesa helped to usher in a whole new geopolitical stage with an end to the Cold War as one of the ramifications. With Tesla, we have our entire electric world to thank him for. Could others have accomplished some of the great things both men did? Yes, likely others would have stepped up, but that is conjecture, and we’re here to judge them by their accomplishments. Twenty-five points to each.

Now for the final test, the forty points for how they made their country better. With Lech Walesa, we have a man who helped to overthrow the repressive communist system that subjugated millions of people from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Has it all been peaches and cream? Of course not. The standard of living for the Polish people improved since his rebellious time. As for Nikola Tesla, we have a man who transformed his world and especially the country he became a citizen of at the age of 35 in 1891. For these reasons, I’m giving each man the full forty points.

By a score of 100 to 99, Lech Walesa moves on to the second round

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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