Image: Bre Pettis
courtesy Bre Pettis
Host Bre Pettis and his Tesla coil on the set of his show "History Hacker."
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 9/26/2008 9:05:33 AM ET 2008-09-26T13:05:33

Circuit-bending YouTube star Bre Pettis doesn’t want you to know that before making his History Channel pilot, he hadn’t seen “The Prestige.”

It’s not that he purposely failed to catch Chris Nolan’s 2006 adaptation of the steam punk novel about rival magicians starring Batman (Christian Bale) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

It seems Pettis never got around to it. And by the time he started putting together “History Hacker,” premiering Friday Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. and midnight, it was too late.

Not too late to ever see “The Prestige,” mind you. But “History Hacker’s” premise is to focus each episode on the life and innovations of one inventor, and the pilot is about Nikola Tesla.

Pettis didn’t want to infect his flow by watching David Bowie’s critically-acclaimed portrayal of “The Father of Physics,” a pivotal — albeit fictionalized — character in the film. 

Perfectly reasonable. Lots of these creative types censor their sensory input for just that reason. What’s funny here is that in a recent interview with Technotica about his “History Hacker” pilot, Pettis kind of, sort of wanted his missing “Prestige” experience left off the record.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love David Bowie,” Pettis said via VoIP. “Please don’t tell anybody.”

Mind you, Pettis is a guy who can reverse engineer Tesla creations, and he's worried it wouldn't look right if people found out he didn't see some movie that introduced many a modern layperson to Tesla’s existence.

Whatever. It's amusing. So with Pettis’s reluctant permission, I’m sharing.

Meanwhile, if you came away from “The Prestige” wanting to know more about the real guy behind Bowie’s portrayal of an enigmatic inventor who walked through storms of electric current of his own creation, the truth is at least as cool as the fiction.

“At the turn of the century, electricity was magic, and really, it still is today,” Pettis says.

“This (TV show) is for all the curious people out there who want to learn about the electricity that comes out of your wall. You can run a hair dryer from the electricity in your wall generated from a power plant far, far way. That blows my mind.”

Here in the 21st century, Thomas Edison is the go-to guy when most people think of electricity. No wonder, given Edison’s gift for self promotion and that he’d go so far as to electrocute kittens in public demonstrations meant to discredit Tesla’s AC electricity in favor of his own DC current. (True story!)

But as Pettis reminds us in “History Hacker,” it’s Tesla who won the current war.

Weird guy that Tesla was, given his many character quirks — not the least of which included an obsession with the number 3, a pathological repulsion of fat people, a self-described love affair with a pigeon, and the fact that at the end of his life he was working on an actual “death ray,” — his genius also foresaw much of modern life.

Plus, he totally invented the remote control.

No exaggeration here. Tesla was quite possibly the closest a man can get to being a real live super hero. Dude could imagine and adjust whole inventions in his head, then build them fully-formed with little to no trial and error. For real! 

These are some of the amazing, if underappreciated facts that Pettis hopes to telegraph to we, the unmechanically-inclined in the “History Hacker” premiere.

As a former school teacher, a “Do It Yourself” video blogger and videographer for Internet craftsman collective “Etsy,” Pettis should have the chops to do just that.

The how-to elements of his Internet entries provide the narrative for the “History Hacker” pilot. Pettis explores Telsa’s many achievements on the show, and tries some out. Visiting a glass blowing studio in Brooklyn, “I learn how to blow a glass tube and fill it with neon gas,” Pettis says.

“I build an AC generator from a bike and I also go to Boston to visit an MIT space lab to see how the principles that Tesla pioneered are being applied to space propulsion.”

“History Hacker” also features many of the video components of his Webcasts. The show “takes my style of jump cuts and keeps pushing forward,” Pettis says.

“There are split screens where I have conversations with myself and a scene in my Infinite Workshop, which is a really big room that has curbed edges and is all white, it takes an immense amount of electricity to light it and it looks awesome.”

(It does.)

Image: Bre Pettis
courtesy Bre Pettis
Bre Pettis talks to himself inside his all-white Infinity Workshop.
“If you’re flipping channels and you come across it, you’ll think ‘WHAT IS THIS?’ ”

This is what Pettis is really, really hoping for. So far the History Channel’s commissioned only the pilot, and “History Hacker” will need to catch a lot of viewers for the channel to agree to more.

On the downside, “History Hacker” premieres on a Friday — a traditionally bad night for TV shows – and Pettis says he hasn’t figured out a way to hack the Neilsen Ratings (a joke). The pilot is also scheduled the same night as the 9 p.m. debatable Presidential Debate, which Pettis is choosing to see as a positive, given that the one-hour “History Hacker” shows at 8 p.m. and midnight, prime channel-flipping slots.

“For the show, I end up going to the Theater of Electricity at the Museum of Science in Boston,” Pettis says. “They have 10-foot high Tesla coils, which are very cool, sending electricity through the air."

"There’s nothing like that to give you respect for electricity — hearing that sound and smelling the ozone," he continues. "You’re not going to fall asleep while that’s going on, that’s for sure.”

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