Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age – Book Review

j9941A search on Amazon of “Nikola Tesla in books” will repaint your browser with 1,872 choices. A Viemo search on Nikola Tesla will yield 552 videos across 56 pages. That’s too much content for me to absorb with my busy schedule so I did what I always do when faced with so many choices. I chose carefully.

My choice was Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. I selected this book because the author is a professor of science, technology and society and has a long history of being published and well  in the technology field. It was a bonus that his three areas of interest, science, technology and society are closely connected to my interests of society, media and technology, which I write about on my blog Expedient MEANS.

Mr. Carlson is an academic with a strong research ethic and that seemed most appropriate to unpack some of the mysteries of Tesla. I wanted to read through the eyes of a historian who understands technology. I got that in this book.

The book is big at 500 pages including a thorough index. A good index is always a sign of a serious writer. If there is no index in a work of non-fiction we can with great confidence,  proclaim the author is lazy.

I’ve come to realize through the reading of this book and the sampling many others, that Tesla had a magician’s flair trapped inside a brilliant, visionary mind of a meta-physical scientist. I’ll stop short of sorcerer, but part of me thinks he would have liked being placed in that category.

Tesla worked very hard his entire life, tirelessly pursuing his dream to bring wireless power to the world. He was his biggest fan, always looking for just a one more round of funding that would finally close the very narrow gap between his desire and reality. It’s been said that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps he even felt that way.

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.

Tesla worked very hard his entire life, tirelessly pursuing his dream to bring wireless power to the world. He was his biggest fan, always looking for just a one more round of funding that would finally close the very narrow gap between his desire and reality.

He had a rare condition known as Synesthesia. Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another sense (vision). Likewise, perception of a shape (number or letter) may cause an unusual perception in the same sense (color). This allowed him to completely design all the details of an invention in his mind and actually run the test or experiment. Since he was completely clear in his mind it often did not fully document his designs and so the Tesla archive is not as it might otherwise be.

It was an amazing life for sure, but not one any of us would likely want to lead. He made perhaps the biggest contributions to the world we share today with our indispensable soul mate, electricity. As I read through the book I jotted down a list of Tesla’s major accomplishments.

  • Mastering Alternating Current (AC). Tesla’s inventions drew interest from the likes of George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan toward him for investment purposes. Edison was not a fan of AC after seeing men electrocuted by its power. Today’s world is electrified by alternating current.
  • Tesla’s input into the Niagara Falls power project led to that team adopting AC as their power choice to send large amounts of power over long distances.
  • Invented the photographic process for producing X-rays (X for unknown) weeks ahead of Wilhelm Roentgen who is officially credited with the invention. Tesla discovered X-ray photography, but failed to realize it at the time.
  • Tesla was the first investigator of electromagnetic waves which was then furthered by Marconi and resulted in the invention of the Radio. Tesla devised circuits using capacitors and coils that improved Marconi’s invention.
  • Other inventions: Induction motor, rotary transformers, high frequency alternators, the Tesla coil, the Tesla oscillator.

The writing of this book is thorough, but dense. The material is very well organized and written in a consistent style throughout, which for a book of this length and a life this diverse is quite an accomplishment. It’s not an breezy read. One must be determined to learn about Tesla to make it through to the end.

Tesla in France

Tesla lecturing at the French Physical Society and International Society of Electricians (Paris, March 1892)

Mr. Carlson takes us back to Tesla’s earliest years. He recounts a difficult childhood that included the tragic loss of a brother and a challenging sickness. Later Tesla began to blossom while attending Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, and his first introduction to electricity and motors. One of his professors said of Tesla.

Tesla was peculiar; it was said of him that he wore the same coat for twenty years. But what he lacked in personal magnetism he made up in the perfection of his exposition. I never saw him miss a word or gesture, and his demonstrations and experiments came off with clocklike precision.

From there Tesla never stopped studying and experimenting. It was the age of the dawning of the magician and he fit right in. He would organize elaborate stage productions to showcase his latest inventions, captivating the crowd with his prestidigitation skills and the magic of electricity. He was viewed as a showman. People didn’t fear him but they did consider him a genius which carries with it a certain amount of eccentricity.

Tesla Receiver

Receiver used by Tesla to detect electromagnetic waves (1890)

To the end, Tesla always believed that wireless power was possible. His work at a Colorado Springs laboratory brought him as close as he would ever be to achieving his dream. But he was not a particularly good businessman and despite his abilities for showmanship, it did not translate well into a cogent story or proposal. His genius just wasn’t taken serious.

He was never rich, but his inventions over the years meant he had ongoing but modest royalties that kept him going through the last decade of his life. Sadly he died nearly penniless in room 3327 of The New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86 in 1943. He never married and there is almost no record of his being involved with a woman at any point in his life.

It’s fitting that Tesla Motors, maker of the pre-eminent electric sedan is named for Nikola Tesla. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is following in the footsteps of Tesla, but doing so with business smarts and Silicon Valley speed. If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla and have some time. I would recommend Mr. Carlson’s book.

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