Reading Diary: Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson

Nikola Tesla is a science rockstar. How can you tell? Like any great rockstar, he's dead. And he has a rock band named after him. He's wild and colourful. He epitomizes the mad scientist. He was flamboyant and yet strangely ascetic, he was fond of spectacle and showmanship yet also a bit of a hermit. He was a prodigious inventor and scientist, perhaps unparalleled in his own or any time. He's inspired web comic wars, even. And a Indigogo campaign to raise funds for a museum. And a Kickstarter for a graphic novel adaptation of his life. (Yes, I supported both...)

In fact, his out-sized reputation so epitomizes the mad scientist in pop culture, there are some that would even prefer to forbid science fiction creators from using him as a character in their stories.

Now this is influence!

But perhaps not all to the good.

Which brings us to W. Bernard Carlson's rather more sober than averge Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age to set the record straight, to show us who Nikola Tesla really was.

And who he was was unquestionably a great scientist, engineer and inventor. And unquestionable more than a little odd. But the "more than a little odd" has tended to overshadow the scientist/engineer/inventor part. Leading Lauren Davis of io9 to publish a very sincere cri de coeur: Why I'm tired of seeing Nikola Tesla in science fiction.

Which brings us back to Carlson's book. First of all, it is very definitely in the tradition of a scientific biography, the most notable of which is probably Abraham Pais's Einstein bio Subtle Is the Lord with recent Galileo and Poincaré books following in the tradition.

And Carlson achieves his aim of rehabilitating Tesla's reputation. He basically starts his story with Tesla's birth and follows he life chronologically right to the end, mostly in a very descriptive "he did this, then he invented that, then he tried to get money from that tycoon," downplaying idiosyncrasies and rivalries. Which is fine, of course, as we're had enough of the crazy in the science fictional treatments.

Of course, the downside is that the book is a bit drier that one might expect from a Tesla biography. Lot of gory details on business dealings and patent applications and reams of diagrams and schematics are more the order of business here. To the point where it would have been nice if Carleson had sprinkled a bit more analysis and context in with the detail, especially in relation to Tesla's growing need for spectacle.

But at the end of the day, we do get a vision of Tesla as the first truly disruptive innovator in what we would consider a modern application of that term. AC power, the work on wireless power transmission and direct energy weapons, the big labs, it was all there just like any modern day Silicon Valley disruption guru. He was the Elon Musk of his day, or perhaps better, the Steve Jobs.

In all, a very solid book, if not quite a page-turner. I would definitely recommend this book to all academic libraries that collect science biographies. Larger public libraries would also benefit from having this book in their collection. It is perhaps a bit dry for high school libraries, but there are plenty of more sensational Tesla biographies for that. As well, this would make a great holiday gift for any science or engineering nerd.

Carlson, W. Bernard. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 520pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691057767

(Review copy provided by the publisher.)

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When I was a kid we heard plenty about Edison and nothing about Tesla. Perhaps this was due to Edison's association with General Electric, but Tesla was associated with Westinghouse, so one would have expected a bit of competition in the publicity arena;-) In any case it was a surprise when I first learned that the polyphase AC system was invented by an eccentric genius from Eastern Europe.

I'm inclined to think there's a pendulum-swing at work here. First, early bios of Tesla tended to emphasize the sensational aspects of his life & work. Now we have something rather more dry. Over time we can expect a more balanced treatment that doesn't sensationalize but isn't entirely dry either.

And speaking of other things bearing the name Tesla, there is or was a major Czech electrical manufacturer by that name. Among other things, they produced telephone equipment for use in Czechoslovakia and for export. From time to time you can find Tesla dial phones on Ebay, typically for less than $50. 1960s retro-cool that still works today.

Carlson's book is a long overdue and sober look at a larger-than-life inventor-scientist. But the Elon Musk or Steve Jobs of his day? These scions of Silicon Valley can't hold a candle to Tesla in inventiveness or self-promotion. I have a hard time imagining G-men seizing Steve Jobs' papers in hopes of finding plans for a death ray or unlimited power source. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Tesla's life is that even in old age, long after experts had written him off, people still believed that he was capable of changing the world.

By Michael White (not verified) on 21 Oct 2013 #permalink