Double Review ~ Two About Tesla

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

Cover via Goodreads

Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America’s first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman, he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius. Even at the end of his life when he was living in poverty, Tesla still attracted reporters to his annual birthday interview, regaling them with claims that he had invented a particle-beam weapon capable of bringing down enemy aircraft.

Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla’s private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an “idealist” inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion. (via Goodreads)

Last week, I finished my mini block of Tesla. Since November of last year I’ve read two fiction books and two-ish non-fiction books. The two fictional characterization were very strongly based on the mythology of Tesla, the mad scientist and the underdog geek hero. W. Bernard Carlson’s biography offers a different perspective, a more down-to-earth one.

“In writing about Tesla, one must navigate between unfair criticism and excessive enthusiasm.”

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age doesn’t cover the entirety of Tesla’s life or every aspect of it. Instead, Carlson mainly covers Tesla’s early life through 1905. The focus is on how Tesla invented and what might have influenced his philosophies, while incidentally debunking some of the Tesla myths. (For example: Tesla *would* build from what he designed in his mind, but the machines were not always perfect. The designs were only as good as Tesla’s understanding of the underlying system, which was often very, very good, but not always complete.)

The book is much more technical than I expected, but I was okay with that.  I didn’t need to understand every nitty-gritty electrical engineering detail. Rather than a recitation of events, Tesla’s innovations are given cultural and economic context. Neither Tesla nor Edison invented in a void. Like it or not, money was an issue especially in the case of disruptive innovations. In the case of DC and AC power, many DC systems were already in place. AC power might have had long term advantages, but the cost of refitting the existing systems was deemed too high during the economic downturn of the late 1800s. Also, Tesla seems to have suffered from an overage of ideas as he moved from the ideals in his imagination to the potential technologies. Often these ideas didn’t translate into products that would give the public or the money-men reason to back Tesla.

This was PaleoFuture’s first “book club” book and Dr. Carlson was invited to answer questions about the book and his research into Tesla. The book itself has over a 100 pages of notes and references; Carlson is no slouch when it comes to research and it’s always fun to hear from an author who is obviously excited about his subject. I really enjoyed this look at Tesla. It’s very easy to say, “The guy was a nutty genius!” or “Poor Tesla, he was totally screwed over by everyone.” The truth is always more subtle and complex.

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: May 7th 2013
Genre: Non-fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? Curious about Nikola Tesla

And speaking complexity, or rather the lack of it:

Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man That Invented the 20th Century by Sean Patrick

Cover via Goodreads

If you want to learn about one of history’s most fascinating minds and uncover some of his secrets of imagination—secrets that enabled him to invent machines light years ahead of his time and literally bring light to the world—then you want to read this book.

Imagination amplifies and colors every other element of genius, and unlocks our potential for understanding and ability.

It’s no coincidence that geniuses not only dare to dream of the impossible for their work, but do the same for their lives. They’re audacious enough to think that they’re not just ordinary players.

Few stories better illustrate this better than the life of the father of the modern world, a man of legendary imaginative power and wonder: Nikola Tesla.

In this book, you’ll be taken on a whirlwind journey through Tesla’s life and work, and not only learn about the successes and mistakes of one of history’s greatest inventors, but also how to look at the world in a different, more imaginative way.

Read this book now and learn lessons from Nikola Tesla on why imagination is so vital to awakening your inner genius, and insights into the real “secret” to creativity, as explained by people like Jobs, Picasso, Dali, and Twain. (via Goodreads)

I picked this up as an Amazon freebie. While I don’t disagree with some of the self-improvement notions in this book, it somewhat annoying that Patrick uses a pretty stock bio of Tesla as a commercial for his longer work on genius. Yes, obviously, Tesla was imaginative and displayed perseverance, but that is the really simplistic, mythologized view of the man.

Publisher: Oculus Publishers
Publication date: April 9th 2013

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2 thoughts on “Double Review ~ Two About Tesla

  1. Pingback: Armchair BEA ~ Introduction | The Writerly Reader

  2. Pingback: The Best I Read in 2014 | The Writerly Reader

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