Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

Raise your hand if you've heard of Nikola Tesla. If you're in an engineering-type field you probably have, or if you've read a lot about the early 1900s, but after relentlessly quizzing everyone I ran into while I was reading this, most people don't know the first thing about him, so it might surprise you to hear that he was the greatest inventor ever, period.

I was first introduced to him in the movie The Prestige, which is an amazing movie that everyone should see, and see more than once. I thought he was a fictional creation for a long time, but when I found out he wasn't I knew immediately that I was going to be fixated on him for a long time. If ever there was a real-life mad scientist, it was Tesla.

Tesla first invented practically everything we ascribe to other inventors like Edison and Marconi. In some cases his early work inspired later inventions, in some cases other inventors used his basic inventions in their apparatus, and in some cases there was outright theft. Tesla patented all of his work, (scientists still find that their "new" inventions now can't be patented because he already did it a hundred years ago,) but the constant legal battles kept the public confused as to who invented what. That combined with his iffy business skills and other random factors lead to him being little remembered today, even though he was a famous and celebrated inventor in his time. (He did get his name on the Tesla coil, which is used to produce the alternating current we use, and he valued making such a contribution to history over the money he might've been making, but I only wish he was remembered for everything he deserved! )

Tesla was truly a visionary. He made intuitive leaps even beyond where our technology is today. He described and demonstrated things, like fire he held in his hand and a "death ray" that could vaporize aircraft (not built and demonstrated) that we can't figure out how to recreate. He did a lot of his work in his head, which only adds to the befuddlement and awe. While other inventors were still messing around inventing with wireless radio equipment he was already building and demonstrating remote-controlled submarines. The government wouldn't buy them.

On top of his brilliance his friends loved him, and even just reading about him made me dream about seeing beautiful, magnificent things that no one has ever seen before. Reading his biography was like reading an amazing science fiction novel, only it was all true!

I don't have enough room to summarize the whole book with all his achievements and ideas, so I highly recommend picking up this biography in its newest revision because it's clearly and thoroughly written, with equal parts emotional prose and technical explanation. I haven't read any of his other biographies yet, just skimmed a few things and read articles, but there seem to be plenty of them available, just in case you can't find Man Out of Time.

Buy Tesla: Man Out of Time


  1. I'm not an engineer, I'm just married to one and I have heard of Tesla (although I couldn't quite put my finger on what he was famous for). Mainly, this is because I enjoy reading about the history of science and invention. Thanks for this review... I'm adding it to my TBR pile right now.

  2. Guilty as charged on having heard of him due to being an engineer. I also read a book called AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. It's mostly about Edison and Westinghouse, but it obviously has quite a bit about Tesla in it, too.

    The thing that bugs me, looking back on my engineering education, is that there was so little attention paid to the *history* of science. The stories behind the men and women are absolutely fascinating.

  3. Hope you enjoy it, DebD!

    I don't have a particularly scientific mind, but I think I would've enjoyed learning about those things a lot more in school if more attention was paid to the history, how things were discovered and why they were so significant.

    I'll have to check out the other book you mentioned!

  4. He does sound like an interesting guy. Didn't he have some odd quirks? Was he the one with the pearl necklace phobia? I'll have to check this one out. Thanks!

  5. Pearl earrings, actually. You have a good memory! He also only liked numbers divisible by three, and was compelled to calculate the volume of any food he was eating... Very interesting stuff. The book has a chapter or two about it and I think it mentioned some possible diagnoses, but I can't remember what they were. Tourette's?

  6. That's interesting - I need to pick up this book! Yes, my memory is great for the bizarre factoids, but in school I could never remember the important dates or political alliances. :-)


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