Skip to main content

Tesla, inventor of the electrical age – W. Bernard Carlson ****

I’ve reviewed two biographies of the engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla: Man out of Time (which is good on Tesla’s odd behaviour but struggles with the science) and Wizard (which is a more rounded book, but is totally lost in the science, telling us that Telsa was close to splitting the electron). This is definitely the best of the three. Certainly it is far better on the aspects of Tesla’s work that are worthwhile – his engineering genius in working on AC motors and polyphase AC, giving comprehensive details of his designs and work.
There is also plenty on his long obsession with transmitting information and electrical energy remotely, culminating in the remarkable Wardenclyffe development with its iconic discharge tower, which ruined him financially and proved his downfall when he was unable to deliver on his promises to be able to span the Atlantic in six months to financier J. P. Morgan. By contrast, though, some of his more wild schemes and his social oddities are only discussed in passing – Carlson hints at the possibility that Tesla was homosexual, which would have been controversial in his day, but hardly mentions his strange eating habits and pigeon-befriending activities. I’m not sure the balance is quite right. This is after, after all a biography, and we  get a rather sketchy picture of Tesla, the man. It may be because Carlson struggles with that side of biography – we hear, for instance, the strangely childlike line that his father died because he was heartbroken. But any shortcomings on the personal front are more than made up for by the exquisite detail on the engineering achievements.
There was one other aspect I was uncomfortable with, which was that Carlson seemed to find it difficult to admit when Tesla was wrong. The facts seem to be that Tesla was a brilliant engineer, but only a so-so scientist. It’s not an unusual combination, and Tesla often managed to develop technology by trial and error without understanding the underlying physics. Specifically he had a poor grasp of the nature of electromagnetic radiation, leading to his odd ideas of being able to transmit electrical energy as a form of vibration through the Earth. While Carlson makes it clear Tesla didn’t succeed he avoids saying that Tesla failed to understand the science, using phrases like ‘raises questions about its feasibility’ in a situation that demands ‘it was just never going to work.’ There is also reasonable evidence that many of Teslas promises of being able to develop technology were nothing more than evasions to put off his creditors or pure fantasy – again Tesla gets too much benefit of the doubt.
Overall, though this is an enjoyable biography of Tesla, concentrating in detail on his engineering achievements and business arrangements, even though it could have been firmer on the unscientific nature of some of Tesla’s ideas.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under