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Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future - Iwan Rhys Morus ****

Nikola Tesla divides the world into three. Those who haven't a clue who he was, those who think he was a genius scientist, thwarted by the industrial/military complex, and those who think he was a brilliant electrical engineer who became a fantasist as he got older.

Presumably because it makes the best story, existing biographies of Tesla tend to support the second viewpoint: they lap up every fantastical suggestion Tesla made and give examples of what were nothing more than science fiction as an example of his 'ahead of his time' genius. So, for example, they claim he invented the mobile phone, because he said his (totally unworkable) project for transmitting energy through the Earth would mean you could have a device in your pocket that enabled communication anywhere in the world. This is a bit like saying Cyrano de Bergerac invented the Apollo space vehicles because he said you could get into space using rockets.

Compared with earlier biographers, Iran Rhys Morus strikes a good balance, recognising Tesla's exception ability in electrical engineering, yet making it clear just how unlikely many of his later claims were. As a historian of science, Morus gives us lots of material on the work that was going on at the same time, putting what Tesla did into context, whether it's coverage of other inventors of the period such as Edison, or on the development of the new electrically-based world that Tesla played a part in.

For this reason, I have given the book four stars - it is, without doubt, the best of the bunch at assessing Tesla's technological achievements and putting them into context. However, there is also a significant problem here. This isn't a biography at all, it's a history book. Morus gives us so much context that you can go several pages at a time without Telsa being mentioned at all. We really find out nothing about Tesla, the man. There's no mention, for example, of his strange behaviours and habits, from hosting pigeons in his hotel room to his food obsessions. There is nothing about his relations with other people or his infamous 'death ray in a box' that turned out to be a Wheatstone bridge. Whole swathes of his inventions are missed, from the vibrating platform to the disc-based pump. And there's little about how Tesla seems to have misunderstood much of the physics of the day.

To be honest, at times this lack of focus on Tesla makes the book a little dull. Don't get me wrong - I have given Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future four stars because it is, without doubt, an excellent history of the part of the electrical revolution that Tesla was involved in. But it isn't the biography I hoped for that combined accurate history, good understanding of the science and a thorough exploration of Tesla himself. We're still waiting for that.

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Review by Brian Clegg 


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