Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson (review)
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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. By W. Bernard Carlson. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. 520. $29.95 cloth)

This book is the culmination of W. Bernard Carlson’s fifteen years of research on the life and inventions of Nikola Tesla and on the changing socioeconomic context in which he worked. Carlson’s articles and talks have teased electrical historians, raising our expectations that the final product will be special. And it is. Tesla is a tour de force of sound scholarship and cogent analysis that brings to life one of the most eccentric and enigmatic characters in the history of technology.

Tesla is one person in technological history who has not been ignored, for much has been written about him during his lifetime and since. Not only are there many biographies, but he has also become a cult figure in popular culture, even featured in a recent movie. Accordingly, the book’s potential audience reaches well beyond scholars of electrical history, an expectation reflected in the very modest price. Having mined the primary sources in the United States, England, and Serbia to an unprecedented depth and breadth, Carlson unearthed much new information about Tesla’s life, inventions, and his relationships with potential and actual financial supporters, including John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan.

Previous Tesla biographies have been “technology lite,” but Carlson exhaustively treats the inventions: how they worked or would supposedly work, supplemented by copious drawings and photographs of high quality. The book discusses Tesla’s successes and failures—in [End Page 522] invention and in raising money—and offers explanations for both. Conceived early in his career, Tesla’s most significant inventions were the AC motor and polyphase system of transmission, which were commercialized by Westinghouse. The Tesla technologies enabled the firm to surpass Edison’s DC system, which eventually forced Edison out of the electric-power industry. Readers who find the technical details off-putting may want to skip these descriptions; the narrative can still be followed. I did find tedious the surfeit of very long quotations that merely inflict on the reader the discourse styles of a century ago without necessarily advancing the story.

What gives Tesla’s life and work an unexpected unity, and the narrative coherence and continuity, is Carlson’s analysis of Tesla’s mode of invention: the creation in his mind’s eye of an ideal—the vision of technology that might be. Carlson shows that this kind of vision or ideal spanned all of Tesla’s inventions and also affected the way he structured experiments, exploited the media, and approached donors. Carlson’s notion of the ideal helps to clarify many puzzling aspects of Tesla’s behavior. Of course no ideal was fully formed at birth and some were scientifically impossible; moreover, the amount of research and development needed to realize any of them, including the AC motor, was daunting.

Tesla’s largest failing was, as Carlson points out so well, in the single-minded pursuit of his ideals, such as universal transmission of power through the earth, to the neglect of fully developing and bringing to market more mundane inventions that might have furnished steady support. Tesla’s strategy contrasted with Edison’s; the latter would commercialize anything, even a talking doll, to garner income for his invention factory.

Historians of technology and science owe Carlson a debt of gratitude for undertaking this challenging project and bringing it to such a successful conclusion. His painstaking construction of Tesla—the man, his inventions, and societal context—will remain the definitive work for many decades. [End Page 523]

Michael Brian Schiffer

MICHAEL BRIAN SCHIFFER is the Fred A. Riecker Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. His recent books include Studying Technological Change: A Behavioral Approach (2011) and The Archaeology of Science: Studying the Creation of Useful Knowledge (2013).

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