Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age by W. Bernard Carlson (review)
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Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age. By W. Bernard Carlson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. 500. $29.95.

Nikola Tesla is one of the few figures in the history of science and technology to attain “cult” status. It is not surprising that many biographies have been written since his death seventy years ago. Now, a truly scholarly, fully documented biography of Tesla has appeared. Bernard Carlson has written an outstanding book, full of perceptive insights into one of history’s most fascinating but enigmatic figures. On page 7 he states the aim of his book: “while previous biographies have focused largely on Tesla’s personality, this book seeks to take measure of both the man and his creative work. Throughout the book I will seek to answer three basic questions: How did Tesla invent? How did his inventions work? And what happened as he introduced his inventions?

Carlson has managed to steer a course between the hagiography of some past biographies and the harsh views of some of Tesla’s contemporaries. For example, Lawrence A. Hawkins wrote in 1903: “Ten years ago, if public opinion in this country had been required to name the electrician of greatest promise, the answer would without doubt have been ‘Nikola Tesla.’ Today his name provokes at best a regret that so great a promise should have been unfulfilled.” (p. 6)

The book is much more than a biography, as Carlson examines the art of invention as it applied to Tesla. He skillfully weaves into the narrative insights as to why Tesla approached his work in the way he did. As one example, he suggests that Tesla’s upbringing in the Serbian Orthodox Church probably had an impact on his views of the world, thus affecting his approach to invention. “Tesla may have come to the conclusion that an [End Page 1009] inventor needs solitude by drawing on his Orthodox religious background. To be able to discern the logos in the natural and man-made worlds, one has to learn not to be distracted by the temptations of life.” (p. 247)

One of the most interesting discussions (pp. 206–7) relates to divergent and convergent thinking. Inventors think divergently when they first have an idea, allowing them to see all of its possibilities. Later, during the development stage, convergent thinking takes over, resulting in a marketable product. Tesla was perhaps the greatest of divergent thinkers but not very good at convergent thinking. This cost him dearly because, by not developing commercial products, he lost an enormous source of income. Worse, not creating practical (if humdrum) products led colleagues and potential backers to see him increasingly as a showman, incapable of inventing things that could be sold profitably. For example, demonstrating a radio-controlled boat was a remarkable achievement in 1898, but the lack of electronic amplification technologies prevented this from becoming a practical device until much later. Tesla’s far-reaching ideas were often beyond the technical capabilities of his day.

The book has some defects, none significant. First, the title; Carlson is well aware that Tesla did not invent the electrical age; he was one of many who made this possible. Second, on page 389 there is a reference to Mark Twain dying in 1913; the correct date was 1910. Third, the physical production of the book is not of particularly high quality, and the reproduction of some of the photographs (see p. 372, fig. 16.2) is poor. Also, for a book certain to be in libraries, lack of proper, sewn bindings will become an issue.

Dr. Carlson has written an outstanding work, exhibiting a true understanding of the complex person who was Nikola Tesla. The book is alternatively uplifting—as it reveals how Tesla’s mind worked, creating prototypes of inventions which have changed the world—and heartbreaking. Tesla was a true tragic hero (in the classical sense) whose greatest strength—being able to visualize inventions in his mind’s eye—was also his greatest weakness when his visions did not comply with the real world. [End Page 1010]

John Bowditch

John Bowditch, formerly curator of industry at the Henry Ford, is currently director of...