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Reconciling the Visionary with the Inventor

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla
November 1, 1997

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) emerg-ed from a Serbian family in a remote Croatian village to become a world-famous inventor at the age of 32, when he sold his patent rights to a system of alternating-current (AC) dynamos, transformers, and motors to George Westinghouse. By developing a motor that converted AC into motive power, Tesla laid the groundwork for today’s electrical geography. Before his inventions, electric power lingered as an isolated, local utility, available only at great expense through Thomas Edison’s direct-current (DC) system. The deal between Tesla and Westinghouse led to a showdown between the DC approach and the AC system-the latter of which eventually won out.

The tale of Tesla’s humble beginnings, ingenuity, and early success would appear sufficient to garner him everlasting re-nown. But despite Tesla’s impact on electricity, history does not regard him as highly as many of his inventive contemporaries. As Marc J. Seifer, the author of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla shows, Tesla’s later claims of wizardry and his outlandish predictions about technology’s future transformed him into a laughable figure during his lifetime. At times inept at handling his own celebrity or courting the press, Tesla waited too long to claim precedent-setting accomplishments in transmitting radio signals over great distances, yet in 1899 he announced publicly that his Colorado Springs laboratory had received signals from Mars. Today, however, the author, among others, champions Tesla as a neglected genius and the father of such later marvels as cellular phones, digital communications, and pixels.

The combination of hoarded secrets and flamboyant pronouncements made Tesla hard to trust. Although he was also a pioneer in fluorescent lighting and wireless communication, Tesla, unlike Edison or Guglielmo Marconi, failed to translate public attention into the sort of financial support that might lead to an enduring corporate legacy. Despite his sheer brilliance, he had little of the know-how required for success and ultimately failed as an entrepreneur.

As Seifer shows in great detail, Tesla’s quirks further damaged his reputation. The inventor who had learned to handle high voltages apparently lived in abject terror of germs. He followed his own peculiar dietary rules; in his later years, Tesla lived only on milk, bread, and vegetable juices. And he imagined enemies among his influential contemporaries, whether for legitimate or exaggerated slights, withdrawing in bitterness from Edison and physicists Michael Pupin and Heinrich Hertz, as well as from many in the Westinghouse and General Electric companies.

Tesla lived out the last of his days alone, feeding the pigeons in New York City. When he died, the only American to believe in one of his favorite inventions, a supposed “death ray,” was J. Edgar Hoover, who appears to have ordered the collection of Tesla’s papers and effects. The FBI eventually returned them to Serbia, where they now reside in a Belgrade museum devoted to Tesla’s memory.

Overall, Tesla’s story is complicated and tests our definition of science and technology as stemming from participants whose articles can be cited and whose creations can be linked directly to their inventor. Where does someone like Tesla fit in? For all his inventions and dreams, can we believe Seifer’s claim that Tesla’s numerous experiments foreshadowed Wilhelm Rentgen’s discovery of x-rays or Albert Einstein’s exploration of quantum physics? Could Tesla have envisioned facsimile machines, video cameras, digital recording, artificial intelligence, and robotics? Answers to some of these questions may be affirmative if we are willing, for instance, to allow that Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter, when he drew a fanciful, vertical-lift contraption in one of his Codices.

Unfortunately for those unfamiliar with Tesla’s work, the author, who teaches psychology, may not have the expertise to understand Tesla’s contributions fully. In fact, since Seifer’s technical explanations can be puzzling, serious readers may want to read The Complete Patents of Nikola Tesla (Barnes & Noble Books, 1994), a compendium of the inventor’s patented works, to help them determine their view of the inventor’s rightful place in history.

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