Nicola Tesla (1856-1943), the ""eccentric inventor"" incarnate, is an irresistible subject, even in this mawkish biography. The man who developed the alternating current method of transmitting electricity (and, we now know, predated Marconi in the invention of radio) was an impeccably turned-out dandy, a convinced bachelor, and a favorite of New York's 400. In his palmier days he lived at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he preceded his solitary meals by an obligatory polishing of plate and silver, using the 13 linen napkins arranged before him for that purpose. Yet he had arrived in New York, in 1884, as a penniless Serbian immigrant. Despite Cheney's Victorian schoolmarmish style (""But soon the seduction of the laboratory claimed his time again,"" etc.) and her transparent devotion to her subject, all this makes for delicious reading--peopled with literati, robber barons, and rivals. The animosity between Tesla and his first employer, Edison, ran deep: Edison, Cheney recounts, would ruthlessly electrocute stray cats and dogs to warn the public of the dangers of AC (and Westinghouse) compared with DC (and General Electric). And while Tesla built models of, or conceived the operating principles for, a host of latter-day marvels (remotely guided missiles and torpedoes, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, radar, television) and also, presciently, envisioned harnessing solar and geothermal energy, he was fully capable, too, of dead wrong or preposterous ideas. He pooh-poohed Einstein and relativity; believed Mars to be inhabited and signaling Earth; had no doubt he could build a death ray. Cheney does some psychoanalyzing to sort out these various strands; but it's the oddity of Tesla and his multifarious, incongruent activities that's fascinating here.