A scholarly, critical, mostly illuminating study of the life and work of the great Serbian inventor.
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) is so central a figure in the annals of modern science, writes Carlson (Science, Technology and Engineering/Univ. of Virginia; Technology in World History, 2005, etc.), that he has come to be regarded as “second only to Leonardo da Vinci in terms of technological virtuosity” and is sometimes portrayed as the single-handed inventor of the modern age, thwarted by the envious likes of Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi. The truth is more complicated, and though Tesla’s innovations figure in the everyday technology of the present day, he seems to have had more failures than successes, as well as a singular knack for having his thunder stolen by his competitors. Carlson examines Tesla’s processes of invention, experimentation and confirmation, as well as how he brought (or failed to bring) his inventions to market. Though the author protests early on that he will work from documentary evidence and not speculation, he hazards a few smart guesses from time to time (“I suspect that this willingness to seek the ideal grew out of the religious beliefs he acquired from his father and uncles in the Serbian Orthodox Church”; “I don’t think Tesla was at all worried as he had full confidence in his abilities as an inventor”). One, central if sometimes overlooked in other more celebratory studies, is the origin of Tesla’s notions of a rotating magnetic field, which may or may not have come from the work of a British contemporary—or, alternately, from an insight garnered from a between-the-lines reading of Goethe. Carlson also offers insight into Tesla’s urge to create disruptive technologies and to pursue “the grander and more difficult challenges.”
Carlson tends to academic dryness and to a fondness for the smallest of details. Though Tesla deserves such serious treatment, his book is likelier to appeal to specialists than general readers.