Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

W. Bernard Carlson

Why I looked at this book

This is a contender for the 2014 Royal Society Winton prize for science books, but I'm also interested in hown such a prolific inventor could fall from public view - how much of success in this area is due to inventive ability, how much is due to being a savvy businessman, and how much is just luck.

First impressions

This is a long book and so the sample is correspondingly long. Carlson is in no hurry - he's willing to digress into thinking about Plato's cave and to include substantial paragraphs of Tesla's writings, and he goes into considerable detail about Tesla's childhood and the way he analysed his thoughts at an early age. Hence it looks hopeful that this book will help me to understand why Tesla followed the path he did.

Main review

The book tells how Tesla was overoptimistic about his gift of visualisation - he thought that he could visualise a device and it would work perfectly when built. He was wrong though, his early inventions were an vital part of the progress of AC electricity, but they needed development just like those of other people. We then hear of how Tesla moved on to other devices, including lighting and his ideas for wireless transmission of electricity. When Westinghouse got into financial problems, Tesla magnanamously tore up his royalty agreement - overconfident again, he was sure his future inventions would be a great success. I would have liked the book to describe more of how technology was advancing during Tesla's life. How did his ideas for lighting fit in with the development of fluorescent tubes, and was the cost of wiring (which Tesla's inventions were there to reduce) as important later on as it was when he started his work on AC power? I recognise though that there's a limit to how much detail can go into a book.

The later parts of the book tell of how Tesla concentrated more on more on his 'Dark tower' at Wardenclyffe, promising to be able to transfer energy from one part of the Earth to another with minimal losses. I would guess that he thought in terms of a toroidal tranformer, for which my understanding is that you can feed electricity into a winding at one part and can extract it from a winding at a different part. It didn't work though, and with no substantial results his funding soon dried up. The impression I get from this book is that the later years of Tesla's life were a story of wasted talent, not so much because he couldn't get funding for his big idea, but rather because he was too fixated on one thing to develop his other ideas. One wonders what is the best way to give inventors the leeway they need without this happening - that is one of the questions this book made me consider.

To summarise, I think that this book is well worth reading, which certainly fulfilled the hopes I had when I started to read it. It really deserved to make the shortlist for the 2014 Winton Prize, but it seems the judges had other ideas.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews and Goodreads reviews are mostly positive, although some think that the book is over technical - I don't really agree with that, some books might have got bogged down in the details of Tesla's inventions, but I don't feel that this one did. That said, Graham Farmelo in the Telegraph felt that it was a tough read.

Brian clegg at PopularScience thinks Carlson wouldn't fully admit when Tesla was wrong. I would tend to agree with this - I felt Carlson didn't want to upset the Tesla fans out there. (Tunguzreview disagrees, saying the book is very objective, critical even, of Tesla’s works

See also the review at ZME Science `