Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

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Overview

Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America's first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and ...

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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

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Overview

Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America's first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman, he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius. Even at the end of his life when he was living in poverty, Tesla still attracted reporters to his annual birthday interview, regaling them with claims that he had invented a particle-beam weapon capable of bringing down enemy aircraft.

Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla's private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an "idealist" inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.

This major biography sheds new light on Tesla's visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The flamboyant Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), as famous as Thomas Edison during his heyday, is now remembered largely for his eccentricities and his eponymous science museum staple, the Tesla coil. Here, University of Virginia tech and history professor Carlson (Technology in World History) sheds light on the man and plenty of his inventions. A Serbian-born engineer, Tesla came to the U.S. in 1884 to work for Edison Machine Works, whose namesake was then doggedly pioneering direct-current (DC) generators and attacking the work of his rival and alternating-current (AC) champion, George Westinghouse. Nevertheless, Tesla’s prodigious talents resulted in a watershed invention for the other team and helped pave the way for AC to become today’s electrical standard. Fascinated with wireless power transmission, Tesla also invented key components of telegraphy, radio, and television while making headlines with spectacular public demonstrations. Sadly, investors gradually lost interest—Tesla lacked the business acumen of Edison. But he was quite the showman—he regaled reporters with claims of wild inventions, like a superpowerful “particle beam weapon” that could blast planes from the sky, and drew the curious attention of Mark Twain. More technical than previous biographies, Carlson’s electric portrait might turn off casual readers, but scholars will find it illuminating. 56 photos & 32 illus. (June)
Nature - W. Patrick McCray
Superb. . . . Carlson brings to life Tesla's extravagant self-promotion, as well as his eccentricity and innate talents, revealing him as a celebrity-inventor of the 'second industrial revolution' to rival Thomas Alva Edison.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
Carlson even has something to teach readers familiar with Seifer's dissection of Tesla's tortured psyche in Wizard (2001) and O'Neill's much earlier chronicle of Tesla's childhood and early career in Prodigal Genius (1944). Carlson provides not only a more detailed explanation of Tesla's science but also a more focused psychological account of Tesla's inventive process than do his predecessors. Carlson also surpasses his predecessors in showing how Tesla promoted his inventions by creating luminous illusions of progress, prosperity, and peace, illusions so strong that they finally unhinge their creator. An exceptional fusion of technical analysis of revolutionary devices and imaginative sympathy for a lacerated ego.
Times - Nicola Davis
Carlson deftly weaves the many threads of Tesla's story.
Times Higher Education - Jon Turney
Splendid.
Maclean's Magazine - Colby Cosh
Run, don't walk, to buy this book for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life. . . . [Carlson] is the first trained academic historian of technology to approach this topic, and he snaps the intense, romantic Serb back into his proper context.
Library Journal
Born in 1856, in the town of Smiljan, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nikola Tesla rose to great intellectual prominence with an array of inventions that included fluorescent lighting, the Tesla coil, the alternating current induction motor, wireless communication, and the laser beam. Carlson (history, Sch. of Engineering & Applied Science, Univ. of Virginia; Technology in World History) presents a new interpretation of Tesla, not as the eccentric that he has long been portrayed, but as a "theoretical inventor" similar to Alexander Graham Bell, torn by an internal struggle "between ideal and illusion" and not always successful in transforming his theoretical genius into profit. In impressive scholarly detail, Carlson's biography examines not only Tesla's amazing inventions but also his motivations for invention and his incredible drive to see his ideas come to fruition. VERDICT This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a monumental inventor whose impact on our contemporary world is all too unfamiliar to the general public. Carlson relates the science behind Tesla's inventions with a judicial balance that will engage both the novice and the academic alike. Highly recommended to serious biography buffs and to readers of scientific subjects.—Brian Odom, Birmingham, AL
Kirkus Reviews
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.
From the Publisher

One of Amazon.com's 2013 Best Science Books

One of Booklist Online's Top 10 Science & Health Books for 2013

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

Honorable Mention for the 2013 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

Longlisted for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

"Carlson sheds light on the man and plenty of his inventions. . . . [An] electric portrait."--Publishers Weekly

"Superb. . . . Carlson brings to life Tesla's extravagant self-promotion, as well as his eccentricity and innate talents, revealing him as a celebrity-inventor of the 'second industrial revolution' to rival Thomas Alva Edison."--W. Patrick McCray, Nature

"Soundly footnoted, yet eminently readable, it provides a balanced examination of the man and his work, focusing particularly on Tesla's distinctive style of invention."--Natural History

"Carefully researched and thoughtfully written. . . . Clearly surpassing earlier accounts, [this] will be the gold standard for Tesla biography."--Thomas J. Misa, Science

"A scholarly, critical, mostly illuminating study of the life and work of the great Serbian inventor."--Kirkus Reviews

"Carlson even has something to teach readers familiar with Seifer's dissection of Tesla's tortured psyche in Wizard (2001) and O'Neill's much earlier chronicle of Tesla's childhood and early career in Prodigal Genius (1944). Carlson provides not only a more detailed explanation of Tesla's science but also a more focused psychological account of Tesla's inventive process than do his predecessors. Carlson also surpasses his predecessors in showing how Tesla promoted his inventions by creating luminous illusions of progress, prosperity, and peace, illusions so strong that they finally unhinge their creator. An exceptional fusion of technical analysis of revolutionary devices and imaginative sympathy for a lacerated ego."--Bryce Christensen, Booklist starred review

"This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a monumental inventor whose impact on our contemporary world is all too unfamiliar to the general public. Carlson relates the science behind Tesla's inventions with a judicial balance that will engage both the novice and the academic alike. Highly recommended to serious biography buffs and to readers of scientific subjects."--Brian Odom, Library Journal

"Carlson deftly weaves the many threads of Tesla's story."--Nicola Davis, Times

"Splendid."--Jon Turney, Times Higher Education

"Run, don't walk, to buy this book for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life. . . . [Carlson] is the first trained academic historian of technology to approach this topic, and he snaps the intense, romantic Serb back into his proper context."--Colby Cosh, Maclean's Magazine

"Carlson takes a historian's approach to piecing together Tesla's life. He resists the temptation to focus only on Tesla's persona as an eccentric genius with a flair for drama. . . . Instead, Carlson sets out to answer three questions: 'How did Tesla invent? How did his inventions work? And what happened as he introduced his inventions?'"--Maggie Fazeli Fard, Washington Post

"Required reading for any would-be innovator."--Christine Evans-Pughe, Engineering and Technology

"An impressive piece of scholarship."--Graham Farmelo, Daily Telegraph

"Carlson has written an exhaustive biography of Tesla, remarkable for its breadth and thoroughness. He explores and details all his major inventions, providing illustrations and in some cases even reproductions of the patent applications. This is as fair and balanced a biography of Tesla as one could hope for, no mean feat for a man so full of contradictions."--Gino Segre, Physics in Perspective

"Historian Carlson . . . has at last written a balanced and nuanced scholarly treatment of Tesla in the technical and social contexts of his time. . . . Carlson's easy-to-read style and almost flawless exposition of technical matters will make this book attractive for everyone from general readers to engineers and historians. It is well illustrated and indexed with extensive footnotes. This book is likely to become the standard scholarly biography of Tesla for decades to come."--Choice

"Since the death of Nikola Tesla in 1943, his life has deserved a worthy biography. Bernard Carlson has delivered that in Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, which portrays Tesla as intensely human. . . . Anyone, whether simply an interested reader or a professional historian, engineer, or physicist, will finish Tesla with a deepened understanding of his world, character, and accomplishments."--Robert Rosenberg, Physics Today

"This major biography sheds new light on Tesla's visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs."--World Book Industry

"The author Bernard Carlson has put a herculean effort in presenting a detailed biographical study of one of the greatest engineer-scientists of human history, Nikola Tesla. . . . The book may be treated as a benchmark by future biographers of inventors and scientists."--Mainak Sengupta, Current Science

"It is a very readable work and presents the whole picture of Tesla both as an electrical wizard and as a human being with all the associated foibles. I particularly liked the way Carlson interspersed the narrative with commentary on the inventive process, the role of illusion, and the social implications of his technologies on bringing about positive changes in society as a whole. If you wish to read a factual book about Tesla, this is the one."--Eric P. Wenaas, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

"[Readers] will certainly see this volume as an indispensable guide to one of the most fascinating yet controversial and misunderstood innovators of the modern era."--Graeme Gooday, Metascience

"[A] masterly study of the man and his work, explaining how business interests as well as scientific curiosity drove Tesla. Carlson shows how engineers, just as much as artists, benefit from creativity, imagination and idealism."--Roger Backhouse, Journal of the Society of Model & Experimental Engineers

"[T]his is an enjoyable biography of Tesla, concentrating in detail on his engineering achievements and business arrangements, even though it could have been firmer on the unscientific nature of some of Tesla's ideas."--Brian Clegg, Popular Science

"The most objective and balanced Tesla biography to date."--Tibi Puiu, ZME Science

"Tesla is a tour de force of sound scholarship and cogent analysis that brings to life one of the most eccentric and enigmatic characters in the history of technology."--Michael Brian Schiffer, Register of The Kentucky Historical Society

"An eminently readable history that, while avoiding hagiography, reconstructs the intellectual development of one of history's great electrical inventors and the social contexts in which he worked."--Benjamin Gross, Chemical Heritage

"Carlson's book is likely the definitive biography of Tesla. It is a challenging read, but a rewarding one. It also contributes in the wider context to the reinvention of scientific biography as a prism of cultural history."--Guillaume de Syon, Canadian Journal of History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691057767
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/12/2013
  • Pages: 520
  • Sales rank: 34,962
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author


W. Bernard Carlson is professor of science, technology, and society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of history at the University of Virginia. His books include "Technology in World History" and "Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900".
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations ix
CHAPTER ONE An Ideal Childhood (1856-1878) 12
CHAPTER TWO Dreaming of Motors (1878-1882) 34
CHAPTER THREE Learning by Doing (1882-1886) 60
CHAPTER FOUR Mastering Alternating Current (1886-1888) 76
CHAPTER FIVE Selling the Motor (1888-1889) 100
CHAPTER SIX Searching for a New Ideal (1889-1891) 117
CHAPTER SEVEN A Veritable Magician (1891) 129
CHAPTER EIGHT Taking the Show to Europe (1891-1892) 143
CHAPTER NINE Pushing Alternating Current in America (1892-1893) 158
CHAPTER TEN Wireless Lighting and the Oscillator (1893-1894) 176
CHAPTER ELEVEN Efforts at Promotion (1894-1895) 193
CHAPTER TWELVE Looking for Alternatives (1895-1898) 214
CHAPTER THIRTEEN Stationary Waves (1899-1900) 262
CHAPTER FOURTEEN Wardenclyffe (1900-1901) 302
CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Dark Tower (1901-1905) 331
CHAPTER SIXTEEN Visionary to the End (1905-1943) 368
EPILOGUE 396
Note on Sources 415
Abbreviations and Sources 421
Notes 423
Acknowledgments 473
Index 477
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2014

    Extremely well written

    I am not done yet with this book, but what I read up to now is exactly what the review described. The style of the biography is clear, very informative, but is not hampered with difficult words, keeping the reading flow costant. As my first tesla biogrphy, I am satisfied.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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