Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

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by W. Bernard Carlson

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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

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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
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.
From the Publisher
"Carlson's book stands out compared with previous Tesla biographies. . . . The result is 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

"Dr. Carlson has written an outstanding work, exhibiting a true understanding of the complex person who was Nikola Tesla. The book is alternatively uplifting—as it reveals how Tesla's mind worked, creating prototypes of inventions which have changed the world—and heartbreaking. . . . The book is much more than a biography, as Carlson examines the art of invention as it applied to Tesla. He skillfully weaves into the narrative insights as to why Tesla approached his work in the way he did."—John Bowditch, Technology and Culture

"Only the bravest of historians elects to take on the challenge of writing a scholarly biography of Tesla that examines and critiques such fondly cherished myths. And Bernie Carlson is certainly up to this challenge. . . . [A]n indispensable guide to one of the most fascinating yet controversial and misunderstood innovators of the modern era."—Graeme Gooday, Metascience

"[Carlson's] extensive notes on his sources are invaluable for Tesla researchers, and his book sheds light on many misconceptions perpetuated in some popular Tesla biographies."Nexus Magazine

"The problem for any biographer is that there are really two distinctly different Nikola Teslas. One is the towering genius shunned by the ignorant establishment, whose greatest works are still suppressed; this is the Tesla adored by the alternative science community and the popular media. . . . The other Tesla is the miserable failed inventor whose great plans and endless boasts came to nothing. . . . Carlson manages the impressive feat of steering a middle course between these two."—David Hambling, Fortean Times

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.

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Princeton University Press
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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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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago