Tesla: Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney

Dell Laurel, 1981, 320 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-39077-X

I sincerely pity those who don’t take the time to study history. Not because of Santayana’s admonition or out of a feeling of cultural superiority, but mostly because these people tend to miss great stories and impressive characters. The Yom Kippur war of 1973. Francis Drake. World War II. Scott and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole. Disraeli. Xenophon’s Ten Thousands. Our history is filled with dramatic event, major characters and important knowledge that tends to be swept away by time unless they’re studied by modern audiences.

It’s a fair bet to say that while many remember Thomas Edison, few can precisely identify Nicola Tesla. Even I, no stranger to scientific history, somehow ended up with the misapprehension that he was Russian. Well, if anything can correct this regrettable oversight, it’s Margaret Cheney’s book-long biography Tesla: Man Out of Time.

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in Serbia. An early prodigy in physical sciences, Tesla dropped priesthood studies in order to become an engineer. Disappointed in the lack of interest for his inventions in Europe, he emigrated to the United States in 1884 where he worked a few months for Thomas Edison before striking out on his own. Shortly afterward, he invented and patented the basic elements of alternating-current electricity, which is still used today. Unfortunately, this was in direct competition with Edison’s direct-current systems, which caused a lifelong war between the two men. Unfortunately, Edison was far more organized than Tesla, which explains the current reputation of both men despite widespread technical recognition of Tesla’s superior technical achievements.

Make no mistake: Tesla: Man Out of Time is, from its title onward, a gee-whiz popular biography. There isn’t a lot of scientific or technical detail (Despite the blurb that claims that Cheney is “a science writer”, I fail to see any degree of technical comfort in her writing) and what little is there doesn’t impress by its clarity or precision. The book is filled with statements that Tesla invented something that’s still in use today, even if the difference between idea and actual implementation is often enormous. (The passage on VTOL aircraft on page 201-203 illustrate this very well.)

It’s obvious that Cheney’s goal is to make some sort of quasi-magical super-inventor out of Nikola Tesla. One of the biggest failing of the book is its uncritical acceptance of parapsychological events surrounding Tesla’s eccentricity. (Even citing now-discredited ESP research as “proof”) It smacks of seventies’ ESP craze and casts a shadow on the rest of the “harder” assertions. And that’s not even mentioning all the bow-wow “this effect was never replicated after Tesla’s death” passages.

But even allowing for a considerably margin of error, fudging and outright statue-building, Nikola Tesla remains a fascinating individual. The patent record speaks for itself as for the technical genius of the man. The book does the rest for his freakish personality. His considerably ingenuity never translated in financial success due to stupid decisions, lack of discipline and Edison’s mud-throwing. What didn’t help was Tesla’s incessant boasts which might or might not have been based in reality. (Of course, Cheney seldom expresses doubts as to the validity of these impetuous declarations, further enhancing Tesla’s mythical status and devaluating her credibility.)

But even given those provisos and assorted warnings, Tesla: Man Out of Time remains an exceptional introduction to one of history’s most interesting inventor. While I’m not as convinced that Tesla single-handedly invented the basis of modern civilization as Cheney seems to be, she did manage to convince me that Tesla is an unjustly-forgotten character whose likes we’ll probably never see again. A fascinating man, and one deserving of further study.

As well as of a second opinion.

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