What to get for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life - Macleans.ca

What to get for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life

Book Review: Tesla: Inventor Of The Electrical Age


Book Review: Tesla: Inventor Of The Electrical AgeTesla: Inventor Of The Electrical Age
By W. Bernard Carlson

Run, don’t walk, to buy this book for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life. Tesla (1856-1943), the Serbian-American inventor who devised and perfected the stator-rotor arrangement in alternating-current motors, is the unsurpassed example of the principle that the journalist’s “first draft of history” can last much longer than it should. With his main contribution to electrical engineering established by the time he was 35, the proud, unpractical Tesla spent the rest of his life imagining increasingly useless projects for power transmission and communications while cultivating friendships with scribblers like Mark Twain.

He died poor and alone, but being good copy made him into a sort of saint. Hack biographers queued for decades to testify that if not for the sinister dealings of Gilded Age potentates, Tesla could have brought cheap energy to the masses and armed the forces of democracy with death beams that would end war. Oh, and he was the actual inventor of radio and X-rays.

The University of Virginia’s Bernard Carlson is not the zingy writer some of his forebears were. But, God bless him, he is the first trained academic historian of technology to approach this topic, and he snaps the intense, romantic Serb back into his proper context. If you want a legitimate rags-to-riches only-in-America story, Tesla’s life is still a fine one. If you are looking for a helpless victim of robber barons, read Carlson’s book and add up the amounts of 19th-century dollars Tesla was given at various times, often with few strings attached, by people like George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan. If you are looking for the inventor of radio, good old Marconi is still the right place to start, though Tesla has a place in that story. And Carlson doesn’t just debunk the Tesla you already think you know: the light he sheds on the man’s (still very obscure) sexuality ought to be good for a few headlines, too.


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What to get for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life

  1. A brilliant man. The kind we need more of.

  2. what does someone’s sexuality have to do with their intellectual brilliance? it is stupid even to mention that aspect of the probably the most significant scientist and inventor of the recent times ! stupid, stupid, stupid journalism !

    • Nikola Tesla’s Sexuality: He was in a relationship with an imaginary pigeon whose eyes fired laser beams. And no, I didn’t make that up.


      “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years; thousands of them, for who can tell —

      “But there was one pigeon, a beautiful bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I would know that pigeon anywhere.

      “No matter where I was that pigeon would find me; when I wanted her I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. She understood me and I understood her.

      “I loved that pigeon.”

      “Yes,” he replied to an unasked question. “Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. When she was ill I knew, and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life.

      “Then one night as I was lying in my bed in the dark, solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. I knew she wanted me; she wanted to tell me something important so I got up and went to her.

      “As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me — she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes — powerful beams of light.

      “Yes,” he continued, again answering an unasked question, “it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.

      “When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life’s work was finished.”

      • so? it always amazes me that things like this are needed to attract stupid western public to even consider reading something

  3. The biography I read a long time ago left me with the impression that he was a genius, impossible to work with, probably had OCD, and was screwed over by Thomas Edison. Also: a better scientist than Edison, but a rotten entrepreneur.

    • Not unlike Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Jobs etc

      • Except those guys knew how to sell their ideas.

        • Ahhh so being a salesman is the most important thing in life eh?

          Well then Bill Gates is more important than all of them….even those who were heretics and in danger of the stake for the sake of the truth

          • Naw. It’s sure better than trolling though.

          • Being a salesman is the most important thing? No. However, a person can’t hope to be a particularly successful scientist or engineer without the ability to communicate effectively and persuade others to support their ideas. Newton and Jobs both had those capacities.

          • Newton was never able to marry, and had to hide his religion…..and Jobs got kicked out of his own company. Took him years to recover.

            Inventors and discoverers rarely benefit from what they do…..it’s the salesmen coming along behind that cash in.

            My point is we have to stop doing that.

          • That’s a very esoteric perspective that appears based on a highly selective reading of facts. Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, James Watt, William Shockley, and Linus Torvalds are a number of counter-examples I pulled off the top of my head. Salesmen have a critical role to play in the innovation process, and people like you often sell them short. To quote “The Right Stuff”, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

          • Yeah, rightwing philosophy is very selective. Several thousand years of others being robbed, ignored or killed don’t matter.

  4. A tragic man.

    It still saddens me to know that his final revelation, on his deathbed, was that he was unable to create anything worthy of a pigeon.