A lucid, expertly researched biography of the brilliant Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a contemporary and competitor of Thomas Edison who was equally celebrated during his life.
Munson (From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity, 2005, etc.), who directs the Environment Defense Fund’s clean energy work in the Midwest, emphasizes that Tesla was a prodigy starting from his childhood in Serbia. Coming to the United States in 1884, he worked for Edison, whose company was installing the first electric lighting in American cities using complex direct current generators, which were limited to transmitting short distances and suitable only for electric lighting. An eccentric workaholic who knew far more science than the uneducated Edison, Tesla had been working on an efficient alternating current system. Edison rejected it, but George Westinghouse hired Tesla; after a bitter, decadelong “war of currents,” Tesla emerged victorious. His AC “dramatically expanded the potential market for electricity, allowing it to be sold not just at night for lighting but also during the day for factories, appliances, and streetcar lines. For the first time, [AC] could be pumped for hundreds of miles and efficiently power machines as well as lamps.” By the 1890s, Tesla was a wealthy celebrity whose lectures thrilled audiences with demonstrations of spectacular electrical phenomena. Although he continued to invent and patent essential features of radio, wireless telegraphy, and even computers, he grew obsessed with visionary, expensive megaprojects—e.g., wireless power transmission—most of which never panned out. Investors stopped investing, and he spent his final decades entertaining journalists and the public with sometimes-accurate, often wacky predictions but producing little of commercial value. As the author notes, “he believed the joy of inventing went beyond the accumulation of profits.”
Readers will share Munson’s frustration at this seeming frittering of a magnificent talent, but they will absolutely enjoy his sympathetic, insightful portrait.