No business sense, but plenty of genius

The Man Who Invented the 20th Century

June 23, 2000

His mother spanked him as though she meant it. His parents yearned for his dead brother. He grew up to be unlovable and unloved. He thirsted constantly for the approval of authoritarian father figures. Sounds like the themes of a tome on psychoanalysis? In fact, these are the keys to understanding the visionary and genius Nikola Tesla.

This gripping biography starts with an engineer voyaging from the Old World to the New at a time when a starburst of technological innovation was promising a new social paradigm. The arrogant and difficult Nikola was born in Serbia in 1856. He moved to the US in 1884. He died, as he had lived, alone in a New York hotel room, in 1943. His body was not found for two days - no one cared. In between, his life was a lightning storm of brilliance against a backdrop of black bitterness.

Tesla's intense obsession with pure research made him oblivious to the demands of business. This exposed him as a vulnerable oddity in the home of capitalism. Regularly exploited by wheeler-dealers such as Edison and the banker J. P. Morgan, Tesla made less than he should have from his patents for alternating current (AC) electricity, and spent all he had on research and dinner parties for New York socialites. Although a perfectionist who was slow to present the outcome of his work to the world,he was responsible for a series of technological discoveries with a profound effect on 20th-century life, most notably AC motors and generators, which swept away the far less versatile direct current system introduced by Edison. In addition, there was radio. Although Marconi is credited with this discovery, the evidence is clear that Tesla was first in the field - which a New York court eventually confirmed. The list of other discoveries is almost as impressive: the hydro-electric generator, introduced at Niagara Falls in 1895, the fluorescent light, lasers and even the precursor to radar. He was also the first to discover X-rays, but Wilhelm Rontgen was first to publish and get the credit.

When times were hard, as they often were for this obstinate and self-obsessed misanthrope who alienated everyone with whom he worked, Tesla would write articles, partly for the income but mostly to sound off, in lurid phrases, about his vision of a world transformed by science and, in particular, his contribution to it. It all sounded far-fetched at the time, earning the author a reputation as a crack-pot. Now we look back and marvel at his prescience - he seems to have been correct in virtually all the predictions (including Ronald Reagan's Star Wars defence system) that were laughed to scorn by his contemporaries. When his "dynamic theory of gravity" was in variance with Einstein's views, the scientific establishment supported the latter - yet Tesla's thinking chimes in with modern thinking on gravitational waves.

Robert Lomas, who lectures in engineering management at Bradford University, is to be congratulated on an easy-to-read life of a tortured genius. The book not only takes us through the roller-coaster fortunes of Tesla, but also has well-constructed chapters on the history of electrical research and on lighting. Although dealing, at times, with difficult technical concepts, it never succumbs to jargon and remains intelligible to the informed lay-person throughout. Every scientist or engineer would enjoy this tale of errant brilliance, and a younger student would be enthused towards a research career. The unusually convenient presentation should not pass unnoticed: the hardcover version is published in paperback size, making it particularly convenient for reading. Initially I regretted the absence of references in the text. But, in retrospect, this was a wise decision: the story flows swiftly, and the excitement of Tesla's life, times and discoveries is not lost.

As we read of Tesla's bitterness in his latter years, cheated out of the fruits of his labours, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that already over-stretched science and engineering first degrees could still do with at least a modicum of business training. This might make the difference between the next Bill Gates and the next bitter old researcher.

Robert Gaitskell is a practising Queen's Counsel and a vice-president, Institution of Electrical Engineers.

The Man Who Invented the 20th Century

Author - Robert Lomas
ISBN - 0 7472 7588 2
Publisher - Headline
Price - £12.99
Pages - 248

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