Tesla: Man Out of Time, by Margaret Cheney
reviewed by Maria Barron
Prolific inventor Nikola Tesla was a huge star,
not only in the scientific world but also in the popular press, during the flashy, world-changing era when the 19th century turned
to the 20th. Some of his inventions, specifically those he patented as part of a
far-reaching dream for enabling instant worldwide
communication, form the basis of the computer technology that has come to fruition a century later in, of all things, a method for
instant worldwide communication. Home computers and the Internet are different vehicles than he imagined, but when modern-day inventors
sought patents for the combination of technologies underlying computers, they kept finding those patents were already issued -
This eccentric and somewhat reclusive
celebrity scientist had a name as big as Thomas Edisons at the time, when the two were sometimes working
together and sometimes in competition. Oddly, Tesla descended into such obscurity during the automated age he helped
to bring about that the strange reality is many readers of popular literature had never even heard of him until
Linda Goodmans Star Signs brought him to our attention.
Yet, Linda was not alone in wanting to give Tesla
his due. Others also have worked to restore the lustrous reputation of the inventor who lived from 1856-1943 and who
dreamed of transmitting electrical power worldwide, cheaply, abundantly and without wires, from a special tower to any
building with an antenna. In light of the increasing interest, Simon & Schuster republished Margaret Cheneys 1981
biography, Tesla: Man Out of Time, in 2001 under its Touchstone imprimatur.
Readers without a strong interest in the technical
aspects of electrical science will find a few passages where their eyes glaze over, but readers who first met Tesla through
Linda Goodmans Star Signs might be tickled to find a few unexpected similarities between the books. For instance,
while there is no separate chapter on numerology in the Tesla biography, the author does note Teslas preference for numbers
divisible by three. Perhaps not in his science, but in his personal life, whenever he had discretion in choosing how many
items - like hotel towels - to order, he would order in multiples of three.
His great passions, however, were limited to two:
electricity and poetry. If he had a love life, he didnt let on. The dapper Serbian immigrant to the United States,
who partied in the highest of social circles among millionaire financiers and famous artists and writers, may have been
secretly gay, Cheney suggests. Or perhaps he simply couldnt be distracted by matters of the heart, obsessed as he was with
chasing the electrical dreams and visions that came to him in bright flashes of light - many more ideas than he could ever
follow through on and bring into useable form.
By mid-life, Tesla had realized that he was ahead of his
time; that people were not ready to do anything with many of the forms of power he wanted to give them. He lamented the situation
but also comforted himself with the notion of going to join the classical geniuses in the corner of heaven reserved for
great minds. As he wrote to a friend:
Luka, I see every day that we are both too far ahead of our time! My system
of wireless telegraph is buried in the transactions of a scientific society, and your great poem on the heroes of Manila did
not even as much as save Montojo, and just as my enemies maintain that I am merely writing ideas of others, so yours will
say that it is because of your poem that Montojo was condemned!
But we shall continue in our noble efforts, my friend,
not minding the bad and foolish world, and sometime ... I shall be explaining the principles of my intelligent machine (which
will have done away with guns and battleships) to Archimedes, and you will read your great poems to Homer.
In this biography, Cheney seeks to provide a more personal
portrait of Tesla than had been available before. She largely fulfills that goal, while also relating vivid descriptions
of the times and an adequate sense of the major players - including the all-important financiers - involved in the era that
introduced automation to the world.
Tesla invented the process through which electrical power,
in the form of alternating current (AC) has been delivered to homes and businesses ever since. Yet Edison, who fought against AC
in a losing battle to make his own generators of direct current (DC) the unchallenged standard, is generally and somewhat erroneously
credited with bringing electricity to the masses. Reading Tesla: Man Out of Time at the very least makes one aware whom to thank
while flipping a switch on the way into the bathroom late at night.
And if household illumination happens to have been brought to you by a man who spent his
own nights pondering how to split the Earth in two through manipulations of the planets natural vibrational cycle, a man who moved from New York to Colorado
Springs to create huge indoor electrical storms, complete with thunder, inside an oddly shaped, custom-built lab ... well, I guess thats genius