Review: Tesla: Inventor of the Modern

It's not unusual to find electrical engineers and inventors skewed to the fringe edge of the weirdness spectrum, but Nikola Tesla was in a class all his own, as represented in Richard Munson's illustrated biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern. He was a Croatian-born ethnic Serbian immigrant who stood six-foot-two, weighed 140 pounds, dressed to the nines, spoke eight languages, slept only three hours a day, memorized and wrote poetry, filed 300 patents and mesmerized Wall Street investor audiences with crackling Jedi-like light tubes arcing between eight-foot electrically charged plates. He was like an uber-nerd forerunner of Elon Musk--the charismatic entrepreneur who named his car company after Tesla. On the other hand, Tesla was also a celibate germaphobe, a superstitious numerologist and a lousy businessman who died broke at age 86, in the New Yorker Hotel.

More than just a biography of this strange genius, however, Munson's Tesla is a history of the nascent electric power industry and men like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Guglielmo Marconi, who competed with Tesla to bring the miracle of electricity to the masses. Under license to Westinghouse, Tesla's "alternating current" generator converted the electricity market from Edison's "direct current" limited access system to the ubiquitous power grid in place today.

Thanks to Tesla's genius, the world had the infrastructure to build mass manufacturing operations, global communication networks and massive power plants. At his peak, he engineered the complete electrical system for Chicago's 1893 "White City" Columbian Exposition, and consulted on the design of the mammoth Niagara Falls generators. He erected towers in Colorado and on Long Island to experiment with wireless power transmission, and even built an "electro-mechanical oscillator" to transmit electricity through the earth's natural resonance--until the NYPD shut him down after his lab neighbors complained about earthquakes.

A Midwest businessman and energy wonk, Munson (From Edison to Enron) taps a variety of primary sources, industry trade literature and Tesla's autobiography, My Inventions, to flesh out this enigmatic inventor and contrarian thinker. Munson lets us peek into the drama and nuance of Tesla's world--from his early years with his domineering Orthodox Catholic priest father and literal "homemaker" mother, to the fancy Murray Hill salon dinners of socialites Katharine and Robert Johnson and ultimately to his lonely death in a cluttered Midtown hotel room. An inventor's inventor, Tesla never managed to leverage his genius into the wealth that Edison did. Rather than occupying prime real estate in the Smithsonian like Edison, Tesla's fame may ride into the future on the wheels of Musk's transformative Tesla automobile. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Rich in historical and personal detail, Tesla tells the extraordinary story of the eccentric and enigmatic inventor whose genius transformed the global power industry.

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