Richard Houchin's Reviews > Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla

Prodigal Genius by John J. O'Neill
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's review
Mar 31, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, biography

I find it curious how much time and energy is devoted to debating questions of primacy with the discovery of theories and machines. I've read biographical info on Tesla and Newton and Leibniz, and much of the extant written record of their lives and contributions to science come in the form of editorials and letters to newspapers and societies proving with great attention to detail exactly when they discovered this or that concept.

It's an exercise in differing perspectives: at the time, all of that was super important. But a hundred plus years after their deaths, it's hard to find it relevant.

Tesla is to electricity as Mozart was to music. Both devoted thousands of hours of their childhoods to studying their respective fields, at great cost to any other social or leisure activities. Tesla completed a little over two years of college in one year by sleeping only ~3 hours a day, and devoting almost all the rest to study and examinations. He almost killed himself doing it, and suffered frequent illnesses brought on by total exhaustion. But by the time he was in his early twenties, Tesla understood electricity on such an intuitive level that his demonstrations and theories seemed downright unnatural to any other person -- if mundane and prosaic to a modern person today.

In the late 1800s, Tesla described in detail the plans for an unmanned aerial assault vehicle, not unlike modern day Predator drones. Tesla offered to build these automated flying machines capable of delivering targeted strikes for the US government, but he was laughed out of the office. At the same time, Tesla offered the leading car manufacturers of the time a contract to build fully automated passenger vehicles, not unlike the driverless Google cars that are in alpha testing today. Again, he was laughed out of the conference room. He believed he could deliver electricity from power plants wirelessly, across the globe, with need for only two power plants at the global poles. In a time when the world marveled over transatlantic telegraphs, Tesla knew how to build a global radio transmitters that could send video across the planet.

It sounded crazy to his contemporaries, and yet what he did achieve, and what we now know today, make it seem likely that he could have delivered on those plans. Before Tesla, the only way to get electricity was to live within one mile of a power plant. Infrastructure had been built around the world to bring the wonders of the electrical age to all major cities -- but only major cities, and only certain neighborhoods. One electrical plant per square mile was difficult, and expensive, to manage, but that is where the world was headed, until Tesla broke all existing electrical theories and developed a way to deliver alternating current thousands of miles from the power plant, with virtually no loss in strength.

His alternating current model was adopted globally, and spurred on the development of the modern age. The power transformers that are in preciously limited supply in the US today were designed by Tesla.

Tesla had a big heart and his greatest weakness was his insistence on viewing the big picture. He wanted to bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number of fellow humans. But so many of his great inventions died with him, because he refused to write down any of his ideas, and he would only develop his visions on the grandest, global scale. He could have made thousands of dollars, enough to keep his lab running, had he been willing to sell smaller-scale versions of his visions.

For example, he developed a world wide broadcasting system before radio stations existed. His claims for wireless transmission of data were received with a great deal of skepticism, but a boat race offered him a good sum of cash to use his system to broadcast, wirelessly, the results of the race from the boats to the shore. Tesla turned this down because it was too small scale. He would build a global broadcast system, or none at all.

It's just he never quite got enough money to build the wholly custom equipment needed to complete the global broadcast towers. If he had been willing to start small, he could have built the capital needed to build the big machines.

Tesla intended to live to 125, and told his friends he wouldn't write down any of his ideas or theories until the age of 100. Plenty of time, he believed, to get it all down. He was too busy developing new concepts to write anything down. Tesla had by all accounts a truly flawless photographic memory. So perfect was it, that what he imagined in his head he saw in reality as a full-formed hallucination. He could literally imagine an engine, take it a part piece by piece, and put it back together again. He built prototype machines entirely in his mind, and then verbally recited the dimensions of the pieces of the engines to the machinists who cut the metal. He never had to adjust any of the pieces -- they fit together perfectly, dictated from his head alone. He saved a great deal of time in not having to write down blueprints, or work by trial and error.

The author of the biography knew Tesla personally, and he resented Tesla's atheism and thoroughgoing determinism. Tesla was know to describe humans as "meat machines" driven by the exact same principles of response to electrical stimuli as any of his dreamed of metal automatons. The better part of the biography reads factually and historically, but towards the end the author begins to insert his beliefs into the narrative. The author was sure Tesla did not really believe we were meat machines, and was not truly an atheist. When he told Tesla this, Tesla told him what he thought of others doing his thinking for him, and didn't speak to the author again for many months!

The world could have been so much different had Tesla been a little more practical in bringing his visions to a successful fruition. His story is a stark reminder that technological progress cannot be taken for granted. It is driven by brilliant sparks of innovative individuals, flaring here and there throughout history, and it is the responsibility of society to heed their visionary claims.
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Reading Progress

March 31, 2011 – Shelved
Started Reading
October 12, 2011 – Finished Reading
October 15, 2011 – Shelved as: history
October 15, 2011 – Shelved as: biography

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