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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

by W Bernard Carlson Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 520 pages
AU$44.99 NZ$47.82
Product Status: In Stock Now
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Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America's first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman, he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius. Even at the end of his life when he was living in poverty, Tesla still attracted reporters to his annual birthday interview, regaling them with claims that he had invented a particle-beam weapon capable of bringing down enemy aircraft.

Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla's private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an "idealist" inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.

This major biography sheds new light on Tesla's visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

List of Illustrations ix

CHAPTER ONE An Ideal Childhood (1856-1878) 12

CHAPTER TWO Dreaming of Motors (1878-1882) 34

CHAPTER THREE Learning by Doing (1882-1886) 60

CHAPTER FOUR Mastering Alternating Current (1886-1888) 76

CHAPTER FIVE Selling the Motor (1888-1889) 100

CHAPTER SIX Searching for a New Ideal (1889-1891) 117

CHAPTER SEVEN A Veritable Magician (1891) 129

CHAPTER EIGHT Taking the Show to Europe (1891-1892) 143

CHAPTER NINE Pushing Alternating Current in America (1892-1893) 158

CHAPTER TEN Wireless Lighting and the Oscillator (1893-1894) 176

CHAPTER ELEVEN Efforts at Promotion (1894-1895) 193

CHAPTER TWELVE Looking for Alternatives (1895-1898) 214

CHAPTER THIRTEEN Stationary Waves (1899-1900) 262

CHAPTER FOURTEEN Wardenclyffe (1900-1901) 302

CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Dark Tower (1901-1905) 331

CHAPTER SIXTEEN Visionary to the End (1905-1943) 368


Note on Sources 415

Abbreviations and Sources 421

Notes 423

Acknowledgments 473

Index 477


"Carlson sheds light on the man and plenty of his inventions. . . . [An] electric portrait."--Publishers Weekly

"Superb. . . . Carlson brings to life Tesla's extravagant self-promotion, as well as his eccentricity and innate talents, revealing him as a celebrity-inventor of the 'second industrial revolution' to rival Thomas Alva Edison."--W. Patrick McCray, Nature

"Soundly footnoted, yet eminently readable, it provides a balanced examination of the man and his work, focusing particularly on Tesla's distinctive style of invention."--Natural History

"Carefully researched and thoughtfully written. . . . Clearly surpassing earlier accounts, [this] will be the gold standard for Tesla biography."--Thomas J. Misa, Science

"A scholarly, critical, mostly illuminating study of the life and work of the great Serbian inventor."--Kirkus Reviews

"Carlson even has something to teach readers familiar with Seifer's dissection of Tesla's tortured psyche in Wizard (2001) and O'Neill's much earlier chronicle of Tesla's childhood and early career in Prodigal Genius (1944). Carlson provides not only a more detailed explanation of Tesla's science but also a more focused psychological account of Tesla's inventive process than do his predecessors. Carlson also surpasses his predecessors in showing how Tesla promoted his inventions by creating luminous illusions of progress, prosperity, and peace, illusions so strong that they finally unhinge their creator. An exceptional fusion of technical analysis of revolutionary devices and imaginative sympathy for a lacerated ego."--Bryce Christensen, Booklist starred review
W. Bernard Carlson is professor of science, technology, and society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of history at the University of Virginia. His books include Technology in World History and Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900.