Nikola Tesla, who lived from 1856 to 1943, at age 40. Image source: Wikimedia, public domain.
In a campaign instigated byÂ The Oatmeal comicÂ creatorÂ Matthew Inman, this week the Internet came to the aid of theÂ most beloved of all forgotten scientists. Inman set up an Indiegogo fundraiser to buy Nikola Teslaâ€™s last laboratory -- designed by turn-of-the century architect Stanford White in the Long Island, New York, town of Shoreham -- and turn it into the first Tesla museum. Contributions poured in rapidly, smashing the $850,000 goal in just six days.
A cult figure for the past two decades, with inventions still in use more than a century after he developed them, Nikola Tesla has remained virtually ignored in larger circles. He is perhaps best known for inventing AC current, otherwise known as household electricity. In 1887, Tesla patented seven of his electricity inventions and sold them to Westinghouse, catapulting himself to status as DC-current-promoting Thomas Edisonâ€™s official competition.
Three years earlier, Tesla had arrived in New York City from the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire destined to become Croatia with four cents, a small collection of poems, and careful calculations for making a flying machine all stuffed into his pockets. He went straight to work for Edison. He redesigned the Continental Edison Companyâ€™s erratically functioning electrical systems, then moved on after a heated payment dispute with Edison. The rivalry that would extend far past the inventorsâ€™ natural lives had begun. In a time of smooth-talking hawkers and anti-immigrant sentiment, Edison delivered a clean, well-orchestrated American message against Teslaâ€™s ferociously intense Eastern-European pronouncements -- words that described technological ideas decades ahead of his time as intensely as they did outlandish ideas about the connections between pigeons and humans.
The Croatian-born New Yorker was an easily recognized figure of his day: six-and-a-half feet tall, with a gaunt, elegant frame topped by a dark mass of hair, which would stand nicely on end during the lavish science fair displays in which he let electricity run through his own body in order to promote his beloved electricity. Celibate his entire life, Tesla made a million dollars by the time he was forty years old, gave up royalties in generous displays of honor to colleagues like Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi, and died without a cent. A radical, revolutionary inventor, he was driven by a lifelong obsession: he looked at nature and saw a powered system, and dreamed of plugging into it, wirelessly, to run the man-made parts of life. His experiments along the way yielded unlikely things like the first X-ray photographs, the earliest robotics, the U.S. radio system, and the basis for todayâ€™s wireless networks.
Itâ€™s difficult to talk about Teslaâ€™s life without resorting to a breathlessly recited lists of the things he made: apparatuses for transmitting electricity, a pointless lightning rod, the speedometer, a method of aerial transportation, an electric submarine, and a thought camera are a fraction of the objects that sprang forth from one of scienceâ€™s most unusual and practical minds. The following four Tesla biographies offer a tour of his extraordinary intellect and imagination.
â€śEmpires of Lightâ€ťÂ by Jill Jonnes
Jonnesâ€™s biography places Tesla in his rightful place alongside Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in the U.S. race for domination of commercial electricity. Although she comes out heavily on the side of Tesla as the archetypal poet-scientist against greedy corporate interests, her tale is populated with the characters of the day in a well-rounded look at Teslaâ€™s times. Patent attorneys, bankers, politicians, and scientists abound in Jonnesâ€™s book, giving us a view of that interplay between scientific innovation and big finance hatched during the late nineteenth century and still in play today.
â€śTesla: Man Out of Timeâ€ť by Margaret Cheney
In her second book to explore Nikola Teslaâ€™s life, Cheney reveals the myriad of things that made the great scientist tick, including a penchant for quantities divisible by three, an outspoken stance against the Serbian-Croatian division of his native Yugoslavia, and an intimate friendship with Mark Twain. The storyâ€™s settings include dinner parties, his laboratory in what is now the TriBeCa section of Manhattan, and the offices of electricity tycoon George Westinghouse.
â€śProdigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Teslaâ€ťÂ by John J. Oâ€™Neill
Pulitzer-prize winning author Oâ€™Neill knew Tesla well, and his admiration of his friend comes through loud and clear in this fawning biography. Words like â€śspectacularâ€ť and â€śamazingâ€ť appear on the bookâ€™s first page, yet what follows is a fun and personal, if sometimes less than factual, account that has become the go-to story for Teslaâ€™s hardcore fans.
â€śWizard: the Life and Times of Nikola Teslaâ€ťÂ by Marc Seifer
To tell his exhaustively researched tale of Teslaâ€™s life, Seifer dug through his subjectâ€™s writings and patents, unearthing new documents in the process and crafting an accurate portrait of the wildly non-business-minded genius who spent millions of dollars in his lifetime and died penniless and in debt in a room at the New Yorker Hotel. Seifer supplements his story with sixteen pages of photographs detailing the prolific inventorâ€™s private moments as well as his more public ones, like landing the cover of Life magazine in 1931.