A Human Dynamo:
Inventor Nikola Tesla's futuristic vision

Rarely, very rarely, humanity produces an intellect whose vision and grasp of the tangible universe is so advanced that only future generations are able to properly acknowledge it. Aristotle, da Vinci, and Newton come to mind, as well as the enigmatic Nikola Tesla.

Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney, is an engrossing biography of a strange and fascinating individual: a dapper socialite who couldn't eat a meal without first calculating the cubic volume of each dish; a poet who saw auras and fields of energy all about him; a Victorian who passionately believed in life on other planets and ached to communicate with these entities; a scientist who worried that his experimental high-voltage discharges might ignite the earth's upper atmosphere; a man of peace who theorized a plausible method to crack the earth open like a walnut; and a brilliant and prolific inventor who was spurned by investors and cheated by competitors virtually all his life.

Tesla, a Serbo-Croatian immigrant to America in the late 19th century, invented the basic single-, two-, and three-phase systems for alternating current, including dynamos, motors, transformers, and automatic controls -single-handedly defining the technological foundation for electrical power grids throughout the world today. Why doesn't every elementary school student know that? Why doesn't anybody know that he also demonstrated wireless communication (radio) two years before Marconi, X-rays before Roentgen and the Curies, and fluorescent lighting, diathermy, and remote control submersible torpedo-launching boats before the dawn of the 20th century?

He described such futuristic developments as the cyclotron, robotics, the point electron microscope, the radio vacuum tube, and plasma physics. No one has, as of yet, replicated his demonstrations of the creation and control of ball lightning and plasma displays, and to this day some of his writings on particle beam weapons remain classified by the U.S. military.

Cheney's book documents Tesla's accomplishments in great detail, even footnoting patent numbers. It peers into the psychological landscape of his childhood in the Balkans and into his ambivalence toward his mother that manifested years later in his odd affinity for the pigeons of New York City. His hallucinations and sensitivities, which today would have had him institutionalized - or at least heavily medicated - raise the troubling thought (to my mind at least) that we may be drowning our generation's genius in the name of mental health. The book recreates a slice of the social milieu of New York at the dawn of the 20th century, with excerpts from correspondence between Tesla and his few close friends providing more insights into the times and into the man who didn't fit in them.

You can't help being intrigued by this visionary poet of electrical power, this incredible forgotten character, a soul lost in time who transcended the science and technology of his day to imagine - and thus create - the future.


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