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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age Hardcover – May 12, 2013

110 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 860-1300372334 ISBN-10: 0691057761 Edition: 0th

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Nikola Tesla once noted that the men who worked for him sometimes “thought I was some kind of magician or hypnotizer.” Like Tesla’s assistants, biographer Carlson sees the magician and hypnotizer in the astonishing inventor. Readers, too, will perceive the magic-working wizard in the Serbian-born genius as he translates intensely conceived imaginative ideals into world-changing technologies—such as the alternating-current motor and the radio-controlled boat. And they will recognize something of the hypnotizer in the flamboyant showman who dazzles lecture-hall audiences and potential backers with electric flames passing through his body. Carlson even has something to teach readers familiar with Seifer’s dissection of Tesla’s tortured psyche in Wizard (1996) 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

Review

One of Amazon.com's 2013 Best Science Books

One of Booklist Online's Top 10 Science & Health Books for 2013

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

One of The Guardian's Best Popular Physical Science Books of 2014, chosen by GrrlScientist

Honorable Mention for the 2013 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

Longlisted for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

"[An] assiduous, endlessly patient biography. . . . In Carlson's eyes, Tesla's relationship with modernity in all its forms--its fixation with progress and explanation, capital and connection, but also its fragmentation of narrative and self--is more complex and revealing than even the conspiracy nuts have imagined."--Richard Barnett, London Review of Books

"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

"This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a monumental inventor whose impact on our contemporary world is all too unfamiliar to the general public. Carlson relates the science behind Tesla's inventions with a judicial balance that will engage both the novice and the academic alike. Highly recommended to serious biography buffs and to readers of scientific subjects."--Brian Odom, Library Journal

"Carlson deftly weaves the many threads of Tesla's story."--Nicola Davis, Times

"Splendid."--Jon Turney, Times Higher Education

"Run, don't walk, to buy this book for the Nikola Tesla cultist in your life. . . . [Carlson] is the first trained academic historian of technology to approach this topic, and he snaps the intense, romantic Serb back into his proper context."--Colby Cosh, Maclean's Magazine

"Carlson takes a historian's approach to piecing together Tesla's life. He resists the temptation to focus only on Tesla's persona as an eccentric genius with a flair for drama. . . . Instead, Carlson sets out to answer three questions: 'How did Tesla invent? How did his inventions work? And what happened as he introduced his inventions?'"--Maggie Fazeli Fard, Washington Post

"Required reading for any would-be innovator."--Christine Evans-Pughe, Engineering and Technology

"An impressive piece of scholarship."--Graham Farmelo, Daily Telegraph

"Carlson has written an exhaustive biography of Tesla, remarkable for its breadth and thoroughness. He explores and details all his major inventions, providing illustrations and in some cases even reproductions of the patent applications. This is as fair and balanced a biography of Tesla as one could hope for, no mean feat for a man so full of contradictions."--Gino Segre, Physics in Perspective

"Historian Carlson . . . has at last written a balanced and nuanced scholarly treatment of Tesla in the technical and social contexts of his time. . . . Carlson's easy-to-read style and almost flawless exposition of technical matters will make this book attractive for everyone from general readers to engineers and historians. It is well illustrated and indexed with extensive footnotes. This book is likely to become the standard scholarly biography of Tesla for decades to come."--Choice

"Since the death of Nikola Tesla in 1943, his life has deserved a worthy biography. Bernard Carlson has delivered that in Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, which portrays Tesla as intensely human. . . . Anyone, whether simply an interested reader or a professional historian, engineer, or physicist, will finish Tesla with a deepened understanding of his world, character, and accomplishments."--Robert Rosenberg, Physics Today

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

"The author Bernard Carlson has put a herculean effort in presenting a detailed biographical study of one of the greatest engineer-scientists of human history, Nikola Tesla. . . . The book may be treated as a benchmark by future biographers of inventors and scientists."--Mainak Sengupta, Current Science

"It is a very readable work and presents the whole picture of Tesla both as an electrical wizard and as a human being with all the associated foibles. I particularly liked the way Carlson interspersed the narrative with commentary on the inventive process, the role of illusion, and the social implications of his technologies on bringing about positive changes in society as a whole. If you wish to read a factual book about Tesla, this is the one."--Eric P. Wenaas, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

"[Readers] will certainly see this volume as an indispensable guide to one of the most fascinating yet controversial and misunderstood innovators of the modern era."--Graeme Gooday, Metascience

"[A] masterly study of the man and his work, explaining how business interests as well as scientific curiosity drove Tesla. Carlson shows how engineers, just as much as artists, benefit from creativity, imagination and idealism."--Roger Backhouse, Journal of the Society of Model & Experimental Engineers

"[T]his is an enjoyable biography of Tesla, concentrating in detail on his engineering achievements and business arrangements, even though it could have been firmer on the unscientific nature of some of Tesla's ideas."--Brian Clegg, Popular Science

"The most objective and balanced Tesla biography to date."--Tibi Puiu, ZME Science

"Tesla is a tour de force of sound scholarship and cogent analysis that brings to life one of the most eccentric and enigmatic characters in the history of technology."--Michael Brian Schiffer, Register of The Kentucky Historical Society

"An eminently readable history that, while avoiding hagiography, reconstructs the intellectual development of one of history's great electrical inventors and the social contexts in which he worked."--Benjamin Gross, Chemical Heritage

"Carlson's book is likely the definitive biography of Tesla. It is a challenging read, but a rewarding one. It also contributes in the wider context to the reinvention of scientific biography as a prism of cultural history."--Guillaume de Syon, Canadian Journal of History

"Carlson's book stands out compared with previous Tesla biographies. . . . The result is an eminently readable history that, while avoiding hagiography, reconstructs the intellectual development of one of history's great electrical inventors and the social contexts in which he worked."--Benjamin Gross, Chemical Heritage

"Dr. Carlson has written an outstanding work, exhibiting a true understanding of the complex person who was Nikola Tesla. The book is alternatively uplifting--as it reveals how Tesla's mind worked, creating prototypes of inventions which have changed the world--and heartbreaking. . . . The book is much more than a biography, as Carlson examines the art of invention as it applied to Tesla. He skillfully weaves into the narrative insights as to why Tesla approached his work in the way he did."--John Bowditch, Technology and Culture

"Only the bravest of historians elects to take on the challenge of writing a scholarly biography of Tesla that examines and critiques such fondly cherished myths. And Bernie Carlson is certainly up to this challenge. . . . [A]n indispensable guide to one of the most fascinating yet controversial and misunderstood innovators of the modern era."--Graeme Gooday, Metascience
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691057761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691057767
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

W. Bernard Carlson is Chair and Professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia and he holds a joint appointment with the History Department. He received his Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984 and did his postdoctoral work in business history at the Harvard Business School.

Bernie is an expert on the role of innovation in American history, and his research focuses on how inventors, engineers, and managers used technology to create new systems and enterprises between 1875 and 1925. His publications include Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1991; paper 2002) as well as Technology in World History, 7 volumes (Oxford University Press, 2005). In 2008, Technology in World History was awarded the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology as the best book aimed at a broad audience. It has since been translated into Korean. With support from the Sloan Foundation, he has completed a biography of another electrical inventor Nikola Tesla. Titled Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, this book was published by Princeton University Press in April 2013.

In addition to his publications,the Teaching Company has just released a DVD series of 36 lectures by Bernie on "Inventions that Changed the World."

Bernie directs the Engineering Business Programs at UVa and he teaches a course on "Engineers as Entrepreneurs." For over a decade, he was a consultant on history and knowledge management to Corning Incorporated and has served on the governing boards of several professional groups related to history, business, and engineering, including the IEEE History Committee and the Business History Conference. He is currently serving as the Executive Secretary for the Society for the History of Technology.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

92 of 94 people found the following review helpful By Ionia Martin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Many self-described "Tesla Biographers" have taken a shot at writing a book that would be considered comprehensive and worthy of filling in the gaps of this infamous man's life, but none have done so as well as W. Bernard Carlson.

If you are expecting a light, fluff-filled read about this important inventor, please look elsewhere. This book is intelligent, articulate and technical. If your desire is to make sense of the how and why Tesla ended up where he did by the end of his life, this book will not only elaborate on common knowledge of the subject, but will open your eyes to the unfortunate truth of this genius and his fall from grace, society and his descent into poverty.

What I found fascinating about this book, was that rather than giving in to the previous biographer's desire to make Tesla look like a superhuman celebrity with an external muse that produced his creativity, this book shows the rise to fame through his eyes. His inventions are detailed and his numerous ideas and contributions to science and the field of electrical engineering is presented brilliantly. Rather than going from chapter to chapter saying "and then he did this and then he did that" this work has a very natural progression. Frequently using Tesla's own words to describe his creative process, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age gives a much more in depth view of his life.

I had always thought of Tesla as having been someone who looked within himself to answer the great questions of life, and this book seems to agree with that notion. As someone who is also rather introspective, I appreciated the idea that Tesla turned to his own mind for answers and created his own circumstances for his early success.
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53 of 54 people found the following review helpful By J. Wood on July 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've read a lot of Tesla biographies, but this one takes the prize. I haven't quite finished it yet, but find it as 'unputdownable' as any mystery novel. The politics, mystery and intrigues that surrounded Tesla's life are brought to life here, along with a good understanding of electrical technology in general during the subject period. This is not a 'technical' book, but Tesla's major inventions and experiments are covered in sufficient detail and in an easy-to-understand manner. This book is well footnoted for those who whish to dig deeper into the hundreds of references.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By John L. Bowditch on June 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the first truly scholarly biography of one of our most fascinating and controversial inventors. Carlson manages to tell the story clearly and fairly. He also analyses Tesla's inventions and theories very accurately. A must read for anyone interested in this great inventor and his work.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Sinohey TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 27, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Once in a while a book comes along that "sets the record straight"; it demystifies certain icons, rectifies erroneous baseless concepts and corrects preconceived public opinion. W. Bernard Carlson has produced such a book in his biography of Nikola Tesla who was heralded as a misunderstood genius, way ahead of his time, by some and a self-promoting charlatan showman by others.

Carlson's significant 500-page book is based on original sources and seems to eschew derivative opinions and unfounded gossip. It is a dense compendium of Tesla's life, his genius and ingenuity, his scientific contributions as well as his shameless self-promotion, fantastic illusions of sham inventions, business dealings with J.P. Morgan and rivalry with Thomas Edison, and an elucidation of the reasons of his destitution and penury at the end of his life.

Carlson humanizes the legend by describing Tesla's brilliance and foibles. Tesla's own words are often used to describe how he came upon a concept or reached a conclusion. The author describes the contemporary cultural and technical environment and its influence on his subject. As a scientist, Carlson is at his best when describing the science behind Tesla's inventions and goes into great details in his depiction of electrical engineering and the merits of AC versus DC (alternating vs direct) and other contraptions. This may distract or bore some readers.

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born in Croatia, educated in Graz and Prague and was hired by Edison's branch in Paris. He was eventually transferred to the Edison Machine Works in New York but Tesla quit after a few months to work on his own. Throughout his life he created the circumstances for his success, relying on no one else.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By David G. Wuchinich on July 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having read O'Neill's, Cheney's and Seifer's biographies of this inventor as well as his Colorado Spring Notes, his patents and patent folders I have found Carlson's work far more revealing of the business interests and cautions surrounding Tesla inventions than had been disclosed by other authors. Tesla's two transcendent inventions, the induction and synchronous AC motor and the use of tuned transmitting and receiving radio circuits, remain in universal use today but they were largely made initially practical by engineers working for Westinghouse and Marconi as Carlson describes. Inventors also come up with completely false creations that are given credibility due to their prior successes. William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, believed Negroes were genetically inferior and Linus Pauling, a founder of genetic engineering, was convinced large doses of vitamin C would cure the common cold. Tesla came up with the broadcast of wireless power, a technical impossibility on the scale he proposed and which was responsible for his disappearance from the public stage and in many technical histories. Such creations are the product, as Carlson points out, of the same mental processes that produce astounding successes and are to be expected. They also attract followers of parapsychology and the occult. Once Tesla has found a practical use for the rotating magnetic field he lost interest and went onto radio. Once he found that he could selectively transmit messages and control functions (his 1898 remotely controlled boat being a seminal example) using circuit tuned to resonate, he lost interest and went on wireless power. And that was where he met his match.Read more ›
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