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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age
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85 of 87 people found the following review helpful
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.

If you are the type of history buff that will get lost in an old black and white photo for minutes at a time, marveling at how things have changed, this author has you covered. There are plenty of photos and diagrams in this book of Tesla, his inventions and his previous places of employment. I was intensely drawn to the photo of Edison's Machine Works and the photo of the inside of the machine shop at Wardenclyffe.

Rather than viewing Nikola Tesla in a celebratory way, this book takes a neutral and impartial stand of the inventor, neither praising nor degrading him for his work nor his decisions. The author has researched and presented material that tells the story of a man from humble beginnings who did many great things, and made some choices that were most regrettable in terms of his own preservation.

After reading this, my opinion is pretty simple. I believe Tesla would be proud of this biography. Perhaps just as proud of this as he would be of the unit of measurement named after him.

While Tesla may not be the household name that Edison has turned out to be, for any serious scholar of the age of invention, he will always be an important contributor to many things that we take for granted as every day convenience today.

I feel this is an important book and one that should be shared with the younger generation. Teachers, parents and anyone who is interested in the history of invention and pioneers of their time would benefit from this book. I thank the author for the hard work and dedication they have shown in writing this.

This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher.
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52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on July 9, 2013
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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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2013
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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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
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. He sold his invention, of a motor that ran on AC, to George Westinghouse and collaborated with him on building the Niagara Falls AC hydroelectric power plant. Carlson writes, " Tesla's AC inventions were essential to making electricity a service that could be mass-produced and mass-distributed."
The biography flows naturally through Tesla's penchant for self-promotion and astute showmanship, his social climbing hobnobbing with the elites (Astor, Morgan, and Twain), his self-crafted public image as an eccentric genius, his mood swings and depression, his repressed sexuality with hints to homosexuality. Tesla's grand schemes and scientific caprices that led to missed opportunities in telegraphy and X-rays, which he lost out to Marconi and Roentgen, his failed attempts at the conversion of atmospheric Nitrogen to fertilizer (later devised by Fritz Haber) and wireless transmission of electricity.
His decline began after the failure of his Wardenclyffe project on Long Island financed by J.P.Morgan. He could find no financial backers for his electric car, remotely controlled vehicles or his anti-airplane particle beam weapon.

Illustrations and black & white photographs add interest to the book and many diagrams of Tesla's inventions supplement the scientific descriptions. The book will satisfy academics and scientists but falls short in explaining Tesla's psyche and mental process that propelled him from humble beginnings to great scientific achievements, marred by erratic behavior and poor choices that led to his final fall from grace.
John J. O'neill's "Prodigal Genius" (first published in 1944 and re-issued several times until 2009) and Marc Seifert's "Wizard" (1998) provide additional insight into Tesla's childhood and psychological turbulence
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2013
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.

Carlson's history is well written and while, as an electrical engineer, I find his technical descriptions of Tesla inventions better than those provided by prior authors, they still lack clarity and do not fully describe the physical effects at work. Perhaps to fully appreciate these devices requires a reader's exposure to at least a good high school course in physics. The author might also have stressed, though, the absolute importance of the use of tuned circuits in all radio transmission. Without that invention, radio, TV and WiFi would be impossible. He also neglects to mention that Tesla's invention of requiring the simultaneous presence of two radio signals of different frequencies to produce an action, which ensures that extraneous signals can not cause an unwanted action, was cited as prior art by the U.S. Patent Office when some one wanted to patent the AND gate, a circuit fundamental to modern electronic computers. Such is Tesla's legacy. Despite these omissions, I very much recommend this biography to people interested in obtaining a realistic assessment of this genius.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2013
In Tesla, W. Bernard Carlson takes a historian's care to accurately portray Tesla's psychological profile and analyze the motives and illusions pertaining to his inventions. Carlson's portrayal casts doubt on the current near superhuman celebrity status of Tesla, presenting us with a critical analysis of both the great and the regrettable aspects of this inventor's life. He provides balanced insight into Tesla's genius to illuminate the factors behind Tesla's ascent to fame and tragic downward spiral. Some biographers awkwardly adhere to a rigid timeline, Carlson transitions unobtrusively from one event or time period to another. What we have here is the complicated truth behind Tesla's accomplishments, his contributions to the electrical revolution, and his failures.

Presenting us with balanced dose of both the man and his work and recognizing his complex contradictions, Carlson does an excellent job in this detailed exploration of the context, intentions, and motivations of Tesla. He only occasionally speculates about Tesla's motivations, such as the effect of his religious beliefs.

Black and white photos and diagrams of inventions also embellish this critical history. I haven't read other Tesla bios, but I'd be surprised if this isn't the definitive portrait of this fascinating inventor. One note for general readers, Carlson is a scholar and tends to ply his trade; that is, there may be more details than the average reader wants. For those very interested in Tesla, this is a plus for others, expect to do some skimming.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2013
An interesting genius, but the story lacks when it comes to readability. The author actually repeats several incidents several times, making me wonder if he is padding the story or recycling for effect. I did learn a lot about Tesla thought process and his emotionalism when begging for funding so it was a worthwhile read.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Growing up in former Yugoslavia it was impossible not to know about Tesla. He was a figure of mythical proportions, larger than life, and a source of a lot of national pride. Schools, streets, and institutes were named after him, monuments were built in his honor, and he was even on the national currency. Part of my own family’s lore involved the fact that two of my great-great mothers actually went to school with him. (This fact seemed to be particularly invoked for some reason whenever someone in the family wasn’t doing well in school.) And yet, despite all of this, I was quite a bit uncertain about what exactly did Tesla accomplish, as well as about the details of his biography. I knew that some of his achievements had to do with the development of alternating current, radio transmission, and in later years his supposedly revolutionary work on wireless transmission of electrical power. In Physics I learned that the basic unit of magnetic field bears his name, but that, more or less was the extent of my knowledge. This is why, when I got the opportunity ot read Tesla’s biography, I jumped at it with eagerness.

“Tesla – Inventor of the Electrical Age” is as good as one could possibly hope for from a biography of a scientific figure or a technology inventor. The book is equally at ease in the biographical details as well as the technical aspects of Tesla’s inventions. It’s an exhaustive and detailed account of this very fascinating figure. It takes the reader into the scientific and technical mindset of the late nineteenth century. That was quite a different era in many respects, but on the other hand it has a lot of lessons for the inventors and entrepreneurs even today. It shows how even the best inventions need a very carefully developed business and financing strategy, and the marketplace is an extremely unforgiving place where past success counts for very little.

This book is very objective, critical even, of Tesla’s accomplishments and works. In recent decades Tesla has been mythologized in public imagination, made into a misunderstood genius that was well ahead of his time. In fact, it is more likely that Tesla had an oversize and quite unrealistic view of his own work and potential. When working and tinkering he relied much more on his remarkable visual imagination and reasoning by analogy, then a systematic and methodical application of the latest scientific and technical principles. This method of working brought him quite a bit of success early on in his career, but at some point Tesla’s imagination got well ahead of him. Some of the claims he made in his latter years were quite delusional in fact. Throughout his career tesla relied on Tesla mythmaking in order to advance his own work and attract the necessary funding, and even when he was unable to deliver results that matched his own increasingly outrageous expectations, he continued to merrily make even more outrageous claims about the same.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It finally gave me a clear picture of Tesla – both the man and his inventions. The book will be of great interest to anyone who wants to get a very definitive idea of who Tesla was and what he was all about, but be cautioned: the technical parts describing Tesla’s inventions can be pretty challenging, especially for those less technically inclined. I would still think that they would be well worth the effort.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2014
The subtitle here is crucial to understanding what you're getting. The book is not a fully rounded biography. It is a tightly selective biography focused on Tesla the Inventor. It includes an enormous amount of technical detail, both about the evolution of Tesla's AC motor and about Tesla's attempts to broadcast power through the earth. Carlson spends the 20 pages of Chapter 1 on Tesla's childhood. Chapter 2 is entitled "Dreaming of Motors." The great bulk of the book is spent stepping through Tesla's inventions and patents during his first 20 years in the U.S., 1884-1904. The last third of Tesla's life is covered in 7% of the book; whatever else Tesla may have been doing during that time, he wasn't inventing much, so it's out of Carlson's purview.

Carlson all but states that Tesla was a homosexual. He includes a quote from Richard Sogge of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers that, if true, seems to settle the question. After Tesla's one year as vice president of AIEE, in 1892, the organization shunned him. It must have been incredibly stressful for Tesla. Such a 'double life' would explain a great deal about Tesla's peculiar peek-a-boo relationship with society. Carlson does not explore this at all. Given that Carlson is everywhere inserting his own fantasies of what makes inventors tick, it's a little surprising that he avoids this issue entirely. It seems to me to be a significant piece missing from the puzzle.

Carlson's personal maunderings, on inventors' emotional make-up and on inventors' role in civilization, are not only superfluous, they are also tedious. A 'biography', even a selective one, is not the place for the biographer to peddle his own pet theories. Some of Carlson's pronouncements are so fatuous as to threaten his credibility. Chapter 1 (An Ideal Childhood) opens with the pronouncement: "Inventors must live with an exquisite tension." Really, Carlson? How about closeted homosexuals in the U.S. around 1900? The book is riddled with Carlson's sermons. Toward the end of the book the reader gets this beauty: "Clearly the success of any economy depends on getting the right mix of disruptive and adaptive innovations."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2013
WoW...what a complete biography of a genius!!! This book resonates on so many levels; from an accurate biography, to a scientific treatise, to an introspective journey that grips you like a thrilling mystery the whole way through. Let me just say that I'm exhausted after reading this book; nobody could write fiction as good as the story of Tesla's life. But if there's one thing I like about Carlson's approach, it's in the storytelling approach he uses to explain the complexities of a complicated man. Listening to Carlson's voice throughout the narrative is like sitting around a campfire hearing the wisdom of the elders, his approach keeps you spellbound***!

But while I marveled at the unfolding drama, what sets this book apart is the exhaustive research and elaborate details that Carlson included about Tesla's work amidst the dynamically turning century; you can almost feel the gears of time shifting by the transcendence of technology. And while the story surges ahead, it's the details about how all this came together that really intrigued me. Carlson thoroughly describes the business relationships that Tesla cultivated and all the minutiae of legal and financial agreements. You learn how Tesla succeeded, and unfortunately why at times he commercially failed.

And for all the rich technical details of Tesla's work, and the rigorous analysis of business arrangements with Tesla's patrons, the book pulses with intriguing insights into Tesla's personal, emotional and intellectual life. The result is like a front row seat to one of his Tesla's scientific exhibitions - you'll be entertained, educated and energized!
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