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Tesla: Man Out of Time Paperback – October 9, 2001
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About the Author
Margaret Cheney is a biographer of unusual versatility. In addition to her two major studies of Tesla (most recently Tesla: Master of Lightning, with Robert Uth), she has written Midnight at Mabel's, a biography of the great cabaret singer and song stylist Mabel Mercer. Cheney is also the author of Meanwhile Farm and Why: The Serial Killer in America. She lives in California.
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For the most part I thought this was a good book and it did keep my attention. It's not written in a manner of an engaging tale, but rather a critical analysis of the man's life. Some people may not enjoy this kind of writing as it has almost no story-form, but I'm the type of person who can sit down and read books on Mathematics or Ancient History, where it's a bit of a report like format. Granted "Tesla: A Man Out of Time" is not nearly as dry as some History texts I've come across over the years! One of the greatest misgivings for this book, however, is the way it is organized. The first half of the book seems to be organized by invention. So if we're dealing with Tesla's most monumental achievement for mankind, the Alternating Current, then that chapter takes us through all the years with the boons and plights of that invention. Actually a few chapters are dedicated to this. So we're dealing with a time period of like 1893 to the 1915's or so, if I remember the dates correctly. But Tesla invented a lot more in that time frame, such as the Tesla Coil. Granted I totally understand the approach to organizing it in this fashion, but Cheney doesn't really let you know the beginning dates when she starts talking about an invention so it's up to the reader to project when it is happening. This format could have worked if she was more forthcoming with some dates so people can put it in chronological order in their heads, though maybe she just didn't want to clutter the book with too many dates, which I would normally agree with, but not in this circumstance.
Some other reviewers have commented on the her lack of explaining the technology in a lay readers understanding and some technical analysis shows that she likely didn't fully understand what Tesla's inventions did. That being said, I must point out that Cheney is not an engineer, she's a biographer and it says as much on the back of the book. While she does try to delve into the technical aspect, even I got confused with her explanation of Fusion and it's relation to Plasma, and I actually have a decent grasp on how Fission and Fusion work in terms of atomic structures. So people or engineers (specifically) reading this book may want to overlook that drastic aspect and focus more on the tale she's trying to tell about the man. I can kind of get over the technical aspect since there is very little explanation on the details and more focus on just Tesla's inventions and what he was general interested/motivated by as a result of his inventions. There are times when the author tries to liberally project her own conclusions to the reader such as Tesla's pre-concept of the circular "atom smasher" or cyclotron, which also lead to a premonition of Cathode Ray Tubes we've used in televisions and computer screens. While I think Tesla may have been on to something conceptually with the splitting of the atom, he by no means led the world to discover CRT technology as far as I can tell. However, I felt this kind of bias/commentary was in the minority overall.
That being said I feel I have a better grasp of who Tesla was and what he has done for this world in the grand scheme of existence. This book is definitely more for those who want to know more about who he is, the hardships he dealt with, and what he invented over his life time. Cheney goes through great lengths to quote letters Tesla received from friends and his responses, even quoting news articles with his comments or comments from others. There is no doubt that she spent an exhaustive amount of time peering over news articles and letters from this great inventor. The book also has a grand amount of notations so you can do further reading when she abridges some of the quotes in this book. She goes over the types of people he has gone to over his lifetime and friends he's made like Anne Morgan (J.P. Morgan's daughter), Mark Twain, and having met Thomas Edison and worked for him. This is just a taste for who he met and worked with over his lifetime.
In this book we meet a man who has practically no interest in woman and has enough obsessive compulsive quirks to astonish anyone. While I don't think his quirky nature was fully touched upon in this book, Cheney does give us a taste of some of his phobias, like earrings for example. We meet a man who was on top of the world for a portion of his life and who seemed to be on the way to making it big in the world, but then after making rather overly generous financial decisions he could never really get out of debt's clutches. He literally had to beg to borrow the money as the years got worse and worse over the years. Things looked up for Tesla for a while here and there, but he was also quite generous with his funds to help his friends financially during the Great Depression and his friends gave him the same treatment.
Towards the end we get a portrait of a man who liked to make grandiose statements for what seems to be for the sake of being in the limelight again. It feels like Tesla simply missed the fame and attention, quite a different scope from the man who worked in seclusion and extreme secrecy. But his secrecy was intriguing and I think he liked to emerge to the public for attention every now and again. As he got on in years his claims didn't end in much fruition for the world, which isn't surprising since towards the end of his career and life he lived out of a hotel room without a laboratory. However, he still claimed his wirelessly transmitted electricity would work. He also ended up being wrong on quite a few things, especially when he said Einstein's relativity was not an accurate representation of our universe. Even Einstein would have wanted to agree with him, but Einstein's accuracy cannot be denied. Like Einstein they both died with dreams of a final theory, Tesla's wirelessly transmitted electricity and Einstein's Grand Unified Field theory, both of which have not been proven definitively yet. When Tesla's life was finally over his papers and research items were confiscated by the government, because amidst the grandiose claims was high grade weapons technology like ray beams and so forth.
In the end we get a portrait of a man that struggled to change the world for the better and not always at his benefit. As his life ended in debt we are all left with the great boons of his inventions. Thanks to his Alternating Current we don't need a power station every two miles like we would need with Direct Current only systems. His research into radio which was eventually fully realized by Marconi made great leaps in that field. He was clearly a visionary more than anything else and a brilliant mind on top of that enthralled with electricity, machines, resonance, and the various waves that power and drive the like. I thought this book at times was a bit overly laudatory, but I think it did him justice. I get the feeling that Cheney felt a little bad for the man since he clearly does not get the same kind of esteemed recognition in America as Edison does. Some of the best tales of Tesla's life was when the two bitter enemy's fought the war of the currents, which is literally worth a book in itself. Say what you want, but in the end I enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to people who want a more in depth portrait of the man behind the inventions. Truly a great inventor who should be well known in the annals of history.
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