Tesla: Man Out of Time

August 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

teslaTesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney


Many years ago, I owned this book because I knew enough about Tesla to want to know a bit more about all the mysterious inventions he created. I never got around to reading it, but when it came time to pick my next audio book, fresh off of all the Sagan and science books, this one rose to the top of the list. I’ve learned more about Tesla since then, and wanted to get a more complete picture of his life.

Man Out of Time is less an examination into his inventions and more an examination of his personality. This is fine — his personality and claims drew me more to the enigmatic figure than the formulae of his inventions — but I can see people being disappointed with how little it covers his inventions. That’s not to say that we don’t learn about his alternating current generators, the War of Currents, his remote controls, or his X-ray experimentation, but the focus here is on his quirky nature and how it played into all that research.

In short, though, Tesla was crazy. He was brilliant, no doubt, but so much of what he claimed was so out there as to strain credibility. Parts of it were verifiable — his acute senses were demonstrated without question at a young age — but other parts seem to be the source of legend. He claimed to hear a fly landing on a table as a loud, chair-shaking thud. I suppose it’s possible that Tesla knew how to trick people into thinking his senses were that acute, especially when you consider how much of a showman he was as an inventor, but there’s no way to test it with any veracity. Later in life, the inventions he claimed to have never appeared in public, and with no detailed notes left for later researchers to duplicate his results, no one seems to be able to duplicate what he claimed. How much of his legacy is science, and how much of it showmanship?

This is all known to a casual researcher, but Cheney pulls the details together into a cohesive narrative that’s roughly chronological. The narrative compartmentalizes Tesla’s achievements to make it easier to understand what he accomplished and how it had an affect on the world, so it jumps around a bit during his most productive years around the turn of the 20th century, but it makes more sense to organize Tesla’s story this way.

The most interesting takeaway from this book, for me, was how modern inventors continue to run up against the patents that Tesla filed during his lifetime. This was mentioned in a foreword to the book, written at least ten years after the book’s original publication, which is useful since high speed internet and wireless internet was still in its infancy when the book first went to press.

Less interesting was the afterword, where the author raises some questionable theories regarding the final resting place of Tesla’s research papers. There was definitely some scrambling for them after Tesla died, considering that Serbia wanted to claim them as much as the US, but Cheney writes about how the papers wound up in the hands of the US government before mysteriously disappearing. Despite claims that the papers were destroyed, she floats the theory that they still exist, and that the US is using them to develop questionable weaponry. For a thoroughly-researched and scientific book, it ends on a hint of a conspiracy theory, which is disappointing.

Overall, the book is informative, well-written, and engaging. Engineers, scientists, or researchers may feel frustrated at the lack of technical detail therein, but anyone interested in the life of Nikola Tesla will find this to be a comprehensive look at his life, as much as it can be (the author notes that details on his early life are hard to come by).

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: August 2, 2018

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