The Greatest Geek

Richard Barnett

  • Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
    Princeton, 520 pp, £19.95, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 05776 7

Over six feet tall and thin as wire, with Slavic cheekbones and a ‘Wild West moustache’, Nikola Tesla combined confidence and charisma with a gift for big tech, electro-prophecy and bullshit. He was a near perfect Thomas Pynchon character, and his cameo appearance in Pynchon’s Against the Day in 2006 confirmed his status as a counter-cultural hero. Pynchon’s Tesla is a fleeting and mysterious presence, a man around whom other characters weave tall tales. Towards the end of the novel, in a sly nod to a constant on conspiracy websites, one of them wonders whether Tesla was behind the Tunguska Event, a ten-megaton blast that destroyed 830 square miles of Siberian forest on 30 June 1908:

The story was abroad that Tesla, seeking to communicate with the explorer Peary, then in the Arctic, projecting unspecified rays from his tower at Wardenclyffe in a direction slightly west of due north, had mistaken his aim by a small but fatal angle, causing the beam to miss Peary’s base at Ellesmere Island, cross the Polar region over into Siberia, and hit the Stony Tunguska instead.

Reading this passage in the spirit of Bernard Carlson’s assiduous, endlessly patient biography, we might respond in two ways. Taking the claim at face value, we could list the many good reasons why Tesla couldn’t possibly have caused the Tunguska Event (now thought to have been the result of a comet disintegrating in the atmosphere). By 1908 he had largely abandoned his grandiose electrical experiments at Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island. His proposal for a ‘death ray’ – a kind of anti-aircraft rail gun firing tungsten pellets, highly impractical and in any case hardly a weapon of mass destruction – didn’t appear for another 25 years. And on the day of the explosion Robert Peary’s crew were in New York, where they stayed for another week before embarking for Ellesmere Island. The biggest question, though, as Pynchon’s Professor Vanderjuice notes, is why on earth Tesla would have wanted to do such a thing: ‘Did Tesla want to send Peary a message, or beam him a quantity of electric power, or for some undisclosed reason blast him off the map?’

Or we could acknowledge that in toying with this evidently absurd story, Pynchon captures a broader truth about Tesla and his influence. Between 1888 and 1905 Tesla took the idea of passing electric currents through coils of wire and – in service, he later claimed, of an enduring vision of transmitting power wirelessly around the world – invented or anticipated many of the technologies on which modern life depends: national power grids, wifi, remote-controlled drones, even the internet. He worked with Thomas Edison, the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ (in many ways a better candidate for Carlson’s subtitle), and with George Westinghouse, whose system for the distribution of electrical power eventually beat Edison’s to become the world standard. When Marconi carried out the first transatlantic radio broadcasts in the winter of 1902 Tesla joked, accurately, that the Italian had built a transmitter from 17 of his patents.

Yet Tesla’s place in the master narrative of techno-scientific modernity – another invention of the years around 1900 – is far from clear. Like many scholarly works of reference, the Cambridge History of Science volume on the modern mathematical and physical sciences doesn’t mention him at all. Other books, more than a few of them self-published, link him with secret plots involving free energy, anti-gravity propulsion, the supposed technologies of the pharaohs, mind control and time travel. His most fruitful years coincided with the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity and the electron, and the beginnings of the quantum revolution in physics. But they were also the era of the first major UFO flap – with reports in 1897 of a mystery dirigible crashing in Aurora, Texas, and the recovery of not quite human bodies from the wreckage – and in which a young H.G. Wells forged the myths and obsessions of modern sci-fi.

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 the self – is more complex and revealing than even the conspiracy nuts have imagined. One of his concerns is the shape of a scientific life, as it is lived and as it appears to historians, and he sees Tesla’s life as a three-act tragedy, driven by talent, ambition and a growing preference for publicity over practical reality. Carlson’s major source for Tesla’s boyhood, and an intriguing instance of his heroic programme of self-mythologising, is an autobiography he compiled in 1919 from a series of articles in Electrical Experimenter magazine. My Inventions – the title is a little too neat – depicts Tesla’s early life from inside his own head, or rather from inside the head that his 63-year-old self chose to reconstruct.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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