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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review: Tesla - Inventor of the Modern

Tesla is a biography of the well known scientist and inventor. My knowledge of the inventor prior to reading the book was limited to that of the Tesla comic.That comic did a pretty bad job of portraying Edison, and this book is way more nuanced and interesting.

I did not know, for instance, that Edison hired Tesla as an employee. Neither Tesla nor Edison invented alternating current, but it was Tesla that came up with an AC compatible motor, which is still an elegant design in use today.

Again, my general impression was that Tesla didn't profit by his inventions. The reality was much more nuanced. He had several royalty streams coming from his inventions, as well as offers of paid employment that were considerable. Dying without a lot of money happened because: (1) his lifestyle was lavish --- he lived in a hotel instead of owning a house, (2) he actually tore up some royalty contracts with Westinghouse upon a personal request from the man himself. The latter was particularly naive, and the author noted that if Westinghouse had retained control over his company he probably would have compensated Tesla sometime later in his life.

Tesla was clearly afflicted by some quirks, and later in life he turned down many offers of employment that he considered "beneath him," but might have led to having immediate impact on the world.

The escalation of Wardenclyffe’s costs from fourteen thousand dollars to four hundred fifty thousand dollars is an apt metaphor for Tesla’s grandiosity, deserved or not. It demonstrates both his total commitment to this wireless ideal as well as his lack of business sense or even of moderation when it came to money. This brilliant man—born between one day and the next, between the present and the future—usually had a foot in both this world and the world only envisioned. Yet at Wardenclyffe, Tesla veered untethered toward the future. With little anchor to reality, let alone anyone to check his impulses, the inventor lost his way. (Kindle Loc 3080)
So once again, despite his financial struggles, Tesla walked away from substantial backing, as well as from the chance to actually develop his wireless system, in part because he couldn’t work well with others and largely because he remained tunnel-focused on rebuilding his doomed tower. The Hammonds, as good businessmen, got their revenge by submitting their own wireless patents just after Tesla’s ran out. (Kindle Loc 3493)
In any case, this book is balanced, interesting, and worth your time. Recommended.

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