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Robin Chew
Lucidcafé Publisher

A Man Out of Time

What I want to know is, why in 18 years of formal education, I didn't hear more about the great inventor, Nikola Tesla.

It was Tesla who harnessed the alternating electrical current we use today. He invented fluorescent lighting, the bladeless turbine and radio. (Yes Tesla, and not Marconi invented the radio, and holds the original patent for its development.) Tesla fundamentally changed the world, and yet he was portrayed as at most a footnote to the stories of the more renown inventors and industrialists of his day, giants like Thomas Edison and Westinghouse Electric founder George Westinghouse.

Margaret Cheney's biography, "Tesla: Man Out of Time" chronicles the fascinating story of Tesla's life from his birth in Yugoslavia in 1856 to his death in New York in 1943. It uncovers the triumphs and tragedies of the visionary genius whose discoveries heralded the modern industrial age.

A Flash of Inspiration

Tesla, like Sir Isaac Newton, had moments of the clearest insight into the nature of the universe. Just as an apple falling from an apple tree gave Newton a glimpse of the fundamental nature of gravity, so similar moments of clarity marked Tesla's phenomenal insights.

Near sunset on an afternoon in early in January, 1881, Nikola Tesla and a friend were strolling through Budapest's city park. The setting sun triggered flash of inspiration that froze Tesla in his tracks. His friend was so alarmed that he tried to steer Tesla to a park bench. Instead, Tesla found a stick and proceeded to diagram an idea in the dirt. He would use the same diagram six years later in an address to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers where he introduced to the world his revolutionary "induction motor."

In that moment of clarity Tesla had envisioned the principle of the rotating magnetic field, produced by two electrical currents running out of step with each other (alternating). In effect this field is a magnetic whirlpool, the force which drove Tesla's induction motor. He had brought into focus a fundamental force of nature, and discovered the key to the safe and economical industrial application of electricity. "Man Out of Time" presents a comprehensive account of Tesla's rapid rise to the pinnacles of industry.

Two Great Men

In 1884 Tesla emigrated to America with only a few coins in his pocket and a letter of recommendation to Thomas Edison, written by Charles Batchelor, a close friend and European business associate of Edison's. Soon after his arrival, Tesla presented himself to the great inventor at Edison's Menlo Park, New Jersey research laboratory.

Tesla handed Edison Batchalor's note which said, "I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man." That got Edison's attention and he inquired what Tesla could do. Tesla began to explain his induction motor and alternating current. Not far into his explanation Edison angrily exclaimed, "Spare me that nonsense. It's dangerous. We're set up for direct current in America. People like it and it's all I'll ever fool with. But maybe I could give you a job." That very day Tesla began to work for Edison.

A year later Tesla left Edison to form a company under his own name. Differences in style and disagreement over the merits of direct versus alternating-current were at the core of a long-standing hostility between the two men. Cheney's biography of Tesla provides all the details of the personal and legal battles between these two great rivals of the industrial revolution.

The Best of Friends

Throughout his life Tesla proved to be "the best of friends." He counted such notables as George Westinghouse and the author Mark Twain among his close friends. Time and again, and even when the consequences to himself would prove negative, Tesla would come through for the people he loved and admired.

In 1888 Tesla sold the rights for his AC patents to Westinghouse Electric. Westinghouse company records show that Tesla received $60,000 for his patents, and was to receive $2.50 per horsepower of electricity sold. Four years later, Westinghouse was experiencing serious financial difficulties that required a company reorganization. George Westinghouse's investment bankers advised him to get rid of Tesla's royalty contract. Given little choice by his bankers, Westinghouse reluctantly called on his friend. After explaining his problem Westinghouse said, "Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company."

Tesla response was truly astounding (and in retrospect, perhaps foolhardy), "You have always been my have stood by me as a friend...You will save your company so that you can develop my inventions...I will tear [the contract] to pieces, and you will no longer have any troubles from my royalties." This unprecedented act of friendship and generosity was at the root Tesla's future financial difficulties. Had these funds been available, what might Tesla have accomplished? Cheney tells this side of Tesla's tale in tragic detail.

Serene in Adversity

Tesla explored and developed many of the fundamental concepts of modern technology, and achieved fame and fortune to match his accomplishments. But in the end financial setbacks had reduced Tesla to near-poverty. Even in adversity Tesla was serene. "I have managed to maintain an undisturbed peace of mind, to make myself proof against adversity, and to achieve contentment and happiness to a point of extracting some satisfaction even from the darker side of life, the trials and tribulations of existence."

"Tesla: Man Out of Time" is more than just a fascinating story of visionary genius, but also of his contemporaries and their era. Tesla's life story will engross, outrage and inspire. I recommend this one highly.

First Published: April 12, 1997 | Copyright © 1997-2009 Robin Chew