'Tesla: Inventor of the Modern' - Book Review

Tesla: Inventor of the Modern
Richard Munson
W.W. Norton & Company, 306 pages

It is ... unwise to learn about your heroes. I read Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney many years ago, and my love of Tesla survived that - although it probably shouldn't have. But it didn't survive this book. Tesla was, no doubt whatsoever, a genius. And the work he did shaped the modern world. He essentially created our modern electrical grid, inventing both the generators to make AC power and the motors to run off it, as well as championing the distribution systems needed. He invented radio (although it was Marconi whose persistence made it practical). He invented fluorescent lights, the Tesla coil, X-ray imaging, radio controlled devices, the list goes on. But the Tesla/Marconi split on the invention of radio is indicative of who Tesla was: he invented things, and then, having proven they could work, refused to work on practical applications because he wanted to pursue his next big idea. And he believed people should fund him - regardless of whether or not the thing he was researching had any practical application. He was charming, arrogant, temperamental, and absolutely clueless about finances for himself or his businesses. And it's on his arrogance and cluelessness that he's finally lost me. I respect his genius, but I wouldn't have wanted to meet him.

The second half of his life is marked by both an intellectual and a financial decline while he continued to declare and pursue every grander projects that he couldn't finance. By page 195 I'd read his greatest hits and was staring down thirty years of that decline that I didn't want to read about - so I quit the book.

The book is well written and well researched (I found one visible failing, but hardly a deal-breaker). One thing the author did not do that I thought he should have was to break down whether or not Tesla's grander unfinished ideas were even possible - 75 years after Tesla's death I think we can answer most of these with reasonable authority. As I understand it (maybe I don't, sorry, not an expert here), his idea of transmitting power through the Earth to everyone for free is possible. It would require a truly massive amount of power (that would cost the organization generating it an incredible amount of money) and would cause all kinds of interference (electromagnetic and/or radio), but it is possible. His "death ray" was never described enough in any practical way to be able to judge - as such, it qualifies as one of his pipe dreams.

A good book on the greatest electrical engineer in history - a book I didn't manage to finish because it gets too depressing.