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New light on Tesla’s electrical future

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In his fascinating new biography of one of the great engineers of the electrical revolution – Nikola Tesla – Iwan Rhys Morus investigates the complex character behind the scientific showman and technology visionary.

“What interests me about Tesla,” says Iwan Rhys Morus, “is the way he portrays himself as inventing the future.” Idolised by the current generation of tech entrepreneurs – he’s even got an electric car named after him – Nikola Tesla is today’s blueprint for how the 21st century is inventing itself in its own image. But Tesla himself – widely accepted as one of the great engineering minds of the late 19th and early 20th century – is a challenge to any biographer. Running in parallel with his legendary achievements is a compelling personal narrative of a complex character manipulating his own image.

This duality is central to Morus’s new biography of the Serbian-American inventor, ‘Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future’. With a distinguished academic background in history and philosophy of science, Morus, who is currently a professor of history at Aberystwyth University, is perhaps uniquely placed to write such a myth-busting follow-up to his acclaimed ‘Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century’ and the ‘Oxford Illustrated History of Science’.

“We have this stereotypical image of science and scientists as being dry as dust,” says Morus, describing the cliché of “earnest, white-coated people in laboratories doing serious stuff. But science is also about sensation. It’s about spectacle.” This is particularly the case for the Victorian period, “when science really is about putting on spectacular displays of sparks and electric lights. Nikola Tesla is the prime exemplar of that.”

The idea of science as entertainment is fundamental to Morus’s motivation for looking into Tesla. “You can blame Sheldon Cooper for that, at least in part. I’m a big fan of ‘The Big Bang Theory’, not least because Tesla is a recurrent reference. He’s continually namechecked as Sheldon Cooper’s hero, the great forgotten genius and the man who was done down by Edison.” But, there’s a deeper, more serious point here, “which is how historical figures play in the modern world. Tesla presents a very particular image in our culture now of what the ‘genius inventor’ should be: how we think about the people who invent the future world around us. That’s why I wanted to write this book about him.

“I’m interested in how the future also has a past, how the people of the 19th century started to think about the future as being different from the present and how it was going to be delivered by technology.” Morus goes on to say that of all the progress that Tesla made in electrical supply technology, perhaps just as important is that “he invented a way of thinking about the future”.

Tesla cuts a curious figure in that “there’s something of a mismatch between what he actually did and the way he is understood today”. Both Tesla and his biographers have made claims for his being an integral cog in the ‘battle of the systems’ between alternating current and direct current, “which he wasn’t. He plays a very peripheral role in that.” More important, says Morus, is the “invention of a revolutionary new polyphase motor that runs off alternating current. That’s what makes him a known figure among the growing community of professional electrical engineers at the end of the 1880s.”

Then there is the oscillating transformer (the ‘Tesla Coil’), an instrument that allows the production of electricity at high voltages. “Those are the two things that made Tesla famous at the time, and he plays the American press in particular very well, with constant stories of his inventions.” His ambition for the end of the 19th century was to scale up this technology in an attempt to “transmit gargantuan quantities of electrical energy wirelessly. And that’s what ultimately proves to be his downfall.”

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Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future

One of the greatest inventors of the second half of the 19th century, Nikola Tesla rose to fame for his contribution to the technology of electricity supply, X-rays, radio remote control and wireless electrical transmission. A complicated man, he was also to sink into obscurity, with his reputation only being completely rehabilitated in recent decades, secured by the fact that he now has an electric car named after him. In ‘Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future’, science historian Iwan Rhys Morus delves into the life and times of an extraordinary visionary that carefully nurtured his public image of the reclusive inventor. Set against the backdrop of the burgeoning entrepreneurial culture of the late 19th and early 20th century electrical revolution, Morus takes us deep into the world of Tesla’s restless speculations and experiments about the way the future world will look.

These days, says Morus, Tesla is regularly described in the media as a “forgotten genius”, which the author sees as something of a contradiction given that he has a scientific unit (the ‘tesla’ unit of magnetic induction: symbol ‘T’) and, of course, the aforementioned car memorialising him. If it is a misrepresentation, it is a result of Tesla’s making. “He wanted to look like an outsider, distant from the community of electrical engineers, with his own unique vision of the future. It was clearly a good sell, and it is often the way he is portrayed in contemporary culture.”

Tesla was a master of media manipulation in that, to present himself to the outside world as distant and aloof, he courted publicity and fostered relationships with journalists, actively encouraging them to report on his work. Morus describes how, in researching his biography, he read countless newspaper articles about Tesla that “had the constant refrain of him being the busy professor that doesn’t like talking to newspaper men, who has ‘allowed me into his laboratory’. Clearly, the reclusive inventor isn’t that reclusive after all.” It is a deliberate strategy by Tesla, says Morus, to perpetuate an image of what inventors ‘should’ look like. “He’d largely succeeded in doing so by the end of the century. But he was also living in one of New York’s most prestigious hotels, eating at Delmonico’s, where the New York society elite hung out.”

‘Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future’ is both a biography of a scientist and a historical evaluation of the scientific culture of the day, an approach that mirrors the author’s twin interests. Morus says that as a child he just wanted to be a physicist. But as he grew up, he realised that rather than “doing science”, it was more important to him to “understand science as a cultural phenomenon. It’s really important to understand that science has a history and to understand that history as it really was, rather than simply repeating fairy tales, which is very often what happens.

“History is messy and complicated, contingent and doesn’t work out how it was intended to. It’s important to remind people that this is what science is like too. One of the reasons I’m interested in Tesla is his image as one of the individual inventors. We think of science and technology as being the product of individual human beings that through their own genius have invented the modern world. But it’s not like that. Science is a collective and history shows us that.”

‘Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future’ by Iwan Rhys Morus is published by Icon Books, £12.99

Extract

The Power of Niagara Falls

Looking back in his memoirs, Tesla recalls that as a child he had fantasised about Niagara: “I was fascinated by a description of Niagara Falls I had perused, and pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the Falls.” He was determined to “go to America and carry out this scheme”. Writing about Tesla’s London performance in the ‘Nineteenth Century’, the electrical engineer James Edward Henry Gordon had been thinking about Niagara as well. “On the same table, on which Mr Tesla’s experiments were shown a few days ago, there swung,” he reminds his readers, “in the year 1834, a delicately balanced galvanometer needle, under the influence of the first induction current, produced by the genius of Faraday.” That force too had been small at the beginning, “probably not greater than the forces lighting Mr Tesla’s tubes, yet that force has now developed one of the great industries of the world.”

That force now powered “millions of lamps in London and elsewhere, in America it drives cars on thousands of miles of railways, and will soon distribute the power of Niagara Falls to neighbouring states.” Gordon speculated that Tesla’s discoveries would “some day harness to our machinery the natural forces, which from the beginning of time have been slipping through our fingers”. He imagined that if Tesla’s dreams became reality, “we shall see a social and political change at least as important as that caused by the railways system or the electric telegraph.” It would be a world where “manual labour will become unnecessary, as unlimited power will be available to every man’s hand.” Niagara was on Tesla’s mind as he travelled back to America. Plans were already under way to turn the Falls’ power into practical power.

Edited extract from ‘Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future’ by Iwan Rhys Morus, reproduced with permission.

 

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