Review: Tesla: Man Out Of Time

Nikola Tesla is an interesting character and a brilliant guy who made significant contributions to early electrical engineering.  A brilliant showman, capable of dramatic demonstrations of the principles he discovered, he was also eccentric to the point of compulsion and naive in business to the point of incompetence.  This is a fellow who deserves a compelling biography.  Sadly, Margaret Cheney’s Man Out Of Time isn’t it.

To be fair, it seems that objective information about Tesla is thin on the ground.  He spent a fair amount of his life in obscurity and without close friends or relatives, which makes first hand accounts difficult to come by.  Piecing together the life of such a unique individual under those constraints certainly seems daunting.

Even given the problems, Cheney comes off much more as a cheerleader than a scholar.  She leans heavily on the collections of the Tesla museum and one other biographer.  More distressingly, the technical assessments of Tesla’s work seem to come primarily from folks who are willing to give him every benefit of the doubt.  Tesla is one of those people who have been overlooked by the scientific community and have attracted a cult of true believers who are vocal in trying to get his legacy restored.  One often gets the feeling that they’re overcorrecting.

Now, I may be biased toward underselling Tesla’s achievements, but one way or another he is certainly someone who polarizes (ha, ha) opinion among technical people. To write a biography and not mention the strong differences of opinion seems disingenuous.

Overall this did more to pique my curiosity about Tesla than to enlighten me.

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