Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Real Tesla: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again, Please

Nikola Tesla’s lab in Colorado Springs, calmly making environmental electricity in 1901.

Review of the new book by Richard Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, released Fall 2018 by Norton, Penguin/Random House. 

Nikola Tesla could have been elected President of The Outsiders Club, if such a thing existed. One of the most gifted and strange individuals who ever lived, his inventions transformed our world and his visions have continued to inspire other great minds for generations. I guess given that is an affirmative review of a serious and important book about a grand thinker, I shouldn’t really start out with the crucial disclaimer that: This is about the real Tesla. This has nothing to do with that twerp Elon Musk who stole his name to brand his company, after more or less stealing the core notions of an electric automobile that Nikola had conceived ages ago, but to whom no one paid any attention. What the hell, there, I said it.

There is a popular old adage that people who behave rarely make history. We might add that people who don’t always play well with others sometimes come up with startling insights in the midst of their secluded solitude. Nikola Tesla was the absolute paradigm for this kind of breathtakingly visionary thinker, in his case an engineer of awesome inventive capacities, one who saw the future, who invented the future even in a very real sense, but who was so woefully eccentric and unprepared to participate in the practical business side of things that almost everything he conceived was bowdlerized, bastardized or downright ripped off by lesser mortals.

He invented the radio, robots, remote control, electric induction motors that run our appliances and factories, alternating current, the basis for the electrical grid system, laser beam technology, devised plans for cell-phones, wireless communications, radar, sonar, a prototype Internet model, death ray weapons, x-rays (before Roentgen) and interstellar communications. And in Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, presents an intimate and at times harrowing portrait of the far sighted yet underappreciated mastermind who has been largely overlooked by history. To the extent that his name is known, in fact, it’s likely because of that billionaire twerp’s electric car company.

Albert Einstein is perhaps the most famous dyslexic person in history, a household name for both his personal eccentricities as well as his remarkable ability for insight in the nature of the world and universe we live in. But he was only the tip of an iceberg of extreme otherness and its frequent mix of certain unique skills which ironically appear to have been given to a veritable army of oddballs. His fellow eccentrics were equally quirky individuals who saw things the rest of us cannot see, and who managed to not only contribute to our cultures but also to change our lives forever.

This is the counter-myth that being different, even drastically different, involves disabilities which may prevent full participation in the party or may limit one’s ability to make a creative contribution to our shared cultures.

Einstein himself was once asked by a reporter, how did it feel to be the smartest person in the world, to which he instantly responded, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Nikola Tesla.” And yet, despite his brilliance, Nikola Tesla had so little practical business sense that he was unable to capitalize on his ideas, one of which, alternating currents, Thomas Edison literally stole out from under him, and another, radio transmission, Marconi was given credit for because his patents prevailed.

Many of the ideas, inventions, concepts or products of these “outsiders” who seemed to stubbornly reject the myth of otherness in their behaviors, have altered the way the rest of us live, and yet they themselves do not at all live the way we do. We often too easily take for granted the impressive array of discoveries made through their lateral thinking and their oblique capacity to recognize the obvious hiding in plain sight, but hidden from most neurotypicals. That’s the official name for normal people.

Among Tesla’s peers intellectually (he had no equals really) were other quirky geniuses such as Alan Turing (who invented the computer in a formal sense and decoded wartime messages using his number machine that saved literally thousands of lives) who ended up being oppressed by the a British government so intolerant of his gayness that it drove him to suicide. Another couple of like-minded outsiders were the physicist Paul Dirac, a complete weirdo genius who discovered anti-gravity, and mathematician John Nash (he of A Beautiful Mind film fame) who was certifiably nuts even though he devised poetic concepts such as governing dynamic and game theory, for which he was awarded a Nobel peace Prize forty years afterwards.

Tesla’s story, 1919; Tesla’s own hand X-rayed, 1895.

And then, there’s Tesla, astonishingly gifted Tesla. Dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, Tourette syndrome, Asperger's syndrome, high functioning autism, spectrum disorders, cognitive disabilities, aphasia, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, Williams syndrome, depression, melancholy…. the metaphysical menu appears endless but the central issue is a simple one. Lots of fancy names for his unique form of otherness. Munson’s book draws on firsthand material, letters, archives, and notebooks in order to give us a vivid snapshot of his magnificently bizarre personal life as well as the unusual mental habits of an enigmatic inventor par excellence.

Born in 1856 during a lightning storm at midnight (how portentous indeed) in what was Serbia, he would die in 1943 penniless, skeletal and alone in a tiny New York city hotel room he rarely left. He was an acute germophobe who never shook hands and required nine napkins when he sat down to dinner. Strikingly handsome and always impeccably dressed, he spoke eight languages and could recite books from his eidetic memory.

His most famous inventions, however, were not the result of fastidious linear thought but of sheer thought experiment and the poetic arts and humanities rather than relying on limited logic. An example of his uncanny methods: he conceived of the entire design for the induction motor in his head, all at once, while walking through a park reciting Goethe’s Faust. His distinctive approach to creativity and invention calls into question what it means to be fully effective and cognizant in our lives in the first place.

As Temple Grandin so astutely put it in her memoir of her own otherness The Way I See It: “I am different, not less. What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done. In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”

Tesla was the kind of quirky outsider who likely have called all the rest of us from outside the cave, with some frenzied urgings like: Hey, come out here, you won’t believe what I just figured out. He was a veritable ambassador of the Outside.

Munson’s book is a fount of information and insight into something and someone utterly opaque and beyond our comprehension (if you Google just the name Tesla, what comes up first is a pile of background on the wealthy twerp I referenced at the outset, and nothing on Nikola until you add the initial N.) Munson is also the author of From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity (2005), and also The Power Makers: The Inside Story of America's Biggest Business... and Its Struggle to Control Tomorrow's Electricity (1985), books that similarly chart the course of development from early inventors into today’s dizzying world of thinking machines, digital domains and artificial intelligence.

His book positions Tesla where he belongs, on the literal cusp between the old world and the new, at the fulcrum of today and tomorrow, and it ably explores Tesla’s often stated grand and glorious dream: to make the world a better place as a result of his inventions. To do this he immersed himself, as Munson narrates dramatically, in his own inner world and studied “the reverberation of heaven’s artillery” and its “whirling force of nature.” He also accurately places him in the ranks of those who were too much of the poet and visionary to ever fully “succeed,” and shows how he was so far ahead of his time that we are, in fact, still gradually catching up to him.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

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