Jul 18, 2009

The Sunday Salon

The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla, Forgotten Genius of Electricity by Robert Lomas

Product DetailsHardcover: 248 pages
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing (January 1999)
Language: English

Where to buy?

From Amazon

Short bio:
Robert Lomas is a British writer who writes primarily about the history of Freemasonry as well as the Neolithic period, ancient engineering and archaeoastronomy. Lomas's theories about the origins of Freemasonry have caused controversy among Masonic historians. It is thought by some freemasons that Lomas might be the inspiration for the character of Dr. Robert Langdon, in Dan Brown's thriller, The Da Vinci Code. He currently lectures on Information Systems at the University of Bradford's School of Management.

First impression:
Not a month ago, my German Language Practice professor asked a simple question.
“Name one famous Croatian.”
On a whim, fifteen voices shouted:
“Nikola Tesla!”
“And what is he famous for?”
We stared sheepishly at each other. A meek voice broke the silence.
“He…invented electricity?”
The professor nodded.
“Okay. Of what importance is it for us?”
Another roll of sheepish glancing. Obvious enough, isn’t it? Or is it a trick question?
“Let me rephrase the question,” she said. “If Tesla gave us something that we owe him so much for, why did he die broke, alone and dejected in a hotel room?”

She surely gave us some to think about. And a lot of homework in addition.
Strangely enough, few days later, my father brought a copy of this book from a conference. Now that I have read it, I feel eligible to answer my professor's question.

What is it about?In his introduction, R. Lomas says he wanted to tell an easy-read story about Tesla’s life, with an emphasis on why he never gained fortune on his inventions. The answer is as simple as this; Tesla was a terrible businessman.
Nikola Tesla was born an ethnic Serb in the village of Smiljan in Croatia, when the church bell tolled the last second of the 10th of July 1856. It was a stormy night and Tesla was dubbed a child of thunder from his birth on. His father was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. Having lost his older brother, Dana, who was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps, Nikola always felt that he failed to meet his parent’s expectations. This need to substitute for his parent’s loss led into a fervent perfectionism in whatever he did.
After receiving superb education, Tesla worked as a telegrapher in Budapest, where he received a recommendation to work for the grand T. A. Edison. Nikola got robbed in Paris and arrived to New York with only what he had in his pockets.
Very soon, Tesla found himself disappointed in Edison. Edison, who had a brilliant nose for business, didn’t agree with Tesla’s idea that electricity should be accessible and free to all people alike. After numerous misfortunate business deals, Tesla, who never doubted in the rightness of his ideas and beliefs, came out short not only of financial reward, but also public recognition, which in a particular way was more important to him. He wanted to prove his success to his parent’s. He was considered a mad scientist, seeking publicity with his sci-fi ideas. Unfortunately, Tesla was so ahead of his contemporaries that, what seems normal today was pure fantasy at his time.
Tesla was raised to appreciate knowledge per se, not for the profit it might spawn. Few people believed in his vision; fewer were willing to support him financially so he could work on his projects that were financially worthless, but beneficial for all humankind.
The man who managed to harness the energy of the Niagara Falls died at the age of 86, alone in a hotel room, with no one but pigeons to talk to.
Tesla was acquainted with many famous people of the time. In Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain) he saw a fatherly figure. Even as a child, Tesla enjoyed Twain’s novel and considered them beneficial for his health. Tesla disagreed with Einstein’s theory, and recent experiments proved him right. He invented the radio three years before Marconi, but never received public recognition because of his perfectionism and unwillingness to share his inventions before they were completed up to finest details. He invented the first toy on remote control, plasma grenades, worked with X-rays three years before Roentgen; he was able to create thunders and believed in sending sound and pictures around the world-and even into space.
Tesla was aware that the success of a certain idea depends on the atittude of his contemporaries. If it came at the right moment, people would accept it; unfortunately, Tesla’s contemporaries were either too ignorant or to blind to recognize the immense potential of Tesla’s inventions.

The Official Robert Lomas Website

In conclussion:
When we were kids in elementary school, we visited the Technical Museum in Zagreb where some of Tesla’s equipment is exhibited. Everything still works perfectly. We widened our eyes when the assistant would make a bulb shine in his hand, when an artificial thunder would strike above our heads or when the egg would start to spin on a velvet stand.
I would feel ashamed if I didn’t put effort in learning more about this genius. A man to whom the world owes so much, who said was “equally proud of his Serbian origin and his Croatian homeland” deserves at least that much as a group of students being aware of his importance.
This book might be a real gem for someone whose area of work includes electricity and magnetism. Though I assumed it would contain too much physics, I decided to focus on the other level of the story. As for me, it was a bit exhausting to read, and I admit, I skipped the passages about physics. I miss that wire in my head, and I always barely passed my math, physics and chemistry test. But again-to someone interested in these areas, it would be a thriller. Still, there were quite some interesting and funny things. After all, it provided me with the moment when I close the back cover and leave satisfied, not regreting any single moment I put into reading this book.

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