The Truth about Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius in the History of Innovation

By on July 28th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

By Christopher Cooper. New York: Race Point Publishers, 2015, 195 pages.

Ask a “twentysornething” or “millennial” A what the word Tesla means and you’ll likely be told of a sleek, expensive electric automobile that goes from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, and costs, for its new Model X, around $130 000.

Were you to ask a historian of technology what the word says to her, you might see a facetious smirk and hear, “Yeah, the man who invented everything.” But, putting the same question to a Tesla buff, you’d get, with no trace of irony, nearly the same answer.

Nikola Tesla, the Serbian inventor, (1856–1943) has been a cult figure for decades extending back to his own lifetime. To sample the buffs and their cult, you might visit Powell’s bookstore in Portland, OR. On a recent trip I counted 50 books on one shelf that were either by or about Tesla. Edison rated half that number. Tesla, The Life and Times of an Electric Messiah by Nigel Caw-thorne told me on its cover flap. “Today all homes and appliances run on Tesla’s alternating current.” I guess Tesla invented AC.

The website“Ten Inventions of Nikola Tesla That Changed the World,” and includes such discoveries as alternating current, radio, x rays, robotics, laser and limitless free energy.

The most distinguished late 20th century historian of the wireless telegraph, Hugh G. J. Aitken, observed in his 1985 book The Continuous Wave, “There is no adequate biography of Tesla.”1 He then refers to two inadequate but once popular works on the subject: J. O’Neill’s Prodigal Geniusand Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man Out of Time.

Both books are pure hagiography. Cheney claims for example that a U.S Supreme Court decision of 1943 credits Tesla with the invention of radio and that his work (alone) anticipated Marconi. Reading the decision you will realize that the court asserted nothing of the sort. There is a nice discussion of this point at the web site:

In 1907 Tesla received a worshipful poem from the young O’Neill beginning with the line “Most glorious man of all ages…” His biography, written after the hero’s death, has Tesla discovering the electron microscope in 1892. Strange to say, the microscope employs de Broglie waves created by moving electrons — and the existence of such waves was not postulated by de Broglie until 1924. To understand them would have required that Tesla had a thorough grounding in modern physics and there is no indication that he ever did. In fact, during his lifetime he spoke of particles moving faster than the speed of light — a violation of the theory of relativity.

Had Aitken lived until 2013 he would have deleted his remark about inadequate biographies and would have cited probably just one: Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson, a Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia.2 The title of the book is misleading — Tesla is here presented, with scrupulous scholarship, as an inventor of the electrical age. Perhaps Carlson had hoped to con Tesla buffs into buying yet another celebration of their hero. He has ploughed through what must have been a cubic meter of Tesla correspondence and has worked at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. The book is remarkably free of technical errors — and it’s obvious that Carlson had his manuscript read by members of the electrical engineering profession.3He takes us carefully through Tesla’s best achievements — his earliest. Dating from the late 19th century, they are the induction motor and his work with George Westinghouse to promote the generation and use of 3 phase electric power in the United States.

In Tesla’s late, middle period, we learn of a huge tower he constructed in Colorado Springs, CO, in the early 20th century. Paid for by John Jacob Astor, it was powered by Nikola’s “magnifying transmitter,” a device capable of generating millions of volts and spectacular sparks and was intended to send not only wireless messages but electric power to consumers through the air — thus eliminating the use of copper wires in the system and providing its consumers with “free energy.” Having no results to show for this endeavor and no more funds from Astor, Tesla decamped to Wardenclyffe, Long Island, New York. J.P. Morgan poured $150 000 into yet another tower and generator; Tesla again claimed that he could send both power and wireless messages with this arrangement. With no signs of success, Morgan refused to go in further and the project was abandoned, leaving behind in 1905 a tower 187 feet high and extending a nearly comparable amount into the earth. It becomes clear that Tesla’s life as an inventor was headed downhill but this didn’t stop him from giving newspapers interviews where he spoke of having invented death-beam particle weapons capable of killing millions (which would make war unthinkable), an efficient bladeless turbine (which never really caught on), a device that would beam sufficient electric power to ships to permit their crossing an ocean, and a theory that the sun was discharging particles moving at 50 times the speed of light. He died alone, a weird eccentric, in a hotel in New York City in 1943.

Carlson’s epilogue has an interesting remark about why a fetishized new automobile carries the name of someone who never worked on automobiles except for the speed-ometer: the name evokes not only a disruptive, cool technology but also partakes of the spiritual; your new $130K energy sipping car is saving our planet and civilization. You, the new owner, share the same deep awareness as Nikola. Your dream machine uses the same energy as a gasoline vehicle getting 90 miles per gallon — it’s almost as good as his free energy.

Nikola Tesla has been a cult figure for decades extending back to his own lifetime.

With the publication of Carlson’s impressive work, one might ask why Cooper’s book, reviewed here, ever appeared. What might he add? He does add something and his somewhat idiosyncratic work is a welcome addition to serious Tesla literature.

The subtitle (The Myth of the Lone Genius) (italics added) tells a lot. This book is part of a small but growing critical historiography of Tesla — a kind of Reformation in Tesla Studies. The volume derives its thesis from something all serious students of the history of science and technology know: most breakthroughs are overdetermined. There are great minds working on the same problem making simultaneous discoveries. A scholar in the field will rarely say something like “Alfred E. Neuman was the first to invent the finagled kludge…” But the non-expert needs to be reminded of such truths and here Cooper is invaluable in the case of Tesla.

An excellent introduction to the concept of an invention’s arrival being overdetermined is a piece in the New Yorker Magazine “In the Air” by Malcolm Gladwell [1] which neatly conveys the truth that smart people are often simultaneously working on the same idea and that the glory often, and unfairly, attaches itself to just one of them. Newton and Leibnitz were developing calculus at the same time and likewise for Darwin, Wallace, and evolution. Bell and Gray were working on the telephone simultaneously, but most people have never heard of Elisha Gray.

Cooper sets his sights on certain myths beloved of the Tesla buff. To name three: Nikola invented alternating current, he created the wireless transmission of electricity, and J.P. Morgan, Tesla’s main financial backer pulled the plug on backing such a system because he couldn’t charge for the power.

The book is not, unlike Carlson’s, a university press creation. It’s beautifully illustrated and the author goes to some pains to explain various concepts surrounding electricity. Much of his discussion involves describing technological advances that either preceded or were simultaneous with Tesla’s.

Most historians of technology see as Tesla’s most solid contributions the induction electric motor and the system of polyphase electricity. Prior to the 1880s electric motors required the use of a commutator. The spinning portion of the motor, known as the rotor or armature, demanded that the direction of current flow through its insulated turns of wire be reversed at least once in the course of a single rotation. This meant that current was provided to the armature by a pair of stationary conducting brushes that made contact with a couple of spinning conductors forming a sort of split ring connected to the shaft of the rotating device. These spinning conductors connected with the wires on the armature.

Tesla’s work, most especially with Westinghouse, brought a new level of efficiency to AC power.

This commutator, as it was called, was undesirable for several reasons: it added to the frictional force countering rotation, it resulted in sparking and a loss of energy, and it wore out. Tesla’s contribution, as generally understood, was to eliminate the commutator and all electrical conduction to the armature by having a rotating magnetic field present in the motor which was created by a set of wire turns surrounding the armature; this was a specially wound field coil, as it was known. To create the rotating field the simplest way is to connect the motor to a set of three conducting wires each carrying a current that is out of phase with the others. An example of three phase current is shown in Figure 1. The plot shows the current in three wires over an interval of time.

Current in three wires over an interval of time.

Figure 1. Current in three wires over an interval of time.

One advantage of supplying such a current, which requires that three insulated wires comprise the power transmission line feeding the motor, is that the power moving down the line does not pulsate in time but remains constant. With the ordinary single phase AC electric current supplied by 2 wires to your toaster, for example, the power flow reaches a peak 120 times per second and is zero just as often.

Tesla’s work, most especially with Westinghouse, in the late 19th century, led not only to the popular adoption of the induction motor — a break-through in quality — but also to the widespread use of three phase power which remains the dominant standard for industrial power transmission today. It brought a new level of efficiency to AC power.

Cooper does convince us, however, that Tesla’s ideas for both the motor and three phase power were “in the air” in the last two decades of the 19th century. Tesla’s priority of invention for both the motor and his system of distribution was challenged in the American courts, where he did eventually prevail, but reading Cooper one comes away with the feeling that an Italian, Galileo Ferraris, has a pretty good claim to both inventions. Tesla’s collaboration with Westinghouse did lead to the implementation of large scale systems of power and motors, and generally it is such commercial success that leads to glory for an inventor. This is why you’ve surely of Alexander Graham Bell and perhaps not Elisha Gray.

Cooper is indebted to the prior work of Bernard Carlson and his book is heavy with footnotes giving reference to not only Carlson but to one other author, whom I will name presently. But the pleasure of reading Cooper is that it’s a slender engaging book that cuts right to the issues of priority. After reading him you will never let anyone tell you that Tesla invented AC power. Single phase AC power (which is ordinary house current) was already an important source of distribution well before Tesla formed his famous alliance with Westinghouse.

Cooper has a law degree but apparently no background in electrical engineering. If I wrote a book where law is paramount I’d have a lawyer read it. By having a technically trained person read his book the author would not have asserted, for example, that for an electromagnetic wave the higher the frequency the more energy it carries. A plane radio wave with a field strength of 1 volt per meter carries the same energy if its frequency is 1 megahertz or 100 times higher. He has confused the energy of the associated photons with the energy of the wave.

I have mentioned one other author to whom Cooper is indebted. This brings us to the strange case of Marc Seifer, the author of the introduction to Cooper’s book.

Marc Seifer wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Tesla for Saybrook University of San Francisco. It evolved into a published book in 1998. Aitken had complained of the O’Neill and Cheney books that they contained no footnotes; there is just no way to check their work. Seifer’s volume has an abundance of footnotes, as befits its thesis origins. He has delved deeply into the correspondence between Tesla and his financial backers and friends — most especially J.P Morgan but also Astor and Westinghouse. Cooper cites Seifer very frequently.

Despite his laborious scholarship, it is clear that Seifer has eaten from the tree of Tesla buffs. The title of his book Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, Biography of a Genius, might make us suspicious. We learn from Seifer’s own preface that as a boy he built a crystal radio and learns as an adult that Tesla was the “principal inventor of the very device of I had spent endless hours with…”

This is dead wrong and its appearance in the early pages makes us suspicious of what follows. The heart of the crystal radio is the crystal detector consisting of a thin wire (“cat’s whisker”) touching what is often a lead salt, galena. Invention of this device is the work of such people as the German, K.F. Braun, and two Americans: General H. Dunwoody and Greenleaf Whittier Pickard.

Warming to his task, Seifer has Tesla producing the “first true radio tube” in the second month of 1892. Studying the lecture in which the inventor unveiled this device we see that it exploits the properties of a sparse ionized gas; the essential feature of all radio tubes — thermionic emission from a red hot filament in a near vacuum, is missing. Seifer would have done better to credit Edison, or J.A. Fleming, or Lee de Forest.

Tesla died alone, a weird eccentric, in a hotel in New York City in 1943.

There is more of the same. A model radio-controlled boat that Tesla demonstrates in a tank in 1892 is the basis of the wireless telephone, car radio, fax machine, cable TV scrambler. Yes, the man who invented everything.

Tesla was a bachelor and Seifer is uncomfortable accepting the likelihood of his homosexuality. He compares Nikola to William James, suggesting that both were intent on “dedicating oneself to science at the expense of marriage.” Sorry, bad example. Dr. James married and fathered 5 children.

Given the sloppiness of his scholarship and his exaggerated claims for his hero, it is astonishing that Cooper enlisted Seifer to write the introduction to his book. Seifer and Cooper even contradict each other. The former asserts in Cooper’s book that prior to a speech given by his hero in 1888 “the prevailing thought was that electricity, whether AC or DC could only be transmitted about a mile…”. In fact, as we learn from Cooper, four years earlier, a French inventor Lucien Gaulard and an Englishman John Dixon Gibbs publically demonstrated long distance transmission of AC power. A little digging on my part in IEEE publications revealed the distance to be around 20 miles.

Overlooking the introduction, we can say that Cooper’s book is a welcome and much needed addition to the Tesla literature. It’s attractive and generally clear and unhurried in its discussion of electricity and electromagnetic theory. I look forward to seeing it on my next visit to Powell’s, placed among the very sort of literature it condemns.


A. David Wunsch is Book Review Editor of this magazine. He is Professor Emeritus in the Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, MA. Email: