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Nikola Tesla: Genius and Loon

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943):  Unsung genius or raving loony? 

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The history of technology is populated with a marvellous cast of characters.  On the one hand you have the colourful, hard-working inventors like Thomas Edison who slaved away morning, noon and night to produce many of the wonders that we take for granted such as the incandescent light, the telephone, and the garlic peeler.  On the other you have the moonbat crazies who show up at the patent office with a cardboard box stuffed with wires and a torch battery claiming that they've made contact with John Kerry's charisma.  And then there is that rarest of creatures: Nikola Tesla, a man who was both a certifiable genius and just plain certifiable.

Born in Smiljan, Croatia, Tesla was educated at Graz and Prague, worked for the Continental Edison Company in Paris, and emigrated to the United States in 1884.   There he worked briefly for Thomas Edison until the poetic Tesla and the pragmatic Edison fell out.  Tesla then went on to sell his patents for a series of alternating current devices to the Westinghouse Electric Company, making Tesla a relatively wealthy man able to set himself up in his own laboratory. 

That must be one damn good book!

Composite photo of Tesla making it appear as if he's sitting serenely in a barrage of lightning.

So far so good; sounds like the biography of many a successful Victorian electrical engineer.  But Tesla was a different kettle of mackerels from your average solder jockey.  He was a first-class ego case with aristocratic pretensions.  He was a tremendous showman who excelled at giving spectacular demonstrations of what electricity could do. He was an intuitive genius who could visualise all sorts of revolutionary new devices even though he didn't fully understand the principles behind them.  He had a remarkable memory coupled with an intense dislike of writing things down, so that much of his work has come down to us as a mystery.  He was a man with no money sense who was able to persuade many an investor into pouring money down many a rat hole.  He was also a visionary who, as time went on and his professional fortunes ebbed, became prone to wilder and wilder assertions about what marvels he would perform and how he could single-handedly change the world or destroy it. 

Tesla's real achievements combined with his flamboyant dreams made him a regular source for reporters looking for sensational copy and a  lightning rod for nutcases who were convinced that he was really an emissary from the planet Venus.  Even today a quick google of the Internet will return any number of sites dedicated to Tesla and more than a few of these are filled with claims  that Tesla really had built death rays, power broadcasters, and  weather control machines; contacted other planets; built electric space ships which he used to visit Mars; could project thoughts; and Lord knows what else.  And why don't we enjoy these Teslan marvels today?  According to his modern disciples, Tesla's inventions have either been lost to history, suppressed by the government or corporations, or are the product of an alien technology for which we are Not Yet Ready.

Pretty good for a man whose best friend was a pigeon and had a life-long horror of germs that would have done Howard Hughes proud.

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