Monday, 15 September 2014

Wizard, by Marc Seifer

3.5 stars

Wizard is the extremely comprehensive biography of possibly one of the most interesting men to have ever lived, a man so cool they had to get David Bowie to play him – Nikola Tesla.

Before we begin, I should probably make it clear that while I am fascinated by science and the great thinkers that practice it, my mind does not work in that way at all (I only passed my Science GCSE after my mum condensed pretty much the entire syllabus into a series of silly cartoons a few days before my exams) and so the title of this book is made even more appropriate. My only real understanding of electricity being that when I flip a switch, my lights come on (when the bulbs haven't gone), it really may as well be magic as far as I'm concerned.

So, Nikola Tesla...

Look at him. See? Told you he was cool.

A genius with a talent for invention as well as for winding up his investors and a great showman whose incredible lightning spewing demonstrations would capture the public imagination before his grandiose pronouncements and appetite for self-publicity saw him later dismissed as something of a crank unable to finish a project, Tesla would invent many of the things we take for granted in the modern world whilst also contributing to many more. He would also be eternally screwed over and in debt, his work credited to and making others rich, his achievements only properly recognised long after his death. 

Born in Smiljan in 1856 to a gifted family (particularly his mum, who was forever inventing new household appliances for herself) and possessing a photographic memory, Tesla was already far more accomplished by the time he'd left University than most of us could hope to be in a lifetime, having taken courses in arithmetic and analytical geometry, theoretical and experimental physics, integral calculus, analytical chemistry, mineralogy, machinery construction, botany, wave theory, optics, philosophy and higher maths, and speaking 8 languages. He’d also survived several near death experiences including plunging into boiling milk, drowning under a raft, being swept over waterfall, contracting cholera, and driving himself through overwork into a nervous collapse – something he would continue to do throughout his lifetime as he subsisted on bread and milk, sleeping only a few hours a night and pouring all of his energies into his work.

Moving to the US in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison’s company, Tesla would set out on his own after almost immediately receiving the first of many shaftings at Edison’s hands – being paid just $18 a day to redesign and reassemble much of the company’s equipment after having been promised $50,000. These shaftings would also continue throughout his life, and were as many and varied as his astounding array of inventions (which included an induction motor, electrical power distribution system, fluorescent and neon lights, wireless telecommunication, remote control, robotics and apparently even fricking laser beams) and came at the hands of not just Edison but the likes of Marconi, Westinghouse, Pupin, Steinmetz, JP Morgan and the US Government.

Facing a publicity backlash due to Edison’s dickish publicity campaign in which he electrocuted animals with Tesla’s competing AC system, mired in patent infringements and court battles, and forever toadying up to potential investors (mostly unsuccessfully, thanks to his habit of sending long letters bemoaning his hard luck and full of emotional blackmail, while asking for way more funds having abandoned agreed plans in favour of altogether grander schemes), Tesla would become far more paranoid, bitter and reclusive over time, allowing the weirder aspects of his personality free reign.

Amongst his many peculiarities were: an aversion to women's earrings and touching people’s hair, being sent into fits at the sight of pearls and fevers at the sight of a peach, insisting on living in hotels despite an almost pathological inability to pay his rent, where his mirrors must be draped and no sunlight must enter his room. And despite being a favourite of the ladies (especially of his friend’s wife, Mrs Katherine Johnson), he remained celibate – having eyes only for his work and, well, I’ll let him tell you: 
“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, my life had purpose."

Tesla passed away at the age of 86, having outlived his pigeon, sending various secret agencies into frenzies as they tried to suppress his papers and get their hands on a rumoured death ray machine, Tesla having supposedly left a working model in a hotel basement in lieu of rent.

As a reading experience, due to the staggering amount of information imparted I sometimes struggled with Wizard - especially as much of it was highly technical information. This, coupled with the authors insistence on flying off on tangents and flitting around in time, meant that I often spent entire chunks completely befuddled and bewildered. But I still learned everything I could possibly want to know about one of the most interesting people to have ever lived, so I'm not going to hold too much against it.

And in case you're wondering, I'm firmly on the Tesla side of this rap battle:

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