There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.
And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.
I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business.
Case in point: The War of Currents. Back at the turn of the twentieth century Thomas Edison (whose reputation has not been well-served by the passage of time) was promoting the direct current model of electricity distribution. Not to get into all the technicalities of this, but basically, because this system required all electricity to move in one direction only (generator to outlet), it caused for a lot of start/stop problems for things like trams, was very limited in how far it could be distributed, and was overall not that efficient. Tesla had an idea for an alternating current system that would solve a lot of these problems, by using transformers and whatnot.
While working at Edison Electric, Tesla brought up his idea, but Edison “explodes each time as if his assistant were extolling the Antichrist.” But over time, Edison might be developing some doubts as to his system and lets Tesla (named Gregor in the book—more on that in a minute) take a shot at solving the problem:
Fine, go to it: there’s $50,000 in it for you if you succeed. Gregor goes to it, for six months, at the end of which the generator winds up in fine fettle indeed. Gregor hurries to report to his employer.
Great, exclaims Edison, lounging in his armchair with his feet propped up on his desk. Good, very good. Really? asks Gregor uneasily. You’re pleased? Ecstatic, declares Edison, delighted. So, then, ventures Gregor, unable to finish his sentence because—So then what? breaks in Edison, whose face has turned to stone. Actually, says Gregor, screwing up his courage, I seem to remember something about $50,000. Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off his desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?
Prick. And it’s not like this is the only d-bag move Edison makes. When Gregor ends up working with Western Union (after losing all his money to the backers of his successful arc light), the so-called “War of Currents” kicks off, with Edison protecting his DC distribution model at all costs. Such as by demonstrating the dangers of AC by electrocuting cats and dogs on the streets. And then an elephant. He even creates a really brutal electric chair and kills a convict.
In some ways, Edison is the anti-Tesla—at least when it comes to business. He claimed the patents for inventions his workers came up with. The lengths he went to to preserve his monopoly more resemble today’s corporations than the image I have of Edison from my grade school textbooks.
To bring this home, when Tesla signed a contract with Westinghouse, he was promised a modest sum for the sale of electricity via his AC system. When they “won” the current war, Western Union owed him $12 million. Since this would dismantled Western Union, Tesla tore up the contract, content to go off to Colorado to play with electricity. (And supposedly discover a way to deliver free electricity to everyone, everywhere. Something that’s as anti-corporate as it gets.)
That’s how it will go with Gregor: others will discreetly make off with his ideas while he spends his life bubbling away with new ones. But it’s not enough to keep things boiling, one must then decant, filter, dry, crush, mill, and analyze. Count, weigh, sort out. Gregor never has the time to cope with all that. The others, off in their corners, will take the time they need to carry out his ideas while he, dashing on, will have already pounced on something else. And his patent applications won’t help, won’t any more keep Roentgen from claiming the X-ray than they’ll prevent Marconi later on from saying he invented radio.
Echenoz, who changed Tesla’s name from Nikolai to Gregor to emphasize that this was a novel and not a biography, does an amazing job capturing the fascinating eccentricities of this genius. Because not only was Tesla a great inventor, he was quite a showman as well, such as in this description of his “demonstration” at the 1893 World’s Fair:
As mystified by these scientific matters as I am, the audience at this point is already goggle-eyed and openmouthed at such a spectacle. When Gregor begins, however, in a crashing din, to pass between his hands currents in excess of 200,000 volts, which vibrate a million times a second and appear as shimmering phosphorescent waves—and then turns himself into a long cascade of fire, the crowd screams for the rest of the act. After which, in the gradually falling silence, Gregor’s motionless figure continues briefly to emit vibrations and haloes of light that fade slowly into the returning darkness, until the audience holds its breath in a theater as black and silent as the crypt.
For such a short book (142 pages), Echenoz (and superstar translator Linda Coverdale) sure cover a lot of ground. There’s the Edison bit, the time in Colorado when he “communicates with martians,” his time at the Waldorf Astoria, his time at the much less chic New Yorker hotel, the time when he falls in love with a pigeon.
This book works though, not just because of the wealth of awesome material that was Tesla’s life, but because of the compression (Linda Coverdale’s term) of his writing. It’s concise, but not minimalist. Serious and very precise on one hand, but with that typical Echenoz flair, such as the occasional references to “I” and “we” and the general “lightness” that makes all of his fictions so incredibly enjoyable. And makes Lightning one of my favorite books (so far) of 2011.