Book Simple: The Doddering and the Greatness of Nikola Tesla
I made the mistake of recommending a book to my Dad that I hadn’t read. This, you’d think, is rather a beginner’s error; surely there are enough old adages to keep someone with a reader’s reputation leery of speaking before reading. So this weekend, with an extra bit of time on my hands, I set forth to read the Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt.
Nikola Tesla, “world-famous inventor, once celebrated, once visited by kings, authors and artists, welterweight pugilists, scientists of all stripes, journalists with their prestigious awards, ambassadors, mezzo-sopranos, and ballerinas” is the nominal subject of novel, whose revolutionary ideas carried him from Smiljan, Croatia to that center of the modern world, New York City. But, as our narrator makes clear to us immediately, “that was some time ago.”
Now Tesla is an old man, visited only by pigeons. In sixty-odd years, “I’ve nearly perfected my relationships with the pigeons, the sparrows, and the starlings of New York City,” Tesla reports. “Humans remain a far greater challenge.” His devotion to invention meant that Tesla feared love as a distraction. “Love is uneven. There is no science to it, no formula. One party loves more than the other. Pain ensues.” The scientist replaced love with ideas, “just science, pure engineering… I want people to understand that things they never even dreamed of are possible.”
The electricity that we think of as electricity, which is alternating current, is Tesla’s invention. Tesla’s alternating current won the ”Battle of the Currents,” wresting the victory from direct current’s more famous proponent, Thomas Edison. “If we wanted to power the world with DC electricity, we’d have to build a power plant every two miles,” Tesla explains. My Dad has similarly outlined the concept of alternating versus direct current to me over the dinner table several times. He emphasized that Tesla’s invention permitted our modern infrastructure to emerge, one of the reasons the description of the novel on Amazon.com made me think Dad would like it.
But the Tesla we meet in the novel is aging and perhaps insane. One of his pigeons talks to him, and Sam Clemens, dead twenty-five years, stops into his hotel room for a chat. His experiments remain powerful, however, and capture the attention of Louisa, a chambermaid at the Hotel New York. “In one moment she’d been surrounded by sound and buzz and the glare of electricity,” Louisa describes. “Elevators had been gliding up and down in their shafts, lights and appliances had been humming, furnaces gurgling while the heating system hissed and spat. In the next moment the entirety of the hulking hotel has been plunged into total blackness, complete quiet; even the sounds and motions not controlled by electricity have stopped, as if they too are suddenly afraid of the dark.”
Louisa provides the necessary counterpoint to our aging narrator. She is a “sharp city girl, frank, skeptical, and wise.” Her life stretches in front of her, as Tesla’s behind him. But both of them find the course of their lives irrevocably altered by ideas. The novel becomes an examination of the fallout from great ideas: “lightning first, then the thunder.” The imagery is fiercely beautiful, tactile, evocative in a way that is became almost disconcerting at times. It was not at all what I expected, but still rather wonderful. As for my recommendation to Dad? I’ll leave you with some words from Tesla: “People can make beautiful mistakes, dear, and each one is an arrow, a brilliant arrow, pointing out the right way to there.”
Book Simple Featured Image Credit: chotda