The Quality of Genius


Tesla: Man Out of Time, by Margaret Cheney, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981, 320 pp., $16.95

Margaret Cheney's biography of Nikola Tesla is subtitled Man Out of Time. Timelessness, of course, can only pertain to a person's work and not to his life. The prejudices that made Tesla's life exciting and difficult cannot be separated from his time, a time already in the process of being obscured by a patina of quaintness. Tesla's inventions, on the other hand, have about them the timelessness of a perfection not subject to improvement.

Other 19th-century inventions have evolved, as Otto Benz's internal combustion engine has done, so much that the inventors would probably no longer recognize them as their work; or are in the process of being supplanted by newer technologies, as Thomas Edison's incandescent bulb is being replaced by more-efficient fluorescent lighting. Tesla's inventions are different. From induction motors to radio-controlled cruise missiles, they exist and work today just as Tesla designed them.

To understand the timelessness of Tesla's inventions, it may be instructive to compare his way of inventing with that of Thomas Edison, Tesla's one-time employer. Edison used to say that genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, which is probably not true of such genius as Tesla's but is certainly true of Edison's.

Edison usually took the commonsense approach to a problem. When that failed because of some palpable obstacle, he battered the obstacle into submission, often by trial and error, until he had something that worked well enough to be sold. He is said to have tried several hundred filament materials on the way to making a working light bulb. The resulting inventions were usually flawed in the underlying conceptual design and therefore destined to be supplanted in time by conceptually sounder alternatives: the DC electricity distribution system by AC; incandescent illumination by fluorescent; mechanical sound recording by optical and magnetic alternatives, and so on.

Tesla, in contrast, began each invention with a thorough conceptual analysis of the function to be accomplished, carried out to the point of a complete, if abstract, understanding of what was required for a perfect solution. He then proceeded to the design of a device that, if implemented with ideal materials (perfect conductors, frictionless bearings, perfectly rigid mechanical parts) would meet those requirements absolutely. In doing this, he discarded, as though they never existed, antecedent "solutions" based on inherently nonideal components, such as the brushes and commutators used in all electrical motors before his. His design for an alternating-current motor created the requisite electrical currents in the rotor through electromagnetic induction, eliminating the need for any actual electrical contact between moving parts.

It is a safe bet that if electricity is still in use 500 years from now, the conversion of electricity into mechanical power will still be done with motors based on Tesla's design.

Tesla was fortunate to have at his disposal, for making the induction motor and the tuned radio receiver, materials whose actual behavior very closely approached his theoretical assumptions. Another of his inventions, the adhesion turbine, is a brilliant design for which the appropriate materials are still not available. The physical laws that govern the conversion of the kinetic energy of fluids into rotary form imply that the efficiency of a turbine will approach 100 percent as both turbulence and outflow velocity approach zero. It is inherently impossible to approach these two conditions simultaneously in turbines of traditional design. The Tesla turbine is the only one ever invented that can approach perfect efficiency. If the necessary materials ever become available, it will probably displace the less perfect designs now used.

Given Tesla's success in making lasting and aesthetically satisfying contributions through the theoretical method, we can sympathize with his anger and anguish when that method failed him. Tesla's most spectacular failures were his experiments with radio-frequency power transmission through the ground and the atmosphere. Tesla's theoretical work on these projects was first-rate, but the mathematical models of the earth and the atmosphere, which Tesla borrowed from his contemporaries, are now known to have been highly inaccurate.

Tesla was, by any standard of scientific accomplishment, a far greater intellect and a far greater inventor than Edison. Yet while Edison's name and identity is known to nearly all American schoolchildren, Tesla's fame is more or less confined to the scientific and technological community. Margaret Cheney seems to have set out to correct this deplorable situation by writing a book about Tesla in the traditional style associated with biographies of Edison: very light on science and heavy on picturesque anecdotes. There is nothing here about the substance of Tesla's scientific contributions or about the working principles of his inventions or their elegant superiority over the crude contraptions they replaced. Instead, we are regaled by detailed accounts of Tesla's eccentricities, his friendships with the "tout New York" of his time, his debts, his clothes, his meals.

Cheney's book may not make Tesla better known than Edison is, but it contains much that could explain their relative fame. Edison worked hard, physically as well as mentally, while Tesla slept late and did most of his best work while lying supine and watching the sky. The most prominent fixture of Edison's laboratory was his workbench; of Tesla's, his well-upholstered couch. Edison cared little for the pleasures of the flesh. Tesla insisted on eating the most refined food, drinking the best vintages, and dressing in the most elegant clothes he could buy. Edison lived modestly in the suburbs. Tesla, while he could afford it, maintained a residence at the most luxurious hotel in New York City, as well as a second apartment at another luxury hotel for discreet meeting with his "special friends." Edison managed his business affairs wisely and put his money into productive investments. Tesla never cared much about business and used his money, when he had it, on "living as though he were rich." After the money ran out, Tesla borrowed to the hilt and then, having exhausted his credit, lived in penury on contributions from Yugoslavian schoolchildren.

Tesla, no doubt, would feel as much contempt for Edison's worshipers as he did for their hero. Knowing that he was not an ordinary person, Tesla saw no reason to live an ordinary life. He probably also knew that there would always be people who would admire his inventions and would not care about how he had lived. Some of the latter might even prefer him to Edison as a model for children. After one of his lectures, Tesla was asked how to become an inventor. He replied, "Be alone. That is when ideas are born."

Adam Reed is a researcher at Bell Laboratories.