Tesla – Man Out of Time

[Reprinted from earlier this year]

I’m supposed to be cleaning my room. Well, it’s clean/de-cluttered, only I need to find places to put the things I took out, like kids’ toys, kids’ books, and laundry and lost socks and bins of articles and kids project ideas and craft things I’m planning.

In my decluttering, I came across an exciting find: a really fascinating biography of Nikola Tesla, a brilliant mechanical and electrical engineer and inventor (most notably for contributing to modern alternating current electric power), called Tesla Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney. My husband (a mechanical engineer) bought the book years ago. I recently came across it and brought it to my room only to be misplaced. I only had a passing interest in it, but never really opened it up to read it until I came across it today.

Wow, I must say I’m highly impressed! This biography reads like a fascinating novel. Unlike other biographies about Tesla, it fleshes out the mysterious man behind his brilliant inventions and creates a story about his life that is absolutely exciting and captivating (at least, to this geek anyway).

I took a break from my de-cluttering to start reading a few chapters (they are really short). I’m only a few chapters into it, but I am loving this book, and first of noticed the descriptions of the friendship between Tesla and another prominent historical figure: Mark Twain (which is highly surprising to me because just last week, someone commenting on my blog quoted from Mark Twain). Discovering this friendship is just so delightful to me. Of course famous people have friendships, and often with other famous contemporaries, but it’s just mind-boggling to be reading about one person and to discover the close friendship to the famous and brilliant humorist, especially since I was quite fond of Mark Twain as a child.

The following is a description of Tesla doing the scientific equivalent of a magic tricks for his guests – English journalist Chauncey McGovern, Mark Twain, and actor Joseph Jefferson, one midnight in his Manhattan loft/laboratory, as recalled by McGovern:

Fancy yourself seated in a large, well-lighted room, with mountains of curious looking machinery on all sides. A tall, thin young man walks up to you, and by merely snapping his fingers creates instantaneously a ball of leaping red flame, and holds it calmly in his hands. As you gaze you are surprised to see it does not burn his fingers. He lets it fall upon his clothing, on his hair, into your lap, and, finally, puts the ball of flame into a wooden box. You are amazed to see that nowhere does the flame leave the slightest trace, and you rub your eyes to make sure you are not asleep.

One of Mark Twain’s quotes is said to have come about due to his knowledge of Tesla’s work:

…Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.

I’ve never really found biographies all that interesting, but this one is quite compelling to me. Perhaps it’s the science geek and writer in me, but I really find it quite appealing to see the friendship between scientist and writer. I also like the descriptions of Nikola as a child and his intensity, his inventiveness as early as 5, his curiosity causing much trouble for himself and others, and some of the more unusual behaviors associated with his genius.

Tesla was born at midnight between July 9 and 10, in 1856, 4th of 5 children and spent his childhood in Yugoslavia. His father was a Serbian Orthodox Minister and his mother a traditional housewife. He spoke very highly of his mother, and credited his photographic memory and inventive genius to her. He wrote this about his mother:

An inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multifold opportunities. She invented and constructed all kinds of tools and devices and wove the finest designs from thread which was spun by her. She even planted the seeds, raised the plants, and separated the fibers herself. She worked indefatigably, from break of day till late at night, and most of the wearing apparel and furnishings of the home was the product of her hands

Well, now that I’ve gushed on about this book and now that my afternoon cup of coffee is gone, I ought to get back to the bedroom and finish up what I started (yeah, I realized I might be done by now had I not read the chapters and blogged about it, but I had to write before I forgot why it was so thrilling to me). Also, it provides and fascinating look at this great inventor and brilliant mind as seen through the eyes of some of his closest friends and associates. I’ll have to wait until later to read up about the competition between Tesla and another inventor, Thomas Edison because I really have to get back to work on that room.

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About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
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