I’ve just started reading Margaret Cheney’s biography of the Serbian-American inventor, Nikola Tesla, "Tesla: Man Out of Time." Not to make a major point of it, but compared to Tesla, Edison was a pedestrian tinkerer. A quick sampling of the Tesla literature invariably casts Edison as the villain. As well as double-crossing him and stealing his ideas, Edison used his considerable influence to seek to destroy what he saw as a threat to his monopoly.
If Edison had his way, we would all have to be living within two miles of a power station for the privilege of switching on one of his light bulbs. Speaking of which, Edison didn’t even invent the object most associated with his name.
In contrast to Edison, Tesla’s inventions seem to have emerged whole out of thin air. He came up with practical solutions to stuff people weren’t even theorizing about. A lot of his unrealized ideas sound like pure science fiction (such as the death ray), but the realized ones were equally fantastic in their day (alternating current, the radio, and x-rays, for starters).
What fascinates me most, though, is not what Tesla produced, but what produced someone as unique as Tesla. Some crackpots insist he was born on Venus, and on reflection this is the most sensible explanation. There is genius and there is genius. The kind we are most familiar with are the ones who do things way better than others. They are in a class by themselves. We are in awe.
Then there is Tesla genius. Once-in-every-500-years kind of genius. It’s not simply that he is smarter or more talented or creative than his peers - he has no peers. He is unique, one of a kind, and this kind of genius comes at a considerable cost. I’m only into the first part of Tesla’s biography and already he has experienced a traumatizing childhood event and a nervous breakdown. Author Margaret Cheney speculates that had he grown up today, someone would have diagnosed him with schizophrenia and cured him of his strangeness.
Just one example: Tesla could not eat without first calculating the cubic dimensions of his food.
For all his genius, for all the billions and billions others made off his inventions, Tesla died in isolation and relative poverty - in 1943, age 86 - a recluse in his room at The New Yorker Hotel. A plaque on the door commemorates this most singular guest.