Wizard

The name Nikola Tesla conjures up two very different images. His partisans see him as one of the greatest inventors of the last two centuries. According to them, a multitude of devices, including the radio, radar, cellular telephones, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, and robots were all either invented or at least first conceived by Tesla. Less enthusiastic observers acknowledge that he was robbed of the credit and some of the money due him for his invention of the polyphase system of alternating current, but that for the most part he failed to transform his ideas into commercially viable systems. From their perspective, both Tesla’s contemporaries and later historians were correct in assigning credit for these inventions to others. Tesla was more crank than genius. They draw a picture of a man who believed he communicated with outer space and whose only friends were pigeons.

Mark J. Seifer, a psychologist and handwriting expert, is a defender of Tesla. He provides a strong case on behalf of some of Tesla’s priority claims based on extensive research in the manuscripts. He also acknowledges Tesla’s character flaws and psychological problems. Perhaps most important, he shows how circumstance and psychology combined to transform Tesla from a member of high society to the “quintessential mad scientist.”

Tesla’s contributions were real and should never be forgotten. This is the best biography of him to date. Nonetheless, the book is flawed, and these flaws undermine Seifer’s efforts to convince the reader of Tesla’s greatness. The text would have profited from additional editing and some of the footnoting practices are questionable. Tesla is so controversial that his biographer should be extra careful in the handling of evidence.