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Review of Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla


by John J. O'Neill, Brotherhood of Life Books.

"Even the gods of old," John J. O'Neill writes, "in the wildest imaginings of their worshipers, never undertook such gigantic tasks of worldwide dimension as those which Tesla attempted and accomplished." So begins this hagiography of one of the great unsung geniuses of modern times, Nikola Tesla, whose scientific rivals like Thomas Edison are household names while he has been forgotten.

Despite the hero-worshiping tone of O'Neill's text, this book does document the undoubtedly important accomplishments of a singular man. Tesla invented alternating current, for example, that pulsing of electrical current which allows it to travel through wires for thousands of miles without dissipating its power. Alternating current, for better or worse, made possible today's industrial civilization. Tesla also invented flourescent and neon lighting, designed dynamos and generators (including the one installed at Niagara Falls), and earned over 200 patents for electrical products and systems.

Tesla's contributions to the practical development of electrical power have often been overshadowed by his personal eccentricities. O'Neill tells us, in terms reminiscent of a religious text, that the scientist was always a loner, chaste, and modest about his work. Yet we read direct quotations from Tesla in which his supposed modesty makes no appearance while his enormous ego is obnoxiously displayed.

But what hurt Tesla's reputation the most were his later experiments with high-voltage generators. Obsessed with the transmission of electrical power without the use of wires, Tesla created laboratory generators capable of producing indoor lightning displays. Later, he developed the idea of electrically charging the earth itself, a process which would theoretically enable anyone to tap into the soil beneath their feet for electrical power. Despite his insistence that electrical transmission of this sort was possible, Tesla never filed for a patent on these later devices and ended his life in poverty.

Whether his more extreme ideas were valid or not, Tesla was undoubtedly a genius who changed the world forever. Our ultimate judgment of him, however, may not place him on the same lofty pedestal O'Neill recommends. Perhaps a step lower than that. On the level where flawed, perpetually fascinating men of genius are found.

--Thomas Wiloch