It has occurred to me that I have never reviewed a biography on this website. I am going to remedy this with analyzing Tesla: Inventor of the Modern by Richard Munson – a great level-headed biography of the inventor Nikola Tesla.
What makes a great biography? I will tell you. Since a biography is a detailed description of one’s life not written by that person, it requires the author to look at a variety of sources to piece together a complete (or almost complete) and unbiased image of the person in focus. Munson does just that with his subject Nikola Tesla.
Munson provides a whole load of sources like newspapers; Tesla’s diary entries; and correspondence with friends, family, and various businessmen. He likes those resources so much that he would even quote the more mundane aspects of Tesla’s life like dinner parties at his friends Robert and Catherine Johnson’s home in the book. While others might see this as unnecessary, I don’t mind it a whole lot because it shows that the Serbian inventor was more charming than what we are usually led to believe and had more friends than just his pigeons. In addition, Munson cites his sources! Normally, I would not make a big deal out of this, but after reading The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity by Matthew Kelly, I have a newfound appreciation for citing sources, especially if one wants to know how credible the author is.
In addition, Munson keeps his head leveled as he writes about Tesla and the people that he interacted with. With the main subject, Munson proclaims that Tesla was a man ahead of his time, for he was born at midnight in the midst of a thunderstorm. At the same time, he acknowledges that Tesla could be quite stubborn and was not business savvy. For instance, Tesla turned down lucrative offers from various companies in order to focus on inventing stuff that he wanted to create. Unfortunately, this eventually led to him becoming almost penniless even though he still lived in a luxurious manner. He was so desperate that he wrote letters to people like J.P. Morgan, asking for money for his projects, but they turned him down.
The best example of Munson’s neutrality towards his characters was when he addressed the bitter rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison. Because of the War of the Currents, people have always seen these two inventors as polar opposites. Munson acknowledges this as he points out that Edison worked best in teams, was an entrepreneur, invented various items mainly to make money (even if it meant taking other people’s patents and calling it his own), and “could be downright crass” (p. 50-53).
However, the author asserts similarities between the two inventors. These include thriving on work, only needing a little rest, attracting skeptics, battling legal challenges with competitors, and “their capacity for showmanship and boastfulness” (p.51-52).
Consider that when thinking about the War of the Currents.
Overall, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern by Richard Munson is a fabulous biography of Nikola Tesla. Although the research can be a bit mundane and dry at times, it is extensive and varied. It is definitely clear that Munson admires Tesla, but he is also very much aware of the Serbian inventor’s faults, thus making the biography a great level-headed one. Recommending this to people interested in the inventor ‘s life goes without saying, but I would also suggest it to anyone who likes science and inventors in general to read it. One will definitely learn a lot about a man who was indeed ahead of his time.
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