The Electric Showman

The are some figures in #histSTM, who, through some sort of metamorphosis, acquire the status of cult gurus, who were somehow super human and if only they had been properly acknowledged in their own times would have advanced the entire human race by year, decades or even centuries. The most obvious example is Leonardo da Vinci, who apparently invented, discovered, created everything that was worth inventing, discovering, creating, as well as being the greatest artist of all time. Going back a few centuries we have Roger Bacon, who invented everything that Leonardo did but wasn’t in the same class as a painter. Readers of this blog will know that one of my particular bugbears is Ada Lovelace, whose acolytes claim singlehandedly created the computer age. Another nineteenth century figure, who has been granted god like status is the Serbian physicist and inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856–1943).

The apostles of Tesla like to present him in contrast to, indeed in battle with, Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931). According to their liturgy Tesla was a brilliant, original genius, who invented everything electrical and in so doing created the future, whereas Edison was poseur, who had no original ideas, stole everything he is credited with having invented and exploited the genius of other to create his reputation and his fortune. You don’t have to be very perceptive to realise that these are weak caricatures that almost certainly bear little relation to the truth. That this is indeed the case is shown by a new, levelheaded biography of Tesla by Iwan Rhys Morus, Tesla and the Electric Future.[1]

Tesla001

If anyone is up to the job of presenting a historically accurate, balanced biography of Tesla, then it is Morus, who is professor of history at Aberystwyth University and who has established himself as an expert for the history of electricity in the nineteenth century with a series of excellent monographs on the topic, and yes he delivers.

Anybody who picks up Morus’ compact biography looking for a blow by blow description of the epic war between Tesla and Edison is going to be very disappointed, because as Morus points out it basically never really took place; it is a myth. What we get instead is a superb piece of contextual history. Morus presents a widespread but deep survey of the status of electricity in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginnings of the twentieth century into which he embeds the life story of Tesla.

We have the technological and scientific histories of electricity but also the socio-political history of the role that electricity during the century and above all the futurology. Electricity was seen as the key to the future in all areas of life in the approaching twentieth century. Electricity was hyped as the energy source of the future, as the key to local and long distant communication, and as a medical solution to both physical and psychological illness. In fact it appears that electricity was being touted as some sort of universal panacea for all of societies problems and ills. It was truly the hype of the century. Electricity featured big in the widely popular world exhibitions beginning with the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851.

Tesla004

In these world fairs electricity literally outshone all of the other marvels and wonders on display.

The men, who led the promotion of this new technology, became stars, prophets of an electrical future, most notably Thomas Alva Edison, who became known as the Wizard of Menlo Park.

Tesla002

Far from the popular image of Edison being Tesla’s sworn enemy, he was the man, who brought Tesla to America and in doing so effectively launched Tesla’s career. Edison also served as a role model for Tesla; from Edison, Tesla learnt how to promote and sell himself as a master of the electric future.

Morus takes us skilfully through the battle of the systems, AC vs. DC in which Tesla, as opposed to popular myth, played very little active part having left Westinghouse well before the active phase. His technology, patented and licenced to Westinghouse, did, however, play a leading role in Westinghouse’s eventually victory in this skirmish over Edison, establishing Tesla as one of the giants in the electricity chess game. Tesla proceeded to establish his reputation as a man of the future through a series of public lectures and interviews, with the media boosting his efforts.

From here on in Tesla expounded ever more extraordinary, visionary schemes for the electric future but systematically failed to deliver.

Tesla003

His decline was long drawn out and gradual rather than spectacular and the myths began to replace the reality. The electric future forecast throughout the second half of the nineteenth century was slowly realised in the first half of the twentieth but Tesla played almost no role in its realisation.

Morus is himself a master of nineteenth century electricity and its history, as well as a first class storyteller, and in this volume he presents a clear and concise history of the socio-political, public and commercial story of electricity as it came to dominate the world, woven around a sympathetic but realistic biography of Nikola Tesla. His book is excellently researched and beautifully written, making it a real pleasure to read.  It has an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. The endnotes are almost exclusively references to the bibliography and the whole is rounded off with an excellent index. The book is well illustrated with a good selection of, in the meantime ubiquitous for #histSTM books, grey in grey prints.

Morus’ book has a prominent subtext concerning how we view our scientific and technological future and it fact this is probably the main message, as he makes clear in his final paragraph:

It is a measure of just what a good storyteller about future worlds Tesla was that we still find the story so compelling. It is also the way we still tend to tell stories about imagined futures now. We still tend to frame the way we think about scientific and technological innovation – the things on which our futures will depend – in terms of the interventions of heroic individuals battling against the odds. A hundred years after Tesla, it might be time to start thinking about other ways of talking about the shape of things to come and who is responsible who is responsible for shaping them.

If you want to learn about the history of electricity in the nineteenth century, the life of Nikola Tesla or how society projects its technological futures then I really can’t recommend Iwan Rhys Morus excellent little volume enough. Whether hardback or paperback it’s really good value for money and affordable for even the smallest of book budgets.

[1] Iwan Rhys Morus, Tesla and the Electric Future, Icon books, London, 2019

 

6 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, History of Physics, History of science, History of Technology

6 responses to “The Electric Showman

  1. Robert C Arnold

    Did this book include Tesla’s rabid views promoting sterilization of genetic “misfits?” Here is a Tesla quote from an article:

    The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.

    • Without wishing to excuse either Tesla or eugenics, it should be pointed out that in the first half of the twentieth century eugenics was a widespread and popular theory in the USA, supported by a large number of prominent public figures. It was only after WWII when news of the Nazi atrocities carried out in the name of eugenics became public that the American public support for the theory was swept under the carpet.

      • Not just in the USA. Eugenics was founded by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, and also enjoyed a good deal of support from the intelligensia in the UK. There was a two-part series on it last year on BBC4 and you can still find the first programme on YouTube.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paFuyPV8HJU

        It is worth watching this just to appreciate the banality of the eugenicists’ approach.

      • Eugenics was popular in many countries in the first half of the twentieth century but I only mentioned America, where it had the strongest support, because I was trying to put Tesla’s propagation of it in context.

      • The programme also does include a fair amount about eugenics in the USA.

  2. Santarakshita

    I have Tesla’s annoying fandom to thank for making me realize how glad it makes me that many of favourite scientists, Maxwell in particular, have not suffered contemporary popular canonization, or I think the right term is Kadarshianized.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s