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WIZARD: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: A Biography of a Genius
By Mark J. Seifer
Birch Lane. 542 pp. $32

Read the first chapter of "Wizard."

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Scientist and Spiritual Seeker

By Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles
Sunday, December 1, 1996

Has the life of Nikola Tesla, the man whose name is honored as a unit of magnetic strength, really been forgotten and his later discoveries deliberately suppressed? Mark J. Seifer, who teaches psychology and graphology at community colleges in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, has spent the last two decades investigating and writing about this strange inventor and suggests that it has. As a member of the International Tesla Society -- a group apparently interested in installing Tesla in the pantheon of 20th-century geniuses -- Seifer is unabashedly hagiographic. Tesla's enemies are his enemies; Tesla's scientific claims are for the most part undisputed.

By any measure, Tesla was a very strange man. He lived alone in hotel rooms, took daily "electric baths," scarcely ate or slept, and avoided touching other people. After emigrating to America in 1884, he quickly established himself as a brilliant "electrician." This was the world of Edison and Westinghouse -- inventors who also worked with electromagnetism and devised remarkable machines, from the phonograph to generators, before the physics of electricity and magnetism were completely understood.

By 1893 Tesla had perfected a system of alternating current (Edison's direct current could reach only short distances and was inherently wasteful) that was celebrated at the World's Columbian Exhibition in a 45-foot tower. Westinghouse, whose company sold it, called it the Tesla Polyphase System and used it to illuminate the entire fair. Before the end of the century, Tesla had also invented the fluorescent light bulb and established some of the principles of wireless telegraphy, remote control and radio.

Like his rival Thomas Edison, Tesla courted the popular press, inviting them to witness dramatic examples of electrical pyrotechnics. Unlike Edison, he was a bad businessman. Seifer is good at describing Tesla's lack of practical, economic and personal judgment and the way his enormous ego invited unscrupulous partners. Much of his work was pirated, and he seldom got royalties on what he had patented. But his plight was not unusual. The Wright brothers spent years fighting patent infringements, as did Alexander Graham Bell.

Seifer attributes Tesla's idiosyncrasies to the tragic death of an elder brother when Tesla was very young and to the texture of life in Austro-Hungarian Serbia, where he was born and educated. Tesla's entry into New York society coincided with a craze for spiritualism, especially the works of the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote about "Vril," a universal energy that turns the universe. This kind of thinking reinforced Tesla's faith in mystical forces.

Tesla was not alone in connecting electromagnetism with the occult. The best chapter in Seifer's book describes late 19th-century science fiction and locates Tesla's projects among other predictions of the future. These include an 1895 novel that predicted picture telephones, air travel to Europe in a day, hidden phonographs with which police could trap criminals, and the colonization of the solar system.

Tesla's effort in the last decades of his life to create a particle-beam weapons system was also in tune with the times, and it is not surprising that at his death in 1943 during World War II his papers were confiscated by the FBI. This does not mean that Tesla had actually invented such a device or a Star Wars-like defense shield.

Outraged that Tesla never received a Nobel Prize, Seifer lashes out at Albert Einstein, who did. He calls Einstein "the Nobel Prize-winning upstart" and dismisses him as "a theorist, whereas Tesla, as hands-on creator of new technologies, was able to prove out his assumptions in the everyday world." He writes that "Einstein and his colleagues at Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C. were using the Tesla coil in their new 1929 experiments in splitting the atom . . ." But Einstein was not part of Carnegie, nor did he, or anyone, split the atom with a Tesla coil in 1929.

Seifer defends Tesla's continued refusal to accept the theory of relativity by arguing that "by necessity, there must be some way to transcend the speed of light, or humans for all intents and purposes will be stuck, for all eternity, in the limits of this tiny solar system." This may be the author's philosophy, but it is not science. Readers should be warned that much of what Seifer explains in defense of Tesla is equally off-target.

Tesla is not forgotten, as Seifer's own bibliography indicates, although a balanced biography remains to be written. But it is true, as Seifer notes, that neither he nor Edison, for that matter, is revered as Einstein is. A biographer might well ask why we admire our inventors but choose mathematical dreamers as our secular saints.

Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles is the author of the forthcoming "Naked To The Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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