Nikola Tesla’s autobiography, collected under the title My Inventions, originally appeared as six articles in issues of Electrical Experimenter in 1919. It is a surprisingly thin book, especially in light of the several biographies that have been written about him, and the possibly greater volumes propounding the mythology of an almost demi-god genius.
To be fair, Tesla was a very creative and productive inventor. His AC motors, and the power systems that support them, enabled a new level of industrial power and automation. In many ways it was the technological foundation of the power grid we have today.
Tesla was ahead of his time and he realized it. He knew that the success of AC motors was greatly aided by coming about at the right time. Even so, it took many years from Tesla’s design to become a prototype and for that to become a commercial product with an infrastructure to support its use. At the time he wrote My Inventions, the value and practicality of his later inventions were still hard for many to see.
One of these later inventions was the radio. Tesla didn’t use that term “radio.” It’s probably fair to say that he misunderstood the phenomena he was working with. Even so, he could produce radio transmissions and put them to practical use. As a demonstration, he built radio-controlled boats. It’s a stretch to say that Tesla envisioned smart phones, but he foresaw the possibility of using radio to transmit many kinds of data and signals, sometimes to devices “not bigger than a watch.”
“The pressure of occupation and the incessant stream of impressions pouring into our consciousness thru all the gateways of knowledge make modern existence hazardous in many ways,” Nikola Tesla, My Inventions
These articles were written at the end of World War I. Tesla reflected on the potentials of technology in peace and war. He imagined that wireless communication could shrink the world, leading to the kind of cultural exchange, common ground and commercial connections that would reinforce peace. He also imagined a rocket that could be guided to its target by radio control or internal mechanism; we could call it an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Though visionary, he was not an infallible genius. He held to notions of physics that were not supported even by the science of his time. He had some wild ideas about psychology, biology and other fields, though some of these were no more far-out and off the mark that many that were popularly accepted by his contemporaries.
Tesla wrote very much from his own experience and perspective. Though he speaks of his upbringing in eastern Europe, his education and his career in Europe and the United States, he spends little time reflecting on the places, cultures and broader events he experience. You’ll learn more about Tesla’s peculiar ailments than about the life of youth in late-19th Century Croatia. Perhaps that wouldn’t have sold many issues of Electrical Experimenter.
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