Last updated: November 10, 2018
Originally written: June 18, 2018
A friend of mine on Instagram was inquiring about the various Tesla biographies I’ve read and which one would be a good one to start out with, if one wants to learn more about Nikola Tesla.
As I can be overly lengthy when talking about things I like (and really, anything relating to books will surely trigger such a reaction), I figured it would be easier to make a blog post than constantly run up against IG’s comment length limit.
The first book about Tesla I read was Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man out of Time. This is also a book that I did not finish (with 30 pages left) because I couldn’t handle the sudden turn of making Tesla seem to be this beyond human entity. There’s a lot of talk about ESP and Tesla and for me, that was a total turn off. It’s well-known that he had visions – flashes of light where he would see things -but to go from there to full blown ESP is a little much.
Still, there was a lot of good things in this biography, especially the whole “Edison vs Tesla” issue. It’s where I first read that Edison had neighborhood pets stolen so he could electrocute them in a scare campaign against Tesla (which shocked me so much because that was news to me and I always thought Edison is as this noble inventor…). She also did a really good job highlighting Tesla’s eccentricities (which honestly sounds like OCD but could just be how he was wired and not actually a mental disorder).
[I promise that the amount of puns I’ve written in the above paragraph are completely unintentional.]
After I read Cheney’s biography, I went to the source himself and found a cheap copy of his autobiography on Amazon for $3. It’s a short, 92 pages and is titled “My Inventions” and is mostly about – surprise – his inventions. But he does talk a little bit about his family life. I always like to go back to the primary source whenever possible, especially when it comes to biographies.
I finished Richard Munson’s Tesla: Inventor of the Modern and absolutely loved it. There’s a lot of overlap between this book and the two other books – but this book does get more into his family life (including grandparents), includes little mini-bios of people like Edison and Westinghouse, and has quotes by Tesla sprinkled throughout. There’s also footnotes and a couple of appendices. The actual biography is about 260 pages, then the rest of the book are appendices and footnotes. And there are some pictures in the middle, which are always fun to look at. Towards the end Munson does address the “was Tesla a homosexual?” question (why is this even a question) and ends up with “probably not”. This is the best biography of Tesla I’ve read thus far in terms of readability, staying as objective as possible, and being thorough.
I did track down John O’Neill’s Prodigal Genius and oh my. The first few pages are dripping with the most over-the-top/borderline straight-up worshiping of a person I have ever seen in my life. I am an absolute fangirl for Tesla, he’s one of my personal heroes and I will get googly-eyed about him quite easily; but even this was over the top for me. Thankfully the adulation ends, but the rest of the book is just overly dry. It was not what I was hoping for and will probably end up disappearing from my collection of Tesla bios.
If you (or your older child) wants to read about Tesla, I suggest the following order. Or just pick numbers 1 and 2, you can’t go wrong with either of them. But I strongly suggest both.
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- My Inventions by Nikola Tesla – short, cheap and is ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak. I don’t have to worry if someone is trying to make Tesla someone he’s not.
- Tesla: Inventor of the Modern by Richard Munson – lengthier than Tesla’s autobiography but (as of halfway through the book) the approach to Tesla appears to be very balanced and objective. Yes, Tesla had eccentricities and visions but he was still human.
- Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney – mostly good, but the direction of making Tesla seem like this supernatural being was just too much for me. It was more in the direction of “Tesla was an alien”.
- Prodigal Genius by John O’Neill – Nope, nope, nope. I was so disappointed with this one. The writing style, the worship – this one fell flat.
On my pile to review: Electric Wizard – How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World (a kid’s picture book!) and Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. Watch for those updates soon.