Let's all wish a posthumous happy birthday to one of the overlooked heroes of the electric age: Nikola Tesla.
Tesla was born July 9 or 10 in 1856, which would make him 156 years old if he were alive today. He discovered the rotating magnetic field and helped to refine the alternating current (AC) power system, which delivers electricity over long distances to residences and businesses.
While my high-school science teacher had mentioned Tesla a few times, I actually became interested in him when he was played by David Bowie in "The Prestige," the 2006 movie based on Christopher Priest's 1995 novel of the same name. Magicians Alfred Borden and Robert Angier become bitter rivals after a tragic accident involving Angier's wife. Throughout the years, they work tirelessly to top each other with one fantastic illusion after another. When Borden developed a new trick called "The Transported Man," Angier worked with Tesla to perfect the trick using science instead of illusion. While Tesla's new device worked, it had a disturbing side effect.
As far as we know, Tesla did not develop any magic tricks, though as Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
"Tesla: Man Out of Time," by Margaret Cheney, provides an in-depth look at Tesla's near-magical achievements, including a staggering number of patents for inventions before his time -- a method for aerial transportation, and the Tesla coil, a device meant to provide wireless electricity. Cheney also describes the man behind the science -- a man with photographic memory who spoke eight languages, loved animals, and was, in his later years, rather eccentric.
Biography lovers also will enjoy Tesla's autobiography, "My Inventions." Tesla's writing is engaging, informative and humorous. For a friend's view of Tesla, check out "Prodigal Genius: the Life of Nikola Tesla," by Pulitzer Prize winner John Joseph O'Neill.
Fiction lovers will enjoy "Lightning," by Jean Echenoz, a biographical novel of Tesla's life. Gregor, an odd young Serbian engineer, travels to America to work alongside Thomas Edison. While their partnership seems made in heaven, they build a long-lasting rivalry. Echenoz has changed the protagonist's name, but make no mistake -- Tesla is the true subject of this story.
Tesla appears as a supporting character in Suzanne Weyn's "Distant Waves: a Novel of the Titanic." From Amazon.com: "Science, spiritualism, history and romance intertwine in Suzanne Weyn's newest novel. Four sisters and their mother make their way from a New York to London, becoming acquainted with journalist W. T. Stead, Tesla, and industrialist John Jacob Astor. When they all find themselves on the Titanic, one of Tesla's inventions dooms them ... and one could save them."