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Questions and answers with W. Bernard Carlson

The historian's latest book goes beyond the tantalizing tales of Nikola Tesla's eccentric personality and focuses on how Tesla's inventions worked.

Bernie Carlson is chair of the department of engineering and society and a professor in the department of history at the University of Virginia. He received his bachelor's degree in history at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and his PhD in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. Carlson recently served five years as executive secretary for the Society for the History of Technology.

In his research, Carlson focuses on how inventors think and work and on how different societies shape technology to suit their needs and values. He has written the book Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870–1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and has edited the seven-volume Technology in World History (Oxford University Press, 2005). Last year the Teaching Company released DVDs of 36 lectures by Carlson on inventions that changed the world.

Carlson's most recent book is Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton University Press, 2013). It was selected as one of the best books in science for 2013 by both and the American Library Association's Booklist. (See a similar "best of 2013" list by Physics Today here.) At his website, Carlson includes links to other articles he has written that connect Tesla to modern-day innovation and entrepreneurship. Physics Today recently caught up with Carlson to discuss the book.

W. Bernard Carlson - PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Cogill


PT: What motivated you to write this biography, and what makes it different from existing ones about Tesla?

Carlson: I first became interested in Tesla when I wrote a paper about the AC/DC controversy for a physics class on electricity and magnetism. Little did I realize that 35 years later I would publish a book on Tesla! When I started on the biography, I assumed that Tesla would be an intellectual challenge. I had already written about his rivals Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson, and so I figured that Tesla would be a good way for me to continue to develop my understanding of how inventors think and work.

However, as I dug deeper into Tesla's career, I came to realize that what I wanted to do was to give people an accurate picture of his work as an inventor. Most of the previous Tesla biographies are weak on how his inventions actually worked, and I wanted to give people the information they would need to make up their own minds about Tesla's achievements and failures.

PT: What other examples from Tesla's professional and personal life appear in your book that you felt were unreported or underreported?

Carlson: On the professional side, one of the challenges was how to address the claims that he made about his work in Colorado Springs in 1899: that he had broadcast power around the world and that he had detected a message from Mars. Previous biographers have implied that Tesla may have let his imagination run wild in Colorado Springs. I think that he observed real phenomena there but interpreted his observations in unusual ways. For instance, Kenneth Corum and James Corum have shown that Tesla probably detected radio signals from one of Jupiter's moons, Io.

On the personal side, I investigated how Tesla suffered from periodic bouts of depression and, at one point, treated his melancholy with electrical shocks. I found that depression was the best way of understanding many of Tesla's curious traits and habits; it made much more sense than seeing him as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder or other psychological conditions.

PT: Would you say that Tesla, especially compared with Edison, was more inventor than entrepreneur?

Carlson: Edison was much more of an entrepreneur than Tesla in that Edison was willing to raise capital, organize companies, and build factories. However, this is not to say that Tesla lacked any business sense. He pursued a business strategy of patenting his inventions, promoting them through spectacular demonstrations, and then selling the intellectual property to the highest bidder—a strategy that is regularly employed today by lots of Silicon Valley innovators.

PT: If Tesla were alive today, who would you compare or contrast him with?

Carlson: In terms of contemporary figures, I find that Tesla and Steve Jobs share a number of common traits. Both men sought to understand the essence of an invention or product, the fundamental guiding principle or function. Both were highly sensitive to aesthetics, and both understood the importance of using demonstrations and illusions to get people excited about technology. Both Tesla and Jobs were charismatic; in his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes how Jobs could create a "reality distortion field," leading people to embrace his ideas, and I think Tesla had the same talent. Both Tesla and Jobs were not easily accepted by the business establishment and were often derided as visionaries.

PT: What's the next major project for you?

Carlson: Along with editing a handbook on the history of technology, I am beginning a project on what I call "dynamic duos" of invention and entrepreneurship. Although we tend to write about innovators as individuals, they often do their best work when they partner with people who complement their strengths and offset their weaknesses. From James Watt and Matthew Boulton to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the history of breakthrough technologies is as much about partnerships as it is solitary geniuses.

PT: So then who were Edison's and Tesla's "Wozniak"?

Carlson: In the case of Edison, it varied from project to project, but the key business partners for the incandescent lamp were Grosvenor Lowery and Sherburne Eaton. For Tesla, the AC motor was a result of his partnership with a lawyer named Charles Peck.

PT: What books are you currently reading?

Carlson: I am just finishing Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press, 2012; see the Physics Today review here and a Q&A with Gertner here). And I am about to start Paul Kennedy's Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War (Random House, 2013).

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