Every so often, someone will approach me at the library and ask for information about Nikola Tesla, often in the kind of knowing way that people ask about Bigfoot or aliens, rather than a scientist and inventor. Occasionally they’ll bend close and add in hushed tones that they want the straight dope about his death ray, earthquake machine or some other wildly fantastical top secret gadget. So just who is this mythic modern Prometheus whose wild inventions, preternatural genius and poignant life have proved so fascinating to so many?
Tesla in Fiction:
- The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt
It is 1943, and the embittered Tesla lives forgotten amongst poverty and pigeons in New York City, until an inquisitive chambermaid with scientific secrets of her own stumbles upon his papers.
- The Moon Palace, by Paul Auster
This cameo appearance by Tesla as a mystic, prophet, and possible space alien, creating a world in which every dream is possible, reflects Auster’s own fascination with unseen currents and strange conspiracies of matter.
- The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
Duelling magicians in London circa 1900 pull out all the stops in an effort to best each other, but only one of them has a miraculous Tesla apparatus up his sleeve. The great wizard was portrayed by David Bowie in the recent film version of this electrifying Victorian-era thriller.
- The Lightning Keeper, by Starling Lawrence
Balkan refugee Toma Pekocevic arrives in the New World early in the twentieth century, beguiled by his passion for a young heiress, and inspired to create a machine to revolutionize electrical technology, in a quest which stumbles upon Nikola Tesla’s prophetic genius waiting around every turn.
- The Five Fists of Science, by Matt Fraction and Steve Sanders
In a graphic novel reminiscent of Alan Moore’s steam-punk classic, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, real life friends Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla team up to create an invention that just might put end to war, if only they can outsmart the evil machinations of J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi to protect the military industrial complex.
- New Amsterdam, by Elizabeth Bear
This wildly inventive collection of linked Victorian dark fantasy stories features zeppelins, a vampire detective, ghost wolves, and a world lit by the triumphant Tesla.
- Coffee and Cigarettes, a film directed by Jim Jarmusch.
“Nikola Tesla perceived the earth to be a conductor of acoustical resonance,” or so claims Jack White of the White Stripes, attempting to show off his new Tesla coil to partner Meg, in one of several vignettes in a film that could itself be called a conductor of resonance.
- Tesla: A Novel, by Tad Wise
This biographical novel of the eccentric inventor provides enough information to whet the reader’s appetite, but may leave you wanting something more in-depth, such as the biographies that follow.
Stranger than fiction: Tesla in fact.
- Tesla: Man out of Time, by Margaret Cheney
One of the earliest and best biographies of this complex genius and showman who claimed he could split the earth itself. Cheney, a lifelong Tesla enthusiast and a founder of the now defunct Tesla society, also helped create the engrossing documentary film Tesla: Master of Lightning.
- Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, by Marc Seifer
Psychologist Seifer delves into the nature of that remarkable mind that reached the heights of creative invention and the depths of self-destructive neuroses, while providing a detailed picture of how Tesla’s concepts have spawned a scientific legacy that reaches to our own day and beyond.
- AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, by Tom McNichol
Long before High Def vied with Blu-Ray, or Macs battled with PCs, Edison and Tesla went head to head in a no-holds-barred contest to establish how electricity would be used in America and the world. McNichol’s brisk, brief account is a good quick introduction to one of science’s greatest grudge matches.
- Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes
Edison claimed that “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” but this exploration of the pragmatic side of technological revolution reveals that genius is rarely realized in our world without a good deal of frustration, litigation, incorporation and appreciation on Wall Street.
If you want to know more, or to build your own Tesla coil, the library has other books about Tesla and his inventions, including quite a few of Nikola Tesla’s own works, including his autobiography and detailed accounts of many of his patents and inventions. And for more on Tesla, Wikipedia has good pages about Tesla in fact, and Tesla in fiction.