Robert I. Sutherland-Cohen | Tesla for Beginners (For Beginners)

The book offers a good introduction to both Nikola Tesla’s life and his many accomplishments.

Mention the word “Tesla” to most people today and they’ll think you’re talking about an electric car. Fewer are familiar with the work of the man after whom the car (and company) is named, the Serbian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla. That’s a shame, because Tesla was hugely important in the development of many technologies we take for granted today, and was also a visionary (at times approaching crackpot status) who lived a life you probably would consider unbelievable if you read about it in a novel.

Tesla for Beginners, written by Robert I. Sutherland-Cohen and illustrated by Owen Brozman, offers a good introduction to both the man’s life and his many accomplishments. It follows a basically chronological format, beginning with Tesla’s birth in 1856 in the village of Smiljan (then located within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now located within the Republic of Croatia), and ending with his solitary death in a New York City hotel room in 1943. In between those dates, he championed alternating current (Thomas Edison was a champion of direct current); invented the Tesla Coil; helped make the 1893 Columbian Exposition world-famous as the “White City”; demonstrated radio communications (before Marconi); and, in conjunction with General Electric, created the first modern power station at Niagara Falls.

Tesla was the hare to Edison’s tortoise (in fact, the two worked together for a few years, Tesla leaving after Edison failed to make good on a promised payment) and their respective name recognition today (I’d be surprised to find anyone who hasn’t at least heard of Edison) proves that sometimes life does resemble a fable, with slow and steady winning out over brilliant and eccentric. But there’s room for both stories in this world, and reading Tesla for Beginners is an easy and fun way to become acquainted with Tesla’s work and life.

Tesla for Beginners is more a prose biography with hand-drawn illustrations that it is a graphic novel, and Brozman’s illustrations complement Sutherland-Cohen’s well-written prose. The text also includes many sidebars defining important terms (phase, coulomb, induction), and basic electrical formulas are also included and explained, making it perfect for someone who’s just learning about physics or who wants to brush up on the topic.

Postcript: In Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige, Nikola Tesla is portrayed by David Bowie. It’s a small part within the story as a whole (which is about the rivalry of two 19th-century stage magicians), but quite memorable, and Bowie’s performance definitely places Tesla in the “mad genius” category. It’s a great performance within a fascinating film that’s definitely worth checking out. | Sarah Boslaugh

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