Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tesla: Man Out of Time

Tesla: Man Out of Time [Paperback]

January 13th 2008
Cheney paints a rich portrait of the character of Nikola Tesla, Mad Scientist---or at least Eccentric Inventor, providing ample detail of his bizarre manners, his proficiency at gambling and billiards, his astonishing hubris, his society appearances, and his (putative) unrequited love.

However, Tesla was foremost an inventor, not an eccentric, and so the content and context of his inventions should be foremost in any biography of him. It's clear that despite this being Cheney's second book on Tesla, she simply does not understand the technical content of Tesla's work. For the reader, this is merely unfortunate. What is inexcusable, and intellectually dishonest, is that Cheney plagiarizes the writings of Tesla himself---unattributed verbatim copying---to provide explanations where she herself is unable. And not even good ones, at that.

Here are two examples. The first appears on page 37 and refers to Tesla's bladeless turbine:

What he built was a cylinder freely rotatable on two bearings and partly surrounded by a rectangular trough which fit it perfectly. The open side of the trough was closed by a partition and the cylindrical segment divided into two compartments entirely separated from each other by airtight sliding joints. One of these compartments being sealed and exhausted of air, the other remaining open, perpetual rotation of the cylinder would result---or so the inventor thought.

This paragraph was lifted verbatim from "My Inventions" by Nikola Tesla (Filiquarian, 2006; p. 32) without attribution. (In the original, the last words were "at least, I thought so".) The latter work by Tesla, a brief autobiography only recently published, does not appear to have been available in print when Cheney's book was written; perhaps Cheney was assuming none of her readers also had access to the manuscript.

The second example is even stranger. In an explanation of Tesla's "magnifying transmitter" appearing on page 147, Cheney writes:

He considered the ultimate design to be a transformer having a secondary in which the parts, charged to a high potential, were of considerable area and arranged in space along ideal enveloping surfaces of very large radii of curvature, thereby insuring a small electric surface density everywhere. Thus no leak could occur even if the conductor were bare.

I read this impenetrable paragraph half a dozen times before finally giving up trying to make sense of it. I wasn't sure if it was my lack of physics expertise, or Cheney's lack of explicatory clarity that was to blame. When I reached page 175, I was in no doubt. Cheney writes:

"Well, then, in the first place", he wrote, "it is a resonant transformer with a secondary in which the parts, charged to a high potential, are of considerable area and arranged in space along ideal enveloping surfaces of very large radii of curvature, and at proper distances from one another, thereby insuring a small electric surface density everywhere so that no leak can occur even if the conductor is bare."

What is astonishing here is not only that Cheney so wantonly plagiarizes Tesla's writing, but that she also (correctly) characterizes his explanation as "tantalizingly vague"---having shamelessly used the exact same explanation herself only 30 pages earlier.

In his introduction, Leland Anderson asks why anyone should wish to undertake another biography of Tesla after John J. O'Neill's "Prodigal Genius" (1943). He concludes that O'Neill's biography was "authoritative" but "thin with regard to his interactions with personal associates". Perhaps Cheney's "Man out of Time" might fill that particular gap, but it is certainly not authoritative, and her (and her publisher's) sloppiness are embarrassing.

I recommend that readers with a technical interest in Tesla's work look elsewhere.

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