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Author Q&A: Iwan Rhys Morus on the life and myth of Nikola Tesla

10 March 2020

In a new book, the historian of science argues that Tesla’s image as an underappreciated prophet was the result of the inventor’s own careful self-promotion.

Three-quarters of a century after his death, inventor Nikola Tesla pops up in a lot of unexpected places. A leading electric-car and clean-energy company now bears Tesla’s name; he’s the protagonist of a comic book series; he’s been a character on Doctor Who and was played by rock star David Bowie in the 2006 movie The Prestige. Many depictions portray Tesla as a lonely misfit, someone who was too far ahead of his time to be appreciated by his contemporaries.

Iwan Rhys Morus.
Courtesy of Iwan Rhys Morus

In Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future, historian of science Iwan Rhys Morus argues that the image of Tesla as an underappreciated, eccentric prophet is really the product of Tesla’s own marketing savvy. In Physics Today’s March issue, Richard Bradley writes that Morus’s book “convincingly dispels the image of Tesla as a man out of time and replaces it with a more realistic view of a brilliant inventor who was nevertheless the product of his era, his interests and activities shaped by the world in which he lived.”

PT: Why Nikola Tesla? What drew you to his life story?

MORUS: As a historian, I’m interested in the ways that science is made public and how the public image of science is created. I’ve been interested in the relationship between science and spectacle for a long time, and Tesla excelled at scientific spectacle.

More recently I’ve been part of a big research project looking at how people in the past thought about things to come. Tesla plays a big part in that story. Newspapers were packed with descriptions of the electrically fueled future that Tesla’s inventions would bring about, and selling his vision of the future was a way of selling himself as an inventor. I’ve become increasingly aware of the long shadow Tesla casts over the way we still think about science and invention.

Finally, I’m a big fan of The Big Bang Theory, and I’m always struck by how the characters treat Tesla as some sort of almost divine genius.

PT: Tesla is often portrayed as an eccentric genius and even something of a prophet. How much of the real Tesla is in that myth?

MORUS: The myth really is fascinating, and Tesla himself played a vital role in creating it. While researching the book, I spent a lot of time reading newspaper stories about him from the 1890s onward. The number of stories that started by saying how honored the journalist was to have been allowed an interview with the reclusive Mr. Tesla was striking. In newspaper interviews and in magazine articles, Tesla portrayed himself as the eccentric outsider, someone who refused to play by the rules and who would single-handedly transform the future. That’s a powerful image. I can think of some contemporary inventor-entrepreneurs—the late Steve Jobs, for example—who have portrayed themselves like that too.

Was Tesla really like that? I think it’s impossible to say, since so much of what we think we know about him is the product of that kind of self-presentation.

PT: When we talk about Tesla, we usually also talk about Thomas Edison, who briefly employed him. What was their relationship like?

MORUS: Tesla’s relationship with Edison was brief and one-sided. It certainly didn’t add up to the towering feud portrayed in the dreadful movie The Current War, for example. In reality, the current wars were pretty much over before Tesla became a significant figure. Things were already moving decisively in favor of George Westinghouse and alternating current by the beginning of the 1890s, just as Tesla was becoming a celebrity in the wake of a series of spectacular lectures in New York, London, and Paris. There’s little to suggest that Edison and Tesla even saw each other in person after Tesla became famous.

The way the relationship between Edison and Tesla is portrayed now tells more about us than about them. We’ve made Edison stand for science and invention compromised by capital, while Tesla stands for purity. It’s a what-if story: What if Tesla had succeeded, and we lived in a world of free energy for all? It’s a fantasy.

PT: What do you think is Tesla’s most important legacy?

MORUS: The polyphase motor, which he invented near the beginning of his career and sold to Westinghouse in 1888, really was revolutionary. That motor helped lead to the eventual success of alternating-current systems of electrical transmission and distribution and the Tesla coil.

But that image of the inventor as the eccentric outsider that he helped create is just as important. It’s a powerful, seductive, and insidious image that still haunts the way we think about science and technology today. It feeds the view that scientific and technological advancements come from the inspiration of powerful and iconoclastic individuals rather than the hard work of many.

PT: What are you working on now?

MORUS: I’m trying to find time to work on a book called How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon. It’s about how the kind of expert culture that makes big technological projects possible was invented during the 19th century. People started thinking about the future in a different way—as a destination you could only get to through technology. The Victorians didn’t really take us to the Moon, obviously, but getting there was the culmination of a very Victorian dream.

I think it’s particularly important now that we think more about the historical origins of the ways we think about the future and how those historical origins still direct current debates. With our futures at risk—and with the expert culture on which our survival depends under increasing attack—it’s important that we think clearly about how to secure the future. And that means recognizing that the questions we ask and the solutions we offer about the future are very much the products of history.

PT: What are you reading?

MORUS: I’m bouncing back and forth between Philip Ball’s amazing Beyond Weird and an anthology of early-20th-century crime fiction—one of the volumes in the British Library Crime Classics series.

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