“Lightning” by Jean Echenoz – The Man Who Out-Smarted Thomas Edison

“Lightning” by Jean Echenoz  (2010) – 142 pages   Translated by Linda Coverdale

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

                                                        Nikola Tesla         

 First we will discuss the man, Nikola Tesla, and then the novel about his life. 

 Nikola Tesla was born in a Serbian village in 1856 which was then a part of the Austrian empire.  After a haphazard education and a couple of engineering jobs, he immigrated to New York City in the United States with little more than a letter of recommendation to Thomas Edison.  The letter of recommendation may have said, “I know two great men.  You are one of them, the other is this young man.” Edison hired Tesla to help solve some of the problems the Edison Company was having with their electric generators.  Tesla claimed that Edison offered him $50,000 to redesign Edison’s inefficient motor and electric generators which could only send the electricity 2 miles.  Tesla did so and asked Edison for the money, and Edison said,  “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor” and did not pay him the $50,000.  Tesla immediately quit. 

 The Edison Company’s electric generators used direct current in their power plants; Tesla had the idea and came up with the design to use alternating current (AC) which was much more efficient and could transmit electricity long distances.  He ran his own small company for a few years until he signed a contract with George Westinghouse.  At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Westinghouse and Tesla introduced visitors to AC power.  Within a few years, Westinghouse was installing power plants and selling electricity all over the world.  Westinghouse asked Tesla to release Westinghouse from a contract signed earlier that would have made Tesla the world’s first billionaire, and Tesla tore it up.  Meanwhile Thomas Edison stubbornly stuck to his inefficient direct current generators

 Alternating current was only one of the many brilliant ideas Tesla had.  Tesla’s genius was the restless kind.  He also developed the ideas of radio, radio control, the wireless telegraph, radar, X-Rays, guided missiles.   That is why people say, “Nikola Tesla invented the Twentieth Century’.

A little-known fact about Tesla is that he was good friends with Mark Twain.

 The life story of Nikola Tesla is ‘can’t miss’ material for a biography or a fictionalized biography as far as I’m concerned.  The story has everything, drama, humor, later scenes of great poignancy.  After his huge success with alternating current, Tesla still had many excellent ideas, but they were so advanced, so off the beaten path, that many considered him a crackpot, a mad scientist.   Jean Echenoz, a French writer, does a fine job in this short little book dramatizing the life of Nikola Tesla.  “Lightning” the book has charm and a simple direct style that makes it a pleasure to read.  After reading “Lightning”, I want to read more of Echenoz’s novels.   Schools could use “Lightning” to introduce their students to probably the United States’ greatest scientist.    

 When I think of Nikola Tesla, I can’t help but think of Steven Jobs.  Here are two men whose ideas were so far beyond their time they transformed the world, yet both had to contend with adversity.

 “That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually ‘feel it work.’ They want to try their first idea right off; and the result is they use up lots of money and lots of good material, only to find eventually that they are working in the wrong direction. We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.”

                                                        Nikola Tesla

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