Tesla: Madly in love with science

The real life of inventor Nikola Tesla was strange enough for fiction.

karen preston
Courtesy of Nina Subin/Houghton Mifflin
City girl: Hunt's novel is a love letter to New York.
The Invention of Everything Else By Samantha Hunt Houghton Mifflin 251 pp., $24

Nikola Tesla's biography reads like something created by Jules Verne and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a brainstorming session in an alternate universe. During his life, theories abounded about the inventor of alternating current (electricity as we know it) and radio. Some people thought he was literally from the future; others suspected Venus. There was even a rumor that he was a vampire. (It didn't help that at one point Tesla claimed to be receiving messages from Mars.)

Tesla's last days are the subject of The Invention of Everything Else, an affectionate new novel by Samantha Hunt. Interplanetary theories aside, the electrical engineer was actually from a small village in Serbia, where at age 7, he created an engine that was powered by June bugs. As an adult, he showed up in New York at Thomas Edison's factory with almost no money and a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor, Edison's factotum. It read simply: "I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man."

The grown-up Tesla tried to manufacture lightning and once nearly destroyed his New York neighborhood with an accidental, man-made earthquake.

"It is not uncommon for the police to show up at my doorstep, following up on neighborhood complaints of blue flashes or sixteen-foot-long bolts of lightning streaming from the roof," Tesla tells visiting friends.

Also, he talked to pigeons. But instead of turning him into the prototypical mad scientist, Hunt creates a loving portrait – pigeons and all – of a brilliant, charming man who was almost entirely unfettered by practical considerations, self-interest, or universally accepted limits.

Tesla died in debt, having once ripped up a contract that would have made him the world's first billionaire.

(Charles Westinghouse begged him to because it would have bankrupted the company.) His ideal was free energy for all; he found the notion of someone owning electricity repugnant.

"How could I own alternating current?" he asks Edison, who was unencumbered by altruistic concerns. "That's like owning thunder or lightning. I can't agree with that."

Not surprisingly, given his ideals, money had a way of eluding Tesla, despite his brilliance. Edison cheated him out of $50,000, and Marconi took credit for wireless, even though Tesla held the patents.

"Even my inventions have forgotten who invented them," he grouses at one point. From being a sought-out 19th-century bachelor, he becomes first a figure of ridicule (those messages from Mars didn't exactly play well in the media, and at one point, Superman battles an evil scientist named Tesla) and then, after a while, Tesla was entirely forgotten.

These slights weigh heavily on the octogenarian who occupies Room 3327 at the Hotel New Yorker in 1943.

But "The Invention of Everything Else" isn't a depressing read. Instead, it's a love letter, to both Tesla and a bygone New York that seems cleaner than even in Rudy Giuliani's wildest dreams.

The lonely man strikes up a gentle friendship with a curious chambermaid, Louisa, who likes to nose through guests' belongings and discovers a treasure trove of memoirs and magical-looking devices when she snoops in 3327.

Through Louisa, we learn about Tesla's childhood, his rivalry with Edison, and his friendship with poet Robert Underwood and his wife. That last was a rarity for Tesla, who believed that human interaction would distract him from his inventions.

"I can't allow myself to have many feelings for humans besides curiosity. My life does not allow for it," he explains.

Louisa, who is addicted to scary radio programs, lives with her father, Walter, a night watchman at the New York Public Library, who's obsessively in love with her dead mother. When his best friend claims to have invented a working time machine, Walter becomes determined to travel to the past.

Also, Louisa strikes up a burgeoning romance with a man named Arthur Vaughn, who might be a mechanic and might possibly be from the future.

Hunt is trying to cram a lot into 250 pages. The combination of history and old-fashioned science fiction is a winning one, but at times, the plot of "The Invention of Everything Else" sags under the overload. Some subplots promise more than they deliver, such as one where government agents spy on Tesla and take Louisa into custody.

But in Nikola Tesla, Hunt has a character of such electric charm that his brilliance powers the novel.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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