A fictionalised account of the last days of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current and early wireless technology obsessive, The Invention of Everything Else will have an immediate appeal to anyone with an interest in popular science.
But it is much than that.
Tesla was a true eccentric which, when combined with his east European origins and tall wiry frame, meant he was easily cast as the classic mad scientist, consequently appearing barely disguised as a villain in Spider-man and monitored by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. So weird was Nikola Tesla some thought he was from Venus, an impression not helped by his claim to have communicated with Mars.
However, Samantha Hunt’s Tesla is very human, a broken hounded genius befriended by a chambermaid, Louisa, in the New Yorker Hotel in which he lived and which, ironically, was powered by the largest private power plant in the USA (generating direct current).
It is through Louisa that the story is made human and Tesla placed in his time. And this was a time when radio was very new, science wondrous and America’s paranoia played out in cheaply made science fiction movies; they fled to the hills on hearing Orson Welles’ read the War of the Worlds. Hunt manages to cut through all the geekiness to present us with a dignified Tesla, a moving love story and a compelling adventure.
Yet while the novel is clearly well researched, it’s hard to accept that Tesla would have been the gentle soul we’re presented with. His discoveries and inventions were stolen by the likes of Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, one an unscrupulous businessman who tortured his neighbours’ pets and the other an active Italian fascist, but it was Tesla who faced persecution, isolation and poverty. The old man Louisa would have found, destined to lie dead in his hotel room for days before discovery, had every right to be a little bitter. Suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders and a germ phobia, she would be unlikely to have touched him.
That ‘what if she had’ is the one leap of faith the book asks of its readers… and it’s leap well worth making.