Book Review: Mad Like Tesla by Tyler Hamilton
As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I knew I had made a mistake. The huge table was at least 6 inches deep in paper, rising up to a couple of feet of documents in the middle. Two of my then University colleagues were sat to one side, bemused looks on their faces. Around the table danced a rotund gentleman in a pin stripe suit, grabbing pieces of paper and shoving them under our noses, sometimes obscuring sections of text with another sheet, hardly taking a breath as he painted a picture of a bright new tomorrow.
Whatever this guy had invented, we never found out, but it was clearly going to change the world. If we questioned him too far (ie at all), he would turn aggressive, so, too polite/intimidated to walk out, we sat back and watched the show. After an hour and a half I grabbed an excuse to make my escape, promising to find out whether we had high security research labs available for the next stage of development. I did actually go through the motions of checking we didn’t and faxed the gent to tell him (this cutting edge innovator had no e-mail account…) and wished him luck. He responded with vitriol and attempted to get some of my section’s funding cut.
That was my first and closest encounter with a mad inventor and ever since I’ve kept them at arms length, usually politely asking how their revolutionary energy systems comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Cleantech journalist and blogger Tyler Hamilton is much more tolerant and indeed fond of this particular breed of one-eyed energy enthusiasts ploughing lonely furrows with would-be technical revolutions. He reminds us in the introduction to his intriguing new book that energy pioneer Nikola Tesla – who gave us the AC motor, radio, robots, x-ray photographs and more – was clearly bonkers with bizarre aversions to hair and ladies’ earrings and some really outlandish behavioural problems.
Hamilton takes us on a tour of some potentially quite amazing pieces of technology being developed outside the scientific mainstream – space-based solar, nuclear fusion, algae-derived biofuels and instant charge energy storage devices – all trying to make the leap over the “valley of death” from lab bench to commercial scale. My favourite is mentioned in passing – controlling electronic devices by mimicking the constant chatter of swarms of bees to even out peaks and troughs in consumption. Some of the more rational inventors here might be put out at being lumped in with the perpetual motion loons – the acid test between the two being how they respond to being challenged – the latter reacting like my pin-striped passive-aggressive friend above.
Hamilton’s central thesis is that it would only take one or two of these ideas to work at scale to revolutionise the way we generate, store and use energy in the future, so we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss idea just because it doesn’t fit with what we know now. He also points out the challenges these guys face. Energy revolutions are hard come by – the sheer scale of investment committed in the current systems and the obsession for reliability above all else, make it much more difficult for new ideas to flourish in this field than in, say, social media.
I really liked this book – zippily written and bursting with enthusiasm without getting starry eyed. Hamilton clearly enjoys telling the inventors’ stories and while he gives his ‘madmen’ the benefit of the doubt, but always gently asks the killer question of each technology and its technologist. Given the subject matter, it will inevitably date quickly and its target market may be limited, but it’s an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking read.