The best books on inventors

Richard Munson Author Of Tesla: Inventor of the Modern
By Richard Munson

Who am I?

I’ve long been fascinated by innovators. In my day jobs, I’ve helped launch a clean-energy startup as well as helped write legislation to promote environmental entrepreneurs. In addition to Nikola Tesla, I’ve written biographies of Jacques Cousteau (inventor of the Aqua Lung and master of undersea filming) and George Fabyan (pioneer of modern cryptography and acoustics), as well as a history of electricity (From Edison to Enron) and profiles of food and farm modernizers (Tech to Table: 25 Innovators Reimagining Food). I love reading about ingenious and industrious individuals becoming inspired and achieving their dreams. 


I wrote...

Tesla: Inventor of the Modern

By Richard Munson,

Book cover of Tesla: Inventor of the Modern

What is my book about?

Nikola Tesla gave us the radio, robots, and remote control. His electric motor runs our appliances and factories, yet he has been largely overlooked by history. When his first breakthrough—alternating current, the basis for the electric grid—pitted him against Thomas Edison’s direct-current empire, Tesla’s superior technology prevailed. Unfortunately, he had little business sense and could not capitalize on this success. His most advanced ideas were unrecognized for decades: forty years in the case of the radio patent, longer still for his ideas on laser beam technology. Although penniless during his later years, he never stopped imagining. In the early 1900s, he designed plans for cell phones, death-ray weapons, and interstellar communications. His ideas have lived on to shape the modern economy. 

The books I picked & why

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

By Benjamin Franklin,

Book cover of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Why this book?

When I think of Benjamin Franklin, I picture the chubby founding father pictured on a hundred-dollar bill or the crazy kite-flyer amid a thunderstorm. Yet this polymath’s witty and engaging memoir surprised me with the breadth of his science, including basic insights into electricity, heat, ocean currents, and molecules. How can you not like this curious and industrious innovator who also protected us from lightning and cold?


The Wright Brothers

By David McCullough,

Book cover of The Wright Brothers

Why this book?

Every time I get on an airplane, I’m still blown away by our ability to fly like a bird. I had known little about the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who – despite no formal educations, money, and connections -- allowed us to soar. Particularly enjoyable were engaging stories of Wilbur and Orville’s childhood and family, their studies of birds, and their early work on bicycles and toy helicopters.


Edison

By Edmund Morris,

Book cover of Edison

Why this book?

Researching my Tesla biography forced me to reexamine Thomas Edison, who was Tesla’s opposite in many ways. Revealing different approaches to inventing, for instance, Edison’s trial-and-error approach contrasted with Tesla’s cerebral engineering. I was struck by how the two inventors competed, ferociously at times, yet how they could be kind to each other – with Edison offering Tesla his laboratory when his own burned down, and Tesla, who once worked for the Wizard of Menlo Park, regularly asking about Edison’s children. I liked Edmund Morris’ exposing Edison’s warts but also applauding the 1,093 patents that resulted from his “teeming brain and ever-mobile hands.”


They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators

By Harold Evans,

Book cover of They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators

Why this book?

Fascinated by innovations, I’m drawn to these concise profiles that span two centuries, moving from the steam engine to the search engine. Continuing the theme of electricity, my favorite story is of Samuel Insull, who served for a time as Thomas Edison’s secretary. He created a business model—a utility monopoly—that brought cheap and drudgery-reducing electricity to millions, yet his corporate pyramids collapsed in the Great Depression, leaving millions of investors penniless. What a grand arc – from being the most powerful modernizer of the 1920s became the most notorious business villain of the 1930s.


Steve Jobs

By Walter Isaacson,

Book cover of Steve Jobs

Why this book?

I had to enjoy a biography that revealed a subject’s character by listing his iPhone music playlist. That fact gives you a sense of this book’s detail, from every product release to every girlfriend. I particularly enjoyed making the connection between Tesla and Jobs, who “a genius at connecting art to technology, of making leaps based on intuition and imagination,” made real Tesla’s vision for a device—which “a man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket”—that allows us to “communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.”


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