Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest For a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest For a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

In the spirit of Steve Jobs and Moneyball, Elon Musk is both an illuminating and authorized look at the extraordinary life of one of Silicon Valley’s most exciting, unpredictable, and ambitious entrepreneurs—a real-life Tony Stark—and a fascinating exploration of the renewal of American invention and its new “makers.”

Elon Musk spotlights the technology and vision of Elon Musk, the renowned entrepreneur and innovator behind SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, who sold one of his internet companies, PayPal, for $1.5 billion. Ashlee Vance captures the full spectacle and arc of the genius’s life and work, from his tumultuous upbringing in South Africa and flight to the United States to his dramatic technical innovations and entrepreneurial pursuits.

Vance uses Musk’s story to explore one of the pressing questions of our age: can the nation of inventors and creators who led the modern world for a century still compete in an age of fierce global competition? He argues that Musk—one of the most unusual and striking figures in American business history—is a contemporary, visionary amalgam of legendary inventors and industrialists including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Steve Jobs. More than any other entrepreneur today, Musk has dedicated his energies and his own vast fortune to inventing a future that is as rich and far-reaching as the visionaries of the golden age of science-fiction fantasy.

Thorough and insightful, Elon Musk brings to life a technology industry that is rapidly and dramatically changing by examining the life of one of its most powerful and influential titans.

I really, really enjoyed this book! Which is not something I often say after reading a biography. Most biographies feel like work even if you’ve chosen to read the book for pleasure. They all seem to invariably contain sections that can only be described as just “a slog”. Not so with Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk.

Musk is obviously an interesting person with an interesting life. But so was Steve Jobs and others on the biography shelf – you don’t write a biography about an average person after all. What elevates Elon Musk above the rest, though, is Vance’s writing. Vance is a supremely talented writer, spinning together complex sentences that are both highly readable and devastatingly exact. Even if you don’t actually read this book, just pick it up and read a few pages to see this mastery in action. I am an official Ashlee Vance fan.

Another thing I enjoyed about this biography, besides the writing, was that Vance wasn’t afraid to deviate from the timeline. Most biographies run in a straight line from birth to death (or wherever the subject was in their life at the time of writing). Vance did go chronologically up to a point. But after he detailed Musk’s “darkest hour” in business in 2008, where he nearly lost Tesla and SpaceX, Vance devoted a hefty chapter each to Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City/the unifying principles that connect Musk’s businesses. This was a really good way to lay out the remainder of the book and actually made it really easy to then follow the development of those three businesses into what we see today.

On the subject of what this book was actually about, I emerged with a new respect for Musk. I’ve admired his work but didn’t know that much about the person behind the companies. Even when I did a little research into the Tesla Car earlier this year for one of my Writing Project Wednesdays (they’ll be back, I promise!), I only scratched the surface of who Musk was. What I admire the most about Musk is that he didn’t just build phenomenal, world-changing businesses….he managed to build phenomenal, world-changing businesses that fit into and serve his overall vision for his life’s while also being interconnected with each other. Absolutely amazing.

This biography was published in 2015. Since then, Musk’s star power hasn’t dulled any. If anything, he enjoyed a little boost from another high-profile relationship with an actress, Amber Heard. I’m looking forward to seeing what Musk does next…and hopefully, I’ll one day have a Model S of my own!

Writing Project Wednesday: Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk’s Tesla Car

I haven’t talked about my writing that much on the blog lately. But, yes I am still writing! Slowly, but surely. I’m actually still working on my historical fiction novel about Tesla. Nikola Tesla, the inventor, not the car (more on that in a sec). I’ve been working on this book for five years now! Eek! Off and on because I wrote a draft of another book and worked on an older book during that time, but five years still.

One thing I find a lot is that most people haven’t heard of Nikola Tesla the inventor. The Tesla car, absolutely! But the genius inventor? Not so much. Internet cartoonist The Oatmeal has a great primer on Tesla here, if you’re curious.

Credit: The Oatmeal

In my new series, Writing Project Wednesday, I’m going to be talking about my writing projects a lot more going forward. Specifically, all of the random research that goes into them. Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, you’re almost always going to have to do a boatload of research and become an armchair expert on something or the other like knitting needles or postage stamps. Seriously, there is no escape.

I’ve always said, if going to school and accumulating degrees was a career, I’d probably be doing that. I LOVE learning stuff. I LOVE reading (duh) and I LOVE falling down rabbit holes on the internet on semi-obscure subjects (I’m looking at you Jonestown) so being a writer is a good fit. Another thing I really love doing, is teaching people. Thus, this new series!

Ok, back to Tesla and the Tesla car. One incorrect assumption I hear a lot is that people think the Tesla car was invented by a guy named Tesla…thus the confused train of thought I see pulling into the station when I talk about my book. The process goes something like this:

  • Light of Recognition: Oh I’ve heard of Tesla! That’s cool you’re writing about the car, it’s so popular right now. You know my neighbor has one. Did you know it can drive itself?
  • Dawning Confusion: Wait, you said historical fiction? But that doesn’t make sense, the company can’t be more than fifteen years old…
  • Apologetic Murmuring and Appreciative Nod: Oh, ok so there was an actual guy named Tesla. My mistake. I thought you were talking about the car. You said he was an inventor? Did he invent the car? Your project sounds cool by the way!

So many conversations roll like this, I’m honestly surprised when someone knows I mean Nikola Tesla and then can name an invention of his. That person immediately becomes at least 20% cooler in my mind. Sorry, not sorry.

Without further ado, allow me to give you the facts and unravel the mystery of Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Tesla car!

-This is Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor who was born in Serbia in 1856 and died in New York in 1943. Nikola Tesla developed the AC current motor in the 1880s, which later put him at war with Thomas Edison and his Direct Current (DC) design. He also invented or conceptualized a bunch more things. A cloud of conspiracy surrounds him to this day.

-This is Elon Musk. Elon Musk is a businessman who was born in South Africa in 1971 and is still alive and kicking and currently dating Johnny Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard.

-Tesla, Inc. is an American car company founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Elon Musk is the face of the company as its current CEO. Fun fact about the logo: Elon Musk said it is intended to represent the cross-section of an electric motor!

-This is the Tesla Roadster, the first Tesla car. It used an Alternating Current (AC) induction motor so they named the company and the car after Nikola Tesla since the car’s motor is descended from Tesla’s original design.

-This is the extremely popular Model S. It also runs on an AC induction motor. It is the new status symbol of wealthy people who care about the environment and also want to drive a cool car. I want one, too. Elon, if you feel like sending me a Model S, I will gladly take it off your hands! Any color, my friend!

tl;dr Nikola Tesla was an inventor who invented the AC motor. The founders of Tesla named the car and the company after him because they use an AC induction motor in their cars that is modeled after Nikola Tesla’s invention patented in 1882.

Next week, I’m going to talk about lightning!