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Tesla or Edison? July 13, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben read an article yesterday wondering about who was the greater genius, Thomas Edison (inventor of DC current) or Nikola Tesla (inventor of AC current). The two were bitter rivals back in the day, and while Edison died a wealthy man, Tesla died poor, alone and obscure. Fortunately, thanks to Elon Musk and his ilk, Tesla is enjoying a revival in our time, a fitting renaissance for the man who said “The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.”

I meant to ask my brilliant godson Rashu which inventor he preferred when he was here with his family yesterday, but unfortunately became so obsessed with eating and visiting that I forgot. I cast my vote with Tesla, and here’s why:

Tesla was a true genius, a great inventor who gave us the inventions on which modern communications (he invented the cell phone) and entertainment (radio, TV) were based, in addition to AC electricity. Tesla’s 300 patents were all his own inventions. Tesla’s memory was eidetic, enabling him to envision objects in 3D in his mind and then create them. He famously said, “We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.” He was also a pleasant and witty person who practiced good hygiene and was generally a joy to be around.

Edison, by contrast, was a mean, filthy slob. He held more than a thousand patents, but most were invented by his employees. He developed his theories by tinkering with various parts until something worked out, like the incandescent lightbulb and motion pictures (an idea he got from the famed freeze-frame photographer Eadweard Muybridge).

He was, in short, the Henry Ford of the electric industry: a practical man who saw what people needed and mass-produced those goods affordably via factories, hiring smart men and milking them for their inventions. It can easily, and correctly, be argued that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison did more to transform life for the average U.S. citizen in the 20th Century than anyone else.* The only other thing that comes close is advances in the food industry: pasteurization, canning, freezing, refrigeration.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison died rich, successful men, Tesla broke and forgotten. But that begs the question: Was Edison or Tesla the greater genius? Let me leave you with another prescient Tesla quote before you draw your own conclusions: “The scientists of today think deeply but not clearly.”

* Oops, I forgot Alexander Graham Bell. The telephone also transformed everyday life in much the same way as the internet has for us.



1. Huma - July 13, 2014

Rashu agrees with you!

2. Frater Zee - July 14, 2014

Tesla was BY FAR a greater genius & inventor than Edison. By sheer power of imagination, Tesla invented the AC induction motor and induction generator — which immediately made AC electricity practical for powering machinery. These were not mere incremental improvements of existing devices, but were “ab initio” inventions of a new physical principle, the rotating magnetic field.

Edison did not “invent” DC current — DC was known to experimenters since Ben Franklin (ha!!). What Edison did was organize a team of craftsmen who greatly improved DC motors & generators.

Unfortunately, Tesla did not realize that a new system of mathematics was needed to engineer AC power and radio. That step (called “phasors”) was invented by Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a genius who was hired by the Edison business interests (General Electric Co.) to “break the Tesla patents” in early 1900’s.

Tesla overcame much greater obstacles than Edison ever faced. Tesla was born in a poor village in Serbia, and worked his way westward — to Austria, then Paris, then New York — on the strength of his intellect and character alone. Totally inspiring to all aspiring inventors & visionaries !!

Ha!!! Imagine the aptness of an inventor named Proteus. LOVE it!!! And thanks as always for your insights, Frater Zee. And a big tip of the hat (or beer stein) to our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin.

3. William Scudder - July 14, 2014

As our friend Ben may have said,”Well done is better than well said.”
No question, Tesla was a visionary but Edison, like Franklin got the job done. Both epitomized the concept of “American Can-do”.
Tesla on the other hand came to define the “Mad Scientist” role for dozens of bad sci-fi movies.
I believe Ben would have admired Tesla but invested in Edison. The world needs both.
In the meantime, the Tesla is the first car to excite my desire since the 1967 AC Cobra. I want one.

Ha! Spot on with the “mad scientist” stuff. Did you see David Bowie play Tesla in “The Prestige”? If not, you must rent it ASAP. Great performances all ’round, especially from Michael Caine, though it is rather hard to watch because of the violence the two magicians subject each other to. However, Bowie as Tesla was the best mad scientist I’ve seen since Peter Sellers’s hilarious impersonation of Einstein in the Pink Panther series. And you’re quite right about Edison and Ben—if theories can’t be translated into practical reality, we might as well be talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. As for Elon Musk, I’d invest in his batteries, not his car.

4. Sri Harsha - July 14, 2014

Tesla is one of the greatest humans that ever walked on earth, There’s more to him than AC current, we can find his contribution in almost every important thing we use in our daily life like the radio, Wi-Fi, generators and what not, read his brief story here and how Edison cheated him. http://kaboomed.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/13/

Thank you for the link, Sri Harsha! Tesla was indeed an amazing human being. I’m sorry he came to such a sad end, but hope that his faith in his discoveries and inventions, and their benefits to future generations, sustained him until his last breath.

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