Tesla vs. Edison

... and fight! 220px-Thomas_Edison2

It has become popular of late, especially on the left, to love Tesla and hate Edison. (Warning: that is a link to the Oatmeal, which is very funny and will suck up large quantities of your time if you let it, but if you aren’t familiar with the leftists hate of Edison and valorization of Tesla, it’s a necessary read.)

Edison, (1847 – 1931) was an American-born (son of a Canadian war refugee of Dutch descent) auto-didact, inventor, and businessman who was awarded over a thousand patents. His most important inventions (or inventions produced by his lab,) include the first actually useful lightbulb, the phonograph, the first movie camera and a device to view the movies on, the electrical grid necessary to power the lightbulb, the movie studio necessary to make the films for people to watch, and the scientific research lab.

He was friends with Henry Ford, a community volunteer, deaf, and a general humanitarian who abhorred violence and prided himself on having never invented an offensive weapon.

His worst mistake appears to have been not realizing what business he was in during the “War of the Currents;” Edison thought he was in the lightbulb-selling business, and since he had invented a lightbulb that ran on DC, he wanted everyone to use DC. He also seems to have been genuinely concerned about the high voltages used by AC, but DC just drops off too quickly to be used in non-urban areas; to get the country electrified required DC. Edison not only lost the Currents War, but also got kicked out of the company he’d founded by his stock holders. The company’s name was later changed to General Electric.

His political views were fairly common for his day–he advocated the populist position on abolishing the gold standard, tax reform, and making loans interest free to help farmers. Religiously, he was basically a GNON-believing deist. He preferred silent films over “talkies” due to being deaf, and had six children, three of whom went into science/inventing, one with a degree from Yale and one from MIT.

The idea that Edison was “merely” a businessman or CEO is completely bollocks. He was not only a brilliant inventor, but also understood how his inventions would be used and created the systems–both human and mechanical–necessary to bring them to full fruition.

Edison's lab in Menlo Park
Edison’s lab in Menlo Park


Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serb born in Croatia back when Croatia was part of the Austrian empire. By all accounts, he was exceedingly brilliant. His father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest, but he received a scholarship to the Austrian Polytechnic University, where he burned like a meteor for his first year, earning the highest grades possible in 9 subjects (almost twice the required course load.) In his second year, he became addicted to gambling, then gambled away his tuition money in year three and forgot to study for his finals. He flunked out and ran away.

A couple of years later, his family raised money to send him to university again, which was another fiasco, since Tesla didn’t have training in two of the required subjects and so couldn’t actually attend.

Nevertheless, Tesla managed to get work at a telegraph company and was eventually invited to the US to work under Edison. Here he did excellent work, but quit over a rather stupid sounding misunderstanding about pay, wherein Tesla expected to be paid far more for an invention than Edison had in funds to pay anyone. Edison offered a raise instead, but Tesla decided to strike out on his own.

Tesla attempted to start a business, which ended badly (it sounds like it went south because he wasn’t focusing on the stated goals of the company,) and left him a penniless ditch-digger.

He then hit on a series of successes, including the polyphase induction motor, which ended with him quite handsomely employed by one of Edison’s competitors, Westinghouse, but even here he had difficulties getting along with his co-workers. Eventually it seems he established his own lab and convinced investors to give him $100,000, which he promptly spent on more lab equipment instead of the new lighting system he’d promised. His lab was later sold and torn down to pay off debts.

Tesla received yet another major investment, $150,000 to build a wireless telegraph facility, but appears to have blown the money on stock market speculation. He did manage to finish the project, though without any more funds from his now very jaded investors, but eventually he had to sell the building, and it was demolished.

Many of Tesla’s inventions were clearly brilliant and far ahead of their time. Others are delusions, like his mechanical oscillator. Tesla claimed it nearly brought down the building; Mythbusters built one themselves, and it did no such thing.

There is a kind of brilliance that slides easily into madness, and Tesla’s was clearly of this sort. He was too adept at pattern matching (he could do calculus in his head) to sort out real patterns from ones he’d dreamed up. He never married, but once fell in love with a pigeon at the park, feeding it daily and spending over $2000 dollars on it when its wing was injured.

In his personal life, he was extremely rigid–working and eating at the exact same times every day, eating a very restricted diet, and wearing a fastidiously neat and regimented wardrobe. He was extremely thin and slept very little–perhaps only 2 hours a day. (There are a vanishingly few people in the world who actually do function like this.) He was critical and harsh toward people who didn’t meet his standards, like fat people or secretaries whose clothes he thought were insufficiently attractive. Despite not having any children of his own, he believed the unfit should be sterilized and the rest of the population coerced into a selective breeding program. He also said some unflattering things about Edison upon the man’s death, which is kind of rude.

To prevent him from sinking further into poverty, his former employer, Westinghouse, took pity on him and started paying his hotel bills, (Tesla seems to have not thought of living in a house.) Tesla spent much of his final years claiming to have built a “Death Ray” and claiming that various thieves had broken into his hotel room to steal it.

Upon his death in 1943, the government seized all of his belongings just in case there were actual Death Rays or other such inventions in there that the Nazis might try to steal. The box with Tesla’s Death Ray turned out to have nothing more than an old battery inside. The investigator concluded:

“[Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.

To be frank, I’ve talked to homeless schizophrenics who sound a lot like Tesla; the line between correct pattern matching and incorrect pattern matching is, at times, easily crossed.


The modern habit of shitting on Edison and glorifying Tesla stems from the tendency to see Edison as a stereotypically American businessman who wickedly and cunningly stole ideas from from smarter people to build up his own wealth and reputation. It feeds into the notion that Americans (white Americans, especially,) have built nothing of their own, but stolen all of their wealth and a great many of their ideas from others. Here Tesla–attractive, urbane, brilliant, and most of all, not tainted by the blight of having been born in America–gets to stand in for the usual victimized classes.

Ironically, Edison’s political beliefs line up with the Progressives of his day–that is, socialists/liberals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Tesla, at least as far as the Wikipedia describes any of his beliefs, favored Nazi-style forced sterilization and eugenics. In daily life, Tesla may have been a nicer person than Edison (it is rather difficult to tell from Wikipedia articles what people were like personally,) but I question a left that denigrates one of their own Progressives while upholding a man whose political beliefs are, at best, anathema to their own.

Regardless, Tesla’s failures were not Edison’s fault. Edison may have screwed him on pay, but he didn’t gamble away Tesla’s tuition money, make him fail his classes, nor convince him not to marry. Edison didn’t make him blow his investment money on the stock market or wander around NYC at all hours of the night, feeding pigeons.

Edison, deaf since childhood, didn’t have half the advantages handed to him as Tesla. He had all of three months of schooling; no one ever sent him to university or gave him a scholarship to waste. He may not have been as smart as Tesla, but he was still an intensely intelligent man and adeptly capable of carrying out the business side of the operation, without which no research could get done. Without funding, you don’t have a lab; no lab, no research. Humans do not live in isolation; someone has to do the inglorious work of coordinate things so that other people can reap the benefits of a system set up for them to work in.

Ultimately, Tesla was a brilliant man who should not have been allowed to run his affairs. He needed the structure of a boss, a wife, parents, family, etc., to keep him on track and stop him from doing idiotic things like gambling away his tuition money.

Familial supervision during college could have ensured that he graduated and gotten him on the path toward a tenured position. Perhaps he would have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Einstein and Curie at the Solvay Conference. A boss would have ensured that the strategic, business ends of things–the ends Tesla had no great talent for–got done, leaving Tesla to do the things he did best, to reach far more of his full potential. (In this regard, Edison had advantages Tesla lacked–a wife, family, and a country he had grown up in.) But Tesla was too rigid to submit to someone of inferior intellect (real or perceived), and his family back in Europe was too far away to help him. Loneliness is madness, for humans are social animals, and so brilliant Tesla died alone, poor, and in love with a pigeon.

Tesla's wireless telegraph tower, 1904
Tesla’s wireless telegraph tower, 1904

Just imagine what Edison and Tesla could have created had they put their animosity aside and worked together.

Part 2 coming soon.




17 thoughts on “Tesla vs. Edison

  1. Tesla was a psycho, and is overrated, but… Edison really was worthless as inventor and was a genuine “bastard” of a person who doesn’t deserve to be… rehabilitated, so to speak.


    • How many patents do you have?

      I’m serious. What standard do you have to judge his accomplishments? If Steve Jobs or Henry Ford claimed that Edison was bad at inventing/running an innovation workshop, I would consider their claims seriously, because they have significant expertise in those departments. But when random people who have no experience in these areas try to claim that a thousand patents (whether personally or through the workshop one founded) are somehow not a significant accomplishment, I request some some higher level of proof than just “was a bastard.”

      It is a flaw of our current culture to tear down the dead for their failures, rather than celebrate the good they accomplished, as though the dead were still walking among us and could be held accountable for their sins. Shall we dig up their corpses and put them on trial? We are cannibalizing our history to score debate points on the internet.


      • It would be like me asking of you to show me your Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine before accepting your usual writing. How would I otherwise know if you had prerequisite experience? Remember, you are the one doing the rehabilitation, so the burden of proof is on you. Sheer number of patents isn’t worth a dime, as there are millions upon millions of worthless patents (not to mention that the concept of IP is itself nonsensical, and has cost one of the most brilliant minds, Edwin Armstrong, his life). Many of Tesla’s inventions (most of which were also independently invented by other people, hence remark about him being overrated) are still widely used today, but what about Edison? Which one of his patents is used today? Or, we could even ask which one was used during his lifetime? (not counting the electric lighting, because it has already existed before Edison’s experiments) If you really want to do some good, then spread the word about anonymous geniuses, like aforementioned Armstrong, or Oliver Heaviside for example, instead of trying to redeem crooked businessmen.
        BTW Jobs was also a worthless “bastard”.

        What? It has always been done, biased historians, damnatio memoriae, history is written by the victors and all that.


      • If I wrote a post claiming that the current Nobel winner in physics was wrong on technical grounds, you would of course be interested in my credentials or level of expertise.

        You are free to support your position, which is a form of demonstrating expertise.

        “history is written by the victors”
        Then who are you trying to conquer?


      • “Then who are you trying to conquer?”
        No one. I was merely mentioning that cannibalizing history wasn’t a modern phenomenon.


    • Patents don’t necessarily mean much, but how do we know whether or not Edison was worthless as an inventor? I don’t think we need to have a patent-waving contest here in order to determine this, but we may need a list of Edison and Tesla’s important inventions to decide for ourselves.

      I agree about Jobs being a bastard, and his innovations seem to be mainly about sales and aesthetics rather than function., but he did have a few good ideas.


      • “Patents don’t necessarily mean much, but how do we know whether or not Edison was worthless as an inventor? I don’t think we need to have a patent-waving contest here in order to determine this, but we may need a list of Edison and Tesla’s important inventions to decide for ourselves.”
        It’s not even a real contest, I mean polyphase system, induction motor, etc. VS what? A phonograph, a peep show device, etc.

        “I agree about Jobs being a bastard, and his innovations seem to be mainly about sales and aesthetics rather than function, but he did have a few good ideas.”
        Jobs was, most of all, an excellent presenter… essentially he was a fusion of Mandrake the Magician, Sai Baba and Adolf Hitler (minus the genocidal streak).


  2. I think Edison is criminally underrated and am glad that others feel that way. Fact is Edison knew how to implement, produce and profit from his inventions, allowing him to outproduce Tesla.

    Liked by 1 person

      • (Replying to both of your comments)
        If you have to invent the infrastructure and methods for implementing them, then you are still inventing things.

        Humans invented pipes for carrying water into cities and sewage out of cities thousands of years ago, but it was only within the past hundred or so that we figured out how to actually implement them in large scale formations so that we can have flush toilets and not die of cholera. I don’t know who “invented” the modern sewer system–it was undoubtedly a lot of people–but it was still a major technological development that required the development of a ton of new technologies and systems to implement.

        The vast, vast majority of science is not Newtons and Einsteins figuring out revolutionary new laws of physics or matter or chemistry or whatever; it’s guys toiling away in labs for years and years to make relatively small improvements on known technologies or processes. This probably has less to do with these guys being dumb and inferior or not real scientists as with major breakthroughs only happening once in a while, followed by years of refinement. If anything, we probably owe the quality of our lives more to the guys toiling to make tiny refinements in things like sewer systems and filament lifespans or methods of making vacuum tubes than to guys making theories about black holes and quantum physics.

        Edison found a way to speed up innovation and improvement by putting a bunch of scientists/inventors/engineers together in a research lab and providing them with raw materials, salaries, and probably a lot of instructions about what he wanted worked on, and then published his results (that is, patented them) and put another team of people together to actually implement them so that people could actually obtain these new products. Since other people hadn’t particularly done this before Edison, he gets credit for popularizing the model.

        We could call one group “businessmen” or “engineers” and the other “scientists” or “inventors” or whatever makes people linguistically happy. I don’t particularly care so long as I have clean water and electricity. There’s no need to spit on the dead and call them “worthless” or “bastards” (I am not saying that you did; just responding somewhat generally to the zeitgeist) just because one guy’s inventions were more refinements of technologies so that they could actually be used and another guy’s inventions were big picture ideas.


      • Being an run-of-the-mill engineer pays off without any external meddling, because they are in demand by others lacking their skills. It’s creating grand inventions with the potential to reshape the society that requires additional help. There is no initial demand for visionaries.


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