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Tesla Versus Edison: The Truth About The Infamous Inventors’ Rivalry

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are two of the most famous inventors in American history. Pitted against each other in the “war of currents,” they’ve taken on even greater rivalry in our modern cultural dialogue.

For most of the 20th century, Edison was regarded as America’s greatest inventor ever, while Tesla was largely forgotten. In recent years, though, Edison’s sometimes extreme tactics have been used to show his deep character flaws, while Tesla has been hailed as an underappreciated genius. Some people say Tesla was too romantic and would have been remembered if he had Edison’s instinct for business, enterprise, and collaboration. In all of the chatter, the truth has become clouded.

Still, the two men were inextricably linked throughout much of their lives. They worked in similar fields and motivated each other through intense competition. But, while they seem to reflect opposite ideals, we don’t have to pick a side— both men were brilliant inventors whose creations we benefit from to this day. 

Their story shines a light on the flawed way that we view creators. It tells us something interesting about the dynamics of rivalries and how important they can be in pushing humankind to move mountains. It’s the story of Tesla and Edison. Let’s explore. 

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Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison
Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison

Tesla and Edison were both born in the mid-19th century into a fast-changing world. The products and technologies of the industrial revolution were spreading from the United Kingdom to other corners of the globe.

Edison, the older of the two by nine years, was born into a large family in New York. From the very beginning, he was taught the importance of self-education. Instead of attending school, his mother, a former school teacher, taught young Thomas for most of his early life. He was often found with his nose in a book or tinkering away with whatever gadget he could get his hands on. At the age of 12, Edison went partially deaf after a bout of scarlet fever, but his condition would not hold him back. 

As a thirteen-year-old, he stumbled into his first entrepreneurial venture, selling papers and sweets on local trains, foreshadowing a life of business success. But his real passion remained in experimenting with chemistry and materials. In his late twenties, Edison used the profits from selling an invention to start the first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The lab’s factory-style commercialized innovation unlike anything before, but it would never have worked without collaboration. Edison hired the brightest creators in the world, and he knew how to bring the best out of them.

It was in the offices of one of his companies, Edison Machine Works (EMW), where the American inventor came across an odd, eccentric employee named Nikola Tesla. 

Tesla was born into a large family in modern-day Croatia. His father was an Orthodox Priest, his mother a craftswoman with a photographic memory. Like Edison, Tesla was interested in science from a young age, but, unlike Edison, he received extensive schooling from prestigious academies across Europe. He didn’t always have an easy time of it, though. While his teachers admitted Tesla had the aptitude to succeed at any level, they spoke of his obsessive tendencies. Sometimes these benefited his studies, like when he would work 18 hours a day to prepare for exams. Other times, they held him back— he developed a gambling addiction and lost all of his tuition money playing cards and throwing dice.

Charles W. Batchelor,
inventor, associate of
Thomas A. Edison, early
executive of General
Electric Company

In 1882, Tesla began working for an Italian company called Continental Edison, which, though not directly affiliated with the American inventor, was based on bringing his inventions to Europe. Edison hired Tesla’s manager in Paris, a man named Charles Batchelor, to work at his lab in New York. Batchelor accepted the offer on the condition that Tesla could also work at the New York office.

Tesla only worked for Edison for six-months, plenty of time for the men to become familiar with each other and perhaps to plant the seeds of rivalry. 

In 1884, EMW was restoring a damaged generator in the SS Oregon, a large ocean liner. Tesla stayed up through the night repairing the dynamo, so, when Edison arrived the following morning, he found his employee looking disheveled and tired. At first, Edison mistook Tesla’s appearance to mean he had spent the night out on the town. When Tesla responded that he worked all night to complete repairs, Edison declared Tesla to be “a damned good man.”

Shortly after, an EMW manager offered a 50,000 dollar reward to the man who could design twenty-four different types of standard machines. Tesla accomplished this goal, but when he went to claim his prize, Edison laughed at him, saying the European still didn’t understand American humor. After all, 50,000 dollars in 1884 would have been well over a million today, and it’s unlikely Edison’s company had that money to spare. His pride was damaged, and with a desire to strike out on his own, Tesla left the company.

Working with a pair of investors, Tesla began his in-depth research into what would become perhaps his most significant contribution: alternating current induction motors. Tesla’s AC motor was so innovative that it was bought out by a man named George Westinghouse, who ran one of the biggest electric and manufacturing companies in America. At the same time, Edison was spearheading the movement towards a different kind of electric motor that ran on direct current. 

In retrospect, both methods had advantages and drawbacks. DC was safer and could be stored in batteries. AC was more efficient and infinitely easier to distribute across long distances. Today, both forms of electricity play essential roles in our society. But, whether due to the lack of experience and information regarding their innovations or to the competitive nature of their pursuit of profits, the AC vs. DC conversation became tense, earning itself the moniker “the war of currents.” 

One of the darker marks on Edison today is the lengths he went to show that DC was a better option. He capitalized on the early deaths of engineers and operators electrocuted while working on AC power lines, building a propaganda campaign to push the inherent danger of his opponents’ technology. Edison organized public demonstrations where he would use AC to electrocute animals so that the world could see graphic examples of their violent consequences. He even used AC to build the world’s first electric chair, which he did to solely associate Tesla’s innovation with death.

Despite his best efforts, AC eventually won out as the more critical and profitable means to power a city. DC power plants could only energize areas within a one-mile radius of the distribution point, making it ineffective for powering anything more than a neighborhood in a densely populated urban area. However, while popular culture has distilled this conflict into a two-man deathmatch between Edison and Tesla, Tesla wasn’t exactly the winner. George Westinghouse is considered the victor in this battle. He and Edison had been feuding over patents and government contracts for years. Many have posited that seeing his former employee, Tesla, join forces with Westinghouse hurt Edison even more. Tesla’s AC motor was used to power the greater New York area when it was included in a power plant built at Niagara Falls, but Westinghouse owned the rights to this power plant. Yes, Tesla was well-compensated for his innovation, but he was viewed as a contributor. Not the winner.

The War of Currents was the most direct conflict that the two men ever engaged in, but it wasn’t the only time they butt heads on something. Both men were among the early researchers of x-rays, though neither was the first to discover them. However, Tesla was wary of the technology, noticing the potential dangers of radiation. Edison, also seemingly aware of the potential risks, continued testing the technology extensively on himself and his assistant. Edison’s forays into x-rays led to at least one assistant’s death due to excessive radiation exposure. 

This is a complicated issue in Edison’s legacy, his willingness to harm others for technological progress. However, his advocates point out that this was an occupational hazard for inventors, who often faced fatal consequences for delving into the wild west of science and technology. We know from both men’s writings that they feared the repercussions of x-ray exposure, though, nowadays, it has been reigned in and used to save countless lives. Still, while their experiments with x-rays display key differences between the two men’s philosophies, it’s unlikely that they ever saw themselves in conflict here.

Perhaps the final tale of friction between Edison and Tesla came during World War One, while Edison was head of the Naval Consulting Board. It was at this time that Tesla approached the board with a plan for implementing radar in submarines. The NCB refused Tesla’s proposal. In modern times, this has been used as proof that Edison had it out for Tesla. After all, why else would he decline the great inventor’s idea? In reality, though, it was rejected on technological grounds— submarines couldn’t be detected with radar due to water’s attenuation of radio waves. Sonar was and is the best option for subs. Tesla hadn’t invented radar either. He approached the board with his idea, but it wasn’t used for another two decades.

While the two men continued their lives in their own corners, it seems likely that there was still some tension between the two. Upon Edison’s death in 1931, Tesla contributed a lengthy, harsh quotation in Edison’s obituary, stating…

“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind, and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene. If he had a needle to find in a haystack, he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … His method was inefficient in the extreme … I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”

Whether or not his words should be trusted, they speak to the two men’s personal differences. Tesla was classically trained, and he depended on calculation and imagination to find the best solution as quickly as possible. Edison preferred trial and error. Tesla worked alone for much of his career, while Edison directed huge teams of talented innovators. 

On the flip side, Tesla was considered charismatic and exciting. He was friends with famous novelists like Mark Twain and Rudyard Kippling. Edison preferred a small circle of businessmen, including Henry Ford, and his partial deafness left him somewhat anti-social. Tesla was a germaphobe, yet he loved animals and considered himself a humanist. Edison often disregarded his physical appearance in favor of devoting his time to his inventions.

As to their qualities as inventors, both men were prolific in the patents they received throughout their lives. Edison can claim the higher number by far, but many of his were due to his collaborators’ innovations while they worked under his roof. This leads to a critical question in the debate between the two. Does Tesla’s independent style make him the better inventor?

It’s difficult to say. Despite his independence, saying that Tesla invented anything on his own is as absurd as saying it about Edison. In the words of Mark Twain, “It takes a thousand men to invent the telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit, and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did.”

This is a common critique of Edison’s most famous invention, the light bulb. He was not the first person to make a light bulb, but he was the person to refine the technology to a point where it could be used widely and safely. Likewise, Tesla didn’t invent AC motors— he improved them so they could be used efficiently and reliably. 

This principle shows itself across industries and disciplines. No creation exists in a vacuum. Creators work with what has been built by those who have come before, and crediting either man with the sole conception of an idea or machine is false. Both men improved on what they had, often in ways that changed the world. Both can be appreciated for their incredible contributions.

But what about their rivalry? How real was it? It seems clear that Tesla disliked Edison for much of his life, but, in modern times, many historians claim that their opposition has been exaggerated to drive a narrative. 

Perhaps the more prudent question is what the impact of this rivalry may have been. Many of the greatest creators were driven to new heights by competition with a worthy adversary. Would da Vinci be da Vinci if not for his drive to outdo his foil, Michaelangelo? How would we think of the Beatles today if not for their endless need to transcend the Rolling Stones? Would Microsoft and Apple be so powerful if not for the competitive fire between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?

Historically, media and popular culture have misconstrued creative competition as personal antipathy. The world will never know precisely how the two men felt about each other, but there’s no question that they pushed their rival to their innovative limits.

Just as we can appreciate the Mona Lisa while marveling at the Sistine Chapel, we can celebrate the contributions of both Edison and Tesla.

But what do you think? Did Tesla’s comments after Edison’s death reveal his eternal hatred of his opponent? Or could they have been based in jealousy for the recognition that Edison received while Tesla grew more obscure?

Has the debate between Edison and Tesla grown to an oversized analogous discussion over differing ideals? Classical versus self-education? Collaboration versus individuality? 

What does the tale of the two men reveal about how we see great people? Can their legacies exist without those they went up against, those they overcame to reach their peaks? Do we grant too much credit to the people who lead creative charges, the generals, when we should be praising the ones fighting on the front lines?

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