My thoughts on Tesla and Edison

For a long time, Thomas Edison was held up as a model of American ingenuity, an inspiring figure whose inventions changed life for everyone. But, relatively recently, Nikola Tesla has received more acclaim as the better inventor, and his works are considered to have been unfairly neglected in favor of Edison’s. lately, it seems like Tesla is more popular than Edison. Perhaps it’s just one of those fashions that goes back and forth. (You might even say it “alternates” which one is “current”.)

Freddie DeBoer linked to a comic that exemplifies the lately fashionable Tesla-worship. I agree with Freddie’s reaction; even though I’m disposed to be more sympathetic to Tesla, that comic made me feel kind of uneasy about it, so strident was its tone.

I know I’ve used this quote before in other contexts, and I hate to keep using the same things, but damn it if it isn’t completely appropriate for summing up Edison and Tesla:

“One of them is half-mad–and the other, wholly unscrupulous.”–Claude Rains, as Mr. Dryden in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Edison was a cutthroat businessman, there can be very little doubt. You don’t enjoy the kind of success he did without pulling some pretty mean stuff, I think. Tesla, meanwhile, was pretty clearly crazy. That was probably why he was such a great innovator.

For an example, it’s not clear to me whether Tesla’s “particle gun” was actually something real or just an idle thought he had. I sometimes think certain people–like the author of the above-mentioned comic–are too quick to credit Tesla with “inventing” stuff when actually it was just stuff he dreamed up in some of his less-rational moments.

Not that he wasn’t a great inventor. I’m just saying he’s a little over-celebrated. Of course, so was Edison when you look at all the rotten things he did, such as electrocuting animals for a PR campaign. I’m sure a lot of the admiration for Tesla comes as a direct result of people hearing in school about how wonderful Edison was.

There’s also an under-current of culture war to it, I think. Consider: the wily, Midwestern-born businessman/showman vs. the misunderstood, introverted immigrant. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a poll to look for correlation between political affiliation and support of Tesla or Edison, but I bet I know how it would come out.

I think part of it is the misrepresentation of Edison–like the author of the comic said, “he didn’t invent the light-bulb, he sold it.” Is that wrong?  Why, people greatly admire Steve Jobs, but if you think about it, a lot of what he did was selling what Jonathan Ive designed. That doesn’t make Jobs a phony; it makes him great at what he did: selling stuff.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?