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The Saint and the Jerk.
The Saint and the Jerk.
Vox/Shutterstock/Wikimedia Commons

Tesla vs. Edison — and what the never-ending battle says about us

People brought out their machetes to help Nikola Tesla.

In 2013, plans were underway to build the Tesla Science Center in Shoreham, New York, where the genius inventor Nikola Tesla's laboratory once operated. But there was a problem. The site had fallen into disrepair since Tesla worked there, and it was overrun by thick, tall weeds. That didn't stop Tesla's fans. They brought their own tools, including those machetes, and spent their weekends hacking away the brush.

Today Tesla is a geek icon, credited with pioneering alternating current and radio. He inspires tributes around the world (and occasionally long gardening sessions). That geeky cult is part of the reason the new Tesla Center is being built. Matthew Inman, author of a famous comic strip at the Oatmeal about how Tesla is awesome, kicked off a $1.37 million crowdfunding campaign to help build the new museum.

But that enthusiasm has come at a cost — slamming Thomas Edison at every opportunity. In the popular imagination, Tesla and Edison were mortal enemies, and everybody has to pick a side. Inman's famous comic argues that Tesla, not Edison, was "the greatest geek who ever lived," while Edison "was a [censored] idiot" who stole ideas and merely profited off patents.

But the Tesla-Edison rivalry reaches far beyond a webcomic that's a few years old. It's gone from viral image to ever-present meme to pop culture canon. Rather than fizzling in the past couple of years, the feud's hype has only grown. It's shown up on T-shirts, in movie speculation, and even in parody rap battles:

That the rivalry has boomed is all new and a bit surreal. For most of the 20th century, Edison was America's greatest inventor and a hero of the industrial age, valorized for his hard work and ingenuity. But lately, it's Tesla who's seen his stature rise as a hero of the big idea and the true symbol of Silicon Valley–style innovation. The two are portrayed as representing completely different ideas of scientific progress, with a rivalry fit for a summer movie.

But is that blockbuster battle really accurate? A closer look at the historical feud between Tesla and Edison suggests that how we think of them today says less about the two inventors than it does about ourselves.

The real story behind the famous Tesla-Edison feud

An engraving of Tesla lecturing in the 1880s
An engraving of Edison from 1879

In 1884, a 28-year-old Serbian named Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City and quickly found a job with Thomas Edison, who, at 37, had already invented a new type of telegraph, created a pioneering lab, and founded the Edison Illuminating Company that developed Edison's work in electrical light. In his new position, Tesla helped Edison install lab equipment, repair generators, and design new machines.

A year later, Tesla left to start his own electric lighting company. The new system he used relied on alternating currents for induction motors — which set the stage for his famous conflict with Edison.

The dispute centered on which type of electric current should become the universal standard in the United States. Edison preferred direct current (DC), which was already widely used (and which Edison was profiting off of through his patents). But DC had a key drawback: It was difficult to convert the low voltage from power plants into high-voltage transmission lines that could carry electricity long distances. So a DC system would require many smaller power plants built close to users.

Tesla's alternating current (AC) system fixed this problem. Using transformers, the voltages could be raised and lowered, making it possible to have power plants many miles from wherever power was being used. Tesla sold his patents to George Westinghouse, who promoted the new AC system against Edison's.

The resulting "current wars" did turn into a genuine rivalry — at least for a while. Edison launched a publicity campaign to promote DC, which included public displays of AC electrocution in front of a live audience. In 1903, Edison supervised workers as they electrocuted an elephant named Topsy. (The logic wasn't particularly sound: It was like saying drowning cats in vats of soda proves that sugar is bad for you.)

But the spat also ended pretty quickly — and Edison lost. As early as 1893, Westinghouse had won a bid to electrify the World's Fair. By 1896, General Electric had ditched DC for AC, which eventually became the dominant system in the United States. And Tesla, for his part, moved on to new inventions quickly —by 1892, he was already lecturing in London about his plans for radio. Edison's elephant electrocution was an after-the-fact flail at relevance — DC had already lost.

Historians say this feud was a blip, not an epic conflict. And it just wasn't as bitter as today's mythmakers suggest. "Tesla just didn't worry about Edison," says W. Bernard Carlson, who wrote about Tesla in Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. "He actually kind of idolized him when he worked for him. He was annoyed, but there wasn't this lifelong bitter animosity that you see being conjured up." (If Tesla fans are looking for a true rival, every biographer I talked to suggested Guglielmo Marconi, who built off Tesla's work to "invent" radio. Their rivalry actually had the vitriol we imagine in the Tesla-Edison dispute.)

The "current wars" were a fascinating but short-lived business dispute. The tougher question is how this spat got transformed, in our historical memory, into a battle more fit for a Marvel movie than a business textbook.

Tesla and Edison weren't as different as we like to believe

Edison in his laboratory

Tesla's biggest fans champion him as an isolated aesthete, focused on creating breakthrough inventions like his ideas for wireless electricity. They also portray Thomas Edison as a cutthroat businessman who wasn't nearly as inventive as Tesla — but was simply better at patenting ideas, relying on truly inventive assistants, and bamboozling the easily impressed media.

The truth is somewhere in between. Tesla was also a businessman who was aware of the importance of the press. To create his great ideas, he needed the money and support to do it. And he often exaggerated his claims. "He had a complicated relationship with the tabloids of the time," Carlson says. Tesla's pitches didn't always pan out — but he still made them with vigor.

Edison, meanwhile, certainly wasn't viewed as a hack by most of his contemporaries — he was hailed a genius, for both technical and business acumen. That was true for the period spanning from Edison's invention of the lightbulb in 1879 to his death in 1931. "He was the inventor with the golden touch, who was like a living god," says Randall Stross, who wrote the Edison biography The Wizard of Menlo Park.

It's true that Edison purchased intellectual property and had a team working for him, but he was also a genius with many accomplishments to his name. Fueled by his workaholic habits (he labored until midnight the night of his wedding), Edison created a device that allowed two messages to be sent in both directions at the same time — a major innovation early on in the telegraph, and something that required a geek's talent and obsession. His innovations ranged from quirky experiments like his battery-powered pen to iconic inventions like the phonograph. And these early strokes of genius can't be entirely attributed to smart assistants or opportunistic patenting. At the very least, even Edison's critics have to admit he's like the best aspects of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled into one.

Modern-day Tesla fans like to argue that Edison simply worked the media better, and that explains his fame. It's true that Edison knew how to tease the press. Journalists recorded every remark he made, newspapers breathlessly reported on the tests he used for potential hires (the same way they do for Google today), and thousands made the pilgrimage to Edison's home base in Menlo Park, New Jersey. "[Edison] was regarded as the preeminent authority on just about anything," says Stross. "I can't think any person today would be regarded in the same way — as an omniscient sage."

But Tesla wasn't a shy shadow of Edison, either — he was a competitor for media attention. They had different pitches to the media, but both men had hooks to offer. "With Edison," Carlson says, "it's about Yankee ingenuity. With Tesla, because of his absence of commercial results, he takes a more utopian vision ... he's sort of the more long-term social vision of what technology can do."

The modern myth about the two inventors is unrealistic. Tesla wasn't an angelic martyr for science, and Edison wasn't a craven businessman who stole all of his ideas. Each of them was a little bit of both, not a total hero or villain.

How we think about them is a reflection of modern values — our beliefs run through them, like current through power lines.

What Tesla's modern-day comeback — and Edison's fall — says about us

Tesla in his laboratory

Jane Alcorn didn't always know who Nikola Tesla was. She was introduced to him in the mid-1990s by a neighbor with a "TESLA" license plate. After learning a bit about the inventor, Alcorn was hooked. "His life is a very compelling story," she tells me.

What people call Nikola Tesla

Tesla was a saint, a hacker hero, a feminist, and, of course, a target of the Illuminati.

Alcorn soon led the fight to restore Tesla's long-lost lab in Shoreham, New York. At first, it was an uphill battle: In the 1990s, few people knew who Tesla was, even in the nearby area. He was a forgotten inventor.

Now that's changed. Everyone loves Tesla. The community around Shoreham even has signs with pictures of Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower, the early wireless transmission tower at the lab.

Biographers have different theories about why Tesla has enjoyed a modern-day revival — and why Edison's become a relic.

Jill Jonnes, author of Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, thinks that it's become harder to appreciate Edison's contributions because we take them for granted. Today we're so used to available electric light that it's tough to appreciate the breakthrough. But that wasn't true in the 19th and early 20th century: "People loved Edison and worshipped him, because in their own lifetimes they'd seen their lives change because of this one man," Jonnes says.

Meanwhile, most of Nikola Tesla's ideas and visions, barely realized while he was alive, seem more exciting today. We can still get excited about wireless electricity and new forms of communication. It's no coincidence that the hottest electric car company is named after Tesla — Tesla's name evokes the future, while Edison's is covered in dust.

Carlson, the Tesla biographer, argues that the inventor might be a more appropriate hero for Silicon Valley's genius-worshiping culture, where breakthroughs that can change the world are prized over incremental innovations that make the world slightly better. "The central myth of Silicon Valley is that silicon has changed the world," he says. "Tesla, in their mind, is one of those visionaries that said bold changes are going to undergird the future of society. Edison was just building companies."

What people call Thomas Edison

Edison was a total jerk, a pompous idiot, a patent troll, and, of course, a member of the Illuminati.

Stross, the Edison biographer, argues that might explain why Edison isn't likely to make a comeback anytime soon. "In choosing historical figures that we're going to embrace," he says, "we're going to choose one whose defining feature is brilliance. I see Edison as a creature of the past who isn't going to come back in any form."

Tesla himself, at least in one quotation, helped sculpt the myth into the form it's taken today. The day after Edison died, Tesla perfectly articulated what would become each man's public image. "Edison was by far the most successful and, probably, the last exponent of this purely empirical method of investigation," he told the New York Times in 1931. "A little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labor."

The most famous bromide we associate with Edison, about how genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, doesn't fit with the culture at large today. We prefer to have our epiphanies in air-conditioned rooms. We don't like to sweat.

Is there a better way to think about the Tesla-Edison rivalry?

Wardenclyffe, as it appeared in 1911

After Tesla died, his laboratory at Wardenclyffe was used as a photo processing facility. It later became a Superfund site and required significant environmental cleanup. But Jane Alcorn and her team are committed to restoring it. There are plans for a museum devoted to Tesla's work, his laboratory, and his inventions. There will be interactive displays and a theater for presentations, and students will eat in the Neon Cafe (because Tesla pioneered some of the first neon lights).

Yet even Alcorn, whose project has benefited so much from Tesla cheerleading, was reluctant to angrily condemn Edison like so many Tesla fans on the internet. She loves Tesla, and she thinks the rivalry definitely existed. But she also says that "in their later years, they had a begrudging respect."

It might be more accurate to honor Tesla and Edison by recognizing the complexity of their conflict, as well as the virtues and shortcomings each possessed. Both men were geniuses, in their own ways, and both men were fallible, too. Instead of fitting Tesla to our own age or judging Edison selectively, we could try to understand both men better on their own terms. (Even Inman, the author of the Oatmeal comic, long ago conceded that his view of the Tesla-Edison feud was a bit exaggerated, though he hasn't backed off entirely.)

But moderation could be another step in the wrong direction, too — both men never gave up their passion. And without an exaggerated view of Tesla and Edison, the Wardenclyffe lab, overrun by vines and in desperate need of cleanup, might never have been restored.

Sometimes it takes a good myth to get people to bring out their machetes.


Editor: Brad Plumer
Photos via: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons, Ullstein Bild/Universal History Archive/Getty Images, illustration by Vox

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