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Happy Birthday, Thomas Edison (Nikola Tesla Fans Exempted)

It's no wonder that the light bulb remains the universal symbol for a bright idea.

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Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla? Tesla or Edison? Which side are you on, nerds, which side are you on?

It has become a geek parlor game to argue over which inventor was “better” or more relevant, genius or lucky, evil or nuts.

It has become, figuratively and literally, a geek parlor game to argue over which inventor was “better” or more relevant, genius or lucky, evil or nuts. For instance, a Tesla vs. Edison: War of the Currents board game recently came out of a successful Kickstarter campaign. At the CES expo in Las Vegas last month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office entered the realm of AC/DC when it featured giant blowups of the two electrical standards combatants at its small booth as part of its Inventor Cards series. And you can compare and contrast the two tech titans on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Edison vs. Tesla page, as well.

The switch on this electric innovator debate is sure to be thrown again this week as we commemorate what would have been Edison’s 169th birthday on Feb. 11, a day that President Ronald Reagan also proclaimed would be National Inventors’ Day in the U.S. in 1983.

Back in the late 19th century, Edison and Tesla played the single biggest roles in determining the future of our technological world. But Edison is the unquestioned forefather; after all, Tesla wouldn’t have done what he did if he hadn’t quit Edison’s company in a fit of pique after “the wizard of Menlo Park” welched on a promised (or misunderstood) $50,000 bonus.

Edison perfected the incandescent bulb in 1879, five years before he hired the fresh-off-the-boat Serbian immigrant. This triggered the development of our entire electronics infrastructure.

Edison’s light bulb continues to be the oldest consumer electronics device still in mass use. He also had a hand in the electric chair, the tattoo gun, General Electric — and the movies.

“Perfected” is the right word; while the idea of the incandescent bulb wasn’t his (it was Joseph Swan’s), Edison’s light bulb continues to be the oldest consumer electronics device still in mass use. Just imagine what the world would look and feel like without electric light. Not only does this essential device look and work pretty much the same as it did nearly 140 years ago — remarkable in and of itself — but the threaded metallic bottom is still called the Edison base.

It’s no wonder that the light bulb remains the universal symbol for a bright idea.

Yes, it was Tesla’s (and George Westinghouse’s) AC power scheme that eventually emerged successfully from the nearly decade-long battle with Edison’s DC, during which Edison electrocuted all manner of living things, including an elephant and human beings (yes, Thomas Edison was a force behind the electric chair) to demonstrate the danger of AC. But the success of the light bulb spurned three other non-device Edison advances that are still significant today.

The first of these is General Electric — yes, that General Electric. Originally called the Edison General Electric Company, GE was founded to manufacture and sell Edison’s DC power distribution stations and light bulbs, and many of Edison’s inventions endure as integral aspects of what remains one of the largest, most valuable and oldest continually operating technology companies in the world.

More important was Edison’s whole idea of how gadgets are invented and brought to market.

Starting in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and later 30 miles north in West Orange, Edison invented and perfected the R&D lab. Edison hired people who were mostly, if not all, scientifically smarter than he was — Edison’s formal education ended after only three months, so he could churn out new gadgets and innovations.

Edison lab-produced advances include the first practical batteries for the electric car, the electronic stenciling pen that later morphed into the A.B. Dick mimeograph machine and was slightly modified to become the modern tattooing tool, more durable cement used to build the original Yankee Stadium and, most famously, motion pictures. Edison’s churn-’em-out R&D concept provided the template for how technology has been developed and brought to market ever since.

Edison’s third influential advance was actually inadvertent.

While mucking with his incandescent lamp, Edison noticed a strange electron flow within his experimental bulbs. Since Edison wasn’t an educated scientist, he didn’t understand the import of that electron flow. So he simply made a note of it.

On Feb. 11, we commemorate what would have been Edison’s 169th birthday, a day that President Ronald Reagan also proclaimed would be National Inventors’ Day in the U.S. in 1983.

Two decades later, more enlightened (forgive the pun) and educated engineers including John A. Fleming and, later, Lee De Forest turned what became known as the Edison effect into the electron or vacuum tube. The vacuum tube is the foundation upon which radio, the transistor, television, the microchip, the personal computer and all modern electronics are based.

Perhaps thanks to Elon Musk’s car company and the successful Indiegogo campaign to turn the only remaining Tesla lab into the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, out on northern Long Island, Tesla has become the “cooler” of the two tech titans. Edison haters may continue to gripe about his over-celebrated legacy, but hopefully they’ll take some satisfaction from commemorating his Serbian rival’s 160th birthday on July 10.

For this week at least, let’s at least acknowledge Edison’s ongoing contributions to our lives. Turn off a light in honor of (arguably) the greatest and (not arguably) most famous inventor in world history.


Technology historian Stewart Wolpin has been reviewing the latest consumer electronics for more than 30 years and writes about consumer technology for eBay. Reach him @stewartwolpin.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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