The Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla was a brilliant and eccentric genius whose inventions enabled modern-day power and mass communication systems.
His nemesis and former boss Thomas Alva Edison was the iconic American inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, and the moving picture. The two feuding geniuses waged a “War of Currents” in the 1880s over whose electrical system would power the world — Tesla’s alternating-current (AC) system or Edison’s rival direct-current (DC) electric power.
Amongst science nerds, few debates get more heated than the ones that compare Tesla and Edison. So, who was the better inventor?
“They’re different inventors, but you can’t really say one is greater, because society needs some Edisons and it needs some Teslas,” said W. Bernard Carlson, author of the book “Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age” (2013).
From their starkly different personalities to their lasting legacies, here’s how the two dueling inventors stack up.
Tesla had an eidetic memory, which meant he could very precisely recall images and objects. This enabled him to accurately visualize 3D objects, and as a result, he could build working prototypes using few preliminary drawings.
“He really worked out his inventions in his imagination,” Carlson told the website Live Science.
In contrast, Edison was more of a sketcher and a tinkerer.
“If you were going to (the) laboratory and watch him at work, you’d find he’d have stuff all over the bench: wires and coils and various parts of inventions,” Carlson said.
In the end, however, Edison held 1,093 patents, according to the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. Tesla garnered less than 300 worldwide, according to a study published in 2006 at the Sixth International Symposium of Nikola Tesla. (Of course, Edison had scores more assistants and also bought some of his patents.)
Most forward thinking
Though the light bulb, the phonograph and moving pictures are touted as Edison’s most important inventions, other people were already working on similar technologies, said Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, and the author of “Edison and the Rise of Innovation” (2013).
“If Edison hadn’t invented those things, other people would have,” DeGraaf told Live Science.
In a shortsighted move, Edison dismissed Tesla’s idea of an alternating-current (AC) system of electric power transmission, instead promoting his simpler, but less efficient, direct-current (DC) system.
By contrast, Tesla’s ideas were often more disruptive. He joined the Westinghouse company in 1888 to commission the alternating-current hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls— a first-of-its-kind power plant — which truly electrified the world.
Tesla also spent years working on a system designed to wirelessly transmit voices, images and moving pictures — making him a futurist, and the true father of radio, telephone, cell phones and television.
“Our entire mass communication system is based on Tesla’s system,” said Marc Seifer, author of “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla,” (2001).
Unfortunately, Tesla’s grand scheme failed when his financial backer, J.P. Morgan, became fed up with years of failure.
Edison’s enduring legacy isn’t a specific patent or technology, but his invention factories, which divided the innovation process into small tasks that were carried out by legions of workers, DeGraaf said.
For instance, Edison got the idea for a moving picture camera, or kinetoscope from a talk by photographer Edward Muybridge, but then left most of the experimentation and prototyping to his assistant William Dickson. By having multiple patents and inventions developing in parallel, Edison, in turn, ensured that his assistants had a stable financial situation to continue running experiments and fleshing out more designs.
Tesla’s inventions are the backbone of modern power and communication systems, but he faded into obscurity later in the 20th century, when most of his inventions were lost to history. And despite his many patents and innovations, Tesla was destitute when he died in 1943.
Best dinner party guest
At the height of his career, Tesla was charismatic, urbane and witty. He spoke several languages and counted writers Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, and naturalist John Muir as friends.
But Tesla could also be haughty and was known to be a hygiene freak. In his later years, his obsessive tics (such as his fear of women’s earrings) grew stronger, and he died penniless and alone in a hotel in New York City, Seifer said.
Edison, meanwhile, was hard of hearing and introverted, with few close friends.
Edison also had a mean streak, which he amply displayed in his vicious attacks against Tesla during the War of Currents. He also gave advice on how to build the first electric chair using direct current (DC), going into gory detail about the techniques needed to do the deed, Seifer said.
Tesla was tall, slender and imposing, with a dashing mustache and an impeccable sense of style, Carlson said. His top hat and tails are even on display in a museum in Serbia.
By contrast, Edison was known to be a bit of a slob. Edison even wore shoes two sizes too large so that he could slip into and out of them without stooping down to untie them, Carlson said.