Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – The Differences Between Fame and Forgotten

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – The Differences Between Fame and Forgotten

I recently saw the movie “The Prestige”. The story is about two ferociously rival magicians and is set in the 1890’s. A sub-plot in the movie concerns the largely forgotten rivalry between scientists and inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Entrepreneurs today can learn much from the Edison/Tesla saga.

Thomas Edison is one of the most famous and revered Americans of all time, and deservedly so. School children are taught that he harnessed electricity, invented the light bulb and the phonograph. He was awarded 1093 patents during his long and rewarding creative life. His summer laboratory in Fort Myer, Florida is still a major tourist destination. In addition, Edison earned millions of dollars by commercializing his patents and product innovations. To this day we have all benefited from his genius.

Nikola Tesla, on the other hand, is virtually unknown today. He was born in Serbia, moved to America and became one of the most renowned scientists of his day. He was in many ways, the prototype for the “mad scientist” so often depicted in books and movies. His eccentricity and poor business decisions were the stuff of legends. And yet, Tesla’s inventions and scientific advances are as important in our contemporary lives as Edison’s.

As a young immigrant scientist Tesla actually worked for Edison. Edison held the patent on Direct Current (DC) and was, as always, aggressively pursuing commercialization of his patents. The famous banker J. P. Morgan was an early financial backer of Edison’s DC. Edison constructed a generator in New York City that could provide the miracle of light in homes, including Morgan’s Murray Hill mansion. It was considered a wonder of the day.

Tesla, however, recognized that DC had serious limitations, specifically in delivery of electricity across a vast grid. He championed Alternating Current (AC). Edison was furious. AC was a direct attack on his patents. He had no commercial claim to AC power generation. Tesla left Edison and the two great scientists became lifelong enemies.

Tesla introduced his theories on AC to George Westinghouse, another foe of Edison. The two became partners and a race between the devotees of AC and DC current commenced. Westinghouse and Tesla believed AC to be superior to DC because of the arc and greater footprint of power the system could deliver.

Edison, an unusual combination of man of science and excellent business- man, conducted an aggressive; some say savage public relations campaign to support his convictions that DC was the better technology. He conducted public electrocutions of animals in an effort to prove that DC was a safer, cleaner source of power. He even allowed DC to be used in the first electrocution of a death sentence criminal. This public display was botched and the criminal was re-electrocuted in a horrible manner. The public was shocked.

Meanwhile, Tesla was tasked by Westinghouse to harness the power of Niagara Falls to generate safe, widely disseminated electricity by utilizing the AC technology. The test and subsequent grid performance confirmed that AC was the superior technology. Morgan and Edison were forced to purchase interests in AC.

Thomas Edison prospered for the rest of his days. His connections with J.P. Morgan lead to the establishment of General Electric, one of the world’s great enterprises to this day. He died rich, revered, and famous.

Tesla was an immense contributor to the evolution of our modern power system. The many scientific tasks involved in electrifying the United States and the world would have occurred much more slowly without his inventions and creativity. Tesla was crucial to the perfection and acceptance of AC, the standard used to this day. And yet Tesla died broke, alone, flustered.

Edison invented the light bulb. However, without electricity delivered widely, safely and affordably the light bulb was of little value. A car without the internal combustion engine is a wagon. Similarly, Tesla’s perfection of AC was the tool that made the light bulb so valuable. Tesla’s success inadvertently affirmed Edison’s legacy.

Edison could sell. He was a genius at self-promotion. He could seek and obtain capital based on his reputation. He had charm and charisma. Edison created a legend for himself.

Tesla had none of these qualities. He made poor business choices. His reputation for being difficult closed many promising commercial doors. Tesla was dark and dour. English was his second language and he was never comfortable in a public format. His science has become obfuscated by his many futuristic predictions. Much of modern pseudo-science and today’s UFO acolytes rely on morsels of Tesla’s preaching.

The ability to commercialize inventions is the key difference between creative types and successful entrepreneurs. We all know people with vibrant imaginations and inventiveness. We all also know how few of these people succeed at successfully converting imagination into reality.

A successful entrepreneur needs a variety of skills and talents in order to cut through the din of our very competitive marketplace. Successful designers and engineers typically make great employees, unless they can communicate, sell, market and strategize. The inventor lacking in these skills has many other potential routes to success. Licensing, partnering and alliances are viable options.

Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Ray Kroc are stellar examples of what it takes to succeed. They are multi-talented, adaptable and visionary. Nikola Tesla was a genius, but in only one area. His science is invaluable. Today, the personal, business and historic legacy of Tesla is mostly forgotten. Every student learns about Thomas Edison. It took an afternoon at the movies to remind me fleetingly of Nikola Tesla’s important contributions.