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Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor, while not a household name, has been recognized by the scientific community many times over the years. The metric system unit for magnetic field strength, for example, is known as the tesla. Tesla made many contributions to various sciences over the years, including pioneering work in magnetic fields, induction motors, and electricity. In recent years, various communities on the Internet have sought to lionize Tesla’s life and to expand knowledge of his scientific achievements. This goal is a noble one, as Tesla’s life is frequently reduced to the position of footnote in science histories. But these communities have also engaged in a very wrong-headed pursuit: trashing the reputation of Thomas Edison.
The reason for Tesla’s latter-day advocates’ attacks on Edison is understandable: They see Edison as an opportunistic (even evil) businessman masquerading as a scientist who stole the ideas of other real scientists, particularly Tesla. Edison is singled out in particular because it is believed by Tesla’s fan club that he deliberately tried to destroy Tesla’s career and reputation, and whitewashed history to suit himself.
The Hero Tesla and the Villain Edison
The story Tesla’s fans tell is that he was a visionary who designed extraordinary machines and technology so far ahead of its time that we still have not completely caught up with some of his inventions. It is a story with a clear hero, Tesla, who embodies all the qualities of the enquiring mind. It also has a villain in the form of Edison, who opportunistically exploited Tesla and then tried to destroy his life and reputation for personal gain.
The most frequently cited example of this conflict is the case of the Current Wars, when the world was debating the relative merits of alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). Tesla’s supporters say Tesla invented AC, which was a superior and safer form of electrical transmission than DC. DC systems were refined by Edison’s laboratories and he made big financial bets on the success of DC. Tesla was ruined by a smear campaign orchestrated by Edison.
Another example was Tesla’s pioneering work in radar, which he tried to submit for military application during World War I (ie. one world war before the radar was actually used). Again Tesla was thwarted by the nearsightedness of the Naval Consulting Board, of which Edison was a member, which did not see the practical applications of Tesla’s invention and rejected it out of hand.
Yet another example of the conflict, was Tesla’s claim to have devised a way to broadcast unlimited free electric power through the air, removing the need for wires and rendering obsolete most of the world’s power companies. The application of this invention was only stopped by the machinations of business leaders, led by Tesla’s old nemesis Thomas Edison.
The Simple Truth
The main problem with all of these claims about Tesla is that they are all utter rubbish. The Current Wars were a brutal business affair, with reputations and fortunes bet on the outcome. Edison was protecting his investments and his business by playing rough in the marketing of his product. His opponents gave as good as they got, as his main rivals were other business interests. Indeed, Tesla was barely a minor player in the Current Wars and was barely on Edison’s radar throughout the conflict. Furthermore, Tesla did not even invent AC. He did some work to refine it, but it was not the product of his individual invention.
As for radar, Tesla’s supporters usually fail to mention that Tesla’s proposal to the Naval Consulting Board were simply conjecture. He did not have a working prototype (and he did not invent the radar), just an idea. Spit-balling to a military commission preoccupied with developing actual existent technologies was never going to be smiled upon. Even if he did have a prototype, the Board still would have rejected it because Tesla’s whole aim was to make it applicable to submarine warfare. Anyone with a basic grounding in how radar works will understand that such an idea is a complete nonstarter. The signals would be so disrupted by the water as to make them useless. The military did invest in developing sonar, which we still use today.
When it comes to Tesla’s Holy Grail, the promise of free and limitless energy, we again see that the scientist has no clothes. Did Tesla ever build a prototype? No. Did he ever show anyone his designs? No. Could anyone find his designs or notes on the subject after his death? No, because they supposedly burned up in a fire.
In all, Tesla was a good scientist and competent tinkerer. He might even be described as a visionary futurist. But as an inventor of world-shaking technologies decades ahead of his time, he comes up more than a little short.
Why All the Love and Hate?
It is strange, given all these facts that are readily obtained, that Tesla continues to hold a certain mystique with a large crowd on the Internet. The impact has been so great as to make Edison a virtual pariah online while Tesla is venerated to the point of deification.
One explanation is that people like to support the underdog and, when combined with a story of futuristic mad science, the promise of Tesla becomes irresistible. There is probably some truth in that. It is fashionable these days to reject the “mainstream history” in favor of the stories of the oppressed and disenfranchised. When Tesla can be portrayed as a visionary, and not just as a pretty good scientist, he can become a powerful symbol.
There is probably also some truth in the fact that people like simple narratives with clear good guys and bad guys. That is why, once people are primed with the idea that Tesla was a genius deprived of his rightful recognition by a grubby businessman like Edison, that they can turn on Edison as some sort of embodiment of all that is evil.
Why So Anti-Business?
Another, more worrying sentiment is also present in the vilification of Edison and lionization of Tesla, namely that of hatred of business. The criticisms of Edison often revolve around his not being a real inventor, but instead exploiting the minds of others for his own profit. Tesla is portrayed on the opposite hand as being out to serve the good of all through invention with only secondary thought toward remuneration.
But what’s so wrong with being a businessman? Edison brought together brilliant technicians, engineers, and inventors into a laboratory that produced many of the most important innovations of the 20th century. The light bulb is just one of many inventions that were the product of Edison’s visionary leadership. His greatest strength was making people’s inventions usable in a practical mass-market setting. Tesla was a tinkerer whose ideas rarely met the rigorous standards of practical applicability.
Few people live without doing things wrong. That is especially true for people who dare to do great things. There is no doubt that Edison stepped on a lot of toes and was a fearsome competitor in the business sphere. But there can also be no doubt that the weight of scientific and practical contributions he and his laboratories produced was amongst the most important in the 20th century.
The idea that capitalist ambitions, the desire to prosper and compete in the market, are somehow lesser to more airy pursuits is a poisonous one. America’s scientific achievement is the product of a free market, of ideas and works. Treating the profit motive like a villainous trait is what will spell the end of our scientific and technological advantages in the world.
By all means celebrate the achievements of Tesla. Just don’t pretend he was a super genius with godlike scientific powers. And please try to recognize the very real debt we all owe Thomas Edison for his vast achievements in both science and business.