Nikola Tesla

The Fighting, Founding Fathers of Electricity: Tesla vs. Edison

Power is what makes the world go round. But what many folks don’t know about the harnessing of electrical power is that one major inventor, engineer, and genius – Nikola Tesla – is often left out of the history books. Many of us only ever learn about Thomas Edison and the lightbulb he “invented” to brighten cities with electricity. But there’s so much more to this story, their inventions, and their competitive relationship that deserves to be told.

And since the name Tesla has become relevant once again – with the dawn of Tesla Motors entering the automobile market with its line of purely electric vehicles – let’s dive deeper into electricity’s dark history that went on to light up the world.

When the Student Shocked the Master

Born in 1856 in the former Austrian Empire (which we call Croatia in modern times), Nikola Tesla was a mind before its time, and perhaps one of mankind’s greatest. Though naturally inquisitive, he had a checkered academic career in Europe he took a job with Thomas Edison’s Continental Edison Company in Paris back in 1882. Tesla spent two years there designing and making improvements to electrical equipment until he was invited to work in Edison’s own lab in New York. Tesla’s supervisor had written him a recommendation that praised the young man as a genius on par with Edison himself.

By this time, Edison was already a well-known and well-established businessman. He even earned the nicknamed of “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” which is where, in New Jersey, he’d already built the very first industrial research lab ever back in 1876. With his famous “Invention Factory” and an expansive staff of scientists and engineers, Edison had already pioneered improvements to a variety of inventions, including the incandescent light bulb. He also helped to both popularize and mass produce them as well.

So, in 1885, when Edison haughtily offered Tesla the task of completely redesigning the Edison Company’s direct current generators for $50,000, he never expected Tesla to actually do it. And when, after months of tireless work, Tesla returned with a far superior version of Edison’s inefficient motors and asked for his payment, Edison replied that he was only joking. He retorted with, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” and took his designs. Edison then offered him a slight weekly raise, but Tesla refused the offer and resigned immediately.

A Battle of the High-Wired Brains and A War of Currents

Today, we mainly remember AC/DC as a hard rock band from the 1970s and 80s, But to these two engineers from 100 years earlier, AC and DC meant entirely different things. And yet, like the band’s music, their competition was filled with dirty deeds done dirt cheap and many money talks.

After their initial rift in 1885, Tesla and Edison would go on to compete against each other repeatedly in the arena of electrical engineering for the next 50 years. In the late 1880s, they battled over perhaps the most important technological development of the modern times – whose electrical system would power the world.

“Nikola Tesla was a mind before its time, and perhaps one of mankind’s greatest.”

Edison got his direct-current (DC) electric power system on the market the first, but it had its limitations. The DC system generated and distributed electrical power at the same voltage that customers’ lamps and motors used, which was great. But, this required the use of large, costly distribution wires and forced generating plants to be near the end-user. As a result, a city-wide DC system would have demanded a power plant every couple of blocks.

Tesla’s alternating-current (AC) system, however, had several technical advantages. With the development of a practical transformer, Tesla could now send AC power over long distances using relatively small wires at a conveniently high voltage. And his system could also convert this higher voltage to a lower voltage that customers could actually use to power their electronic devices in their homes. This meant that AC-generating stations could be larger, more efficient, more spaced out, and implemented more easily with distribution wires that were less expensive.

Knowing he was fighting a losing battle, Edison launched a smear campaign against Tesla and his AC power, claiming it was dangerous and could kill people. He even publicly demonstrated such a false danger by giving live demonstrations of him shocking stray dogs and cats to death. Unfortunately for Edison, the Westinghouse Corporation, which was now Tesla’s partner, was chosen to supply the lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago using Tesla’s AC power. And it was here that Tesla countered Edison’s claims by publicly subjecting himself to 250,000-volt shocks to demonstrate AC’s safety.

As a result, in 1895, Tesla designed what was among the first AC hydroelectric power plants in the United States, at Niagara Falls. The following year, Tesla’s AC system powered the entire city of Buffalo, New York, a feat that was highly publicized throughout the world. And so, with its repeat successes and favorable press, the AC system had won the War of Currents. It would go on to quickly become the preeminent power system of the 20th century, and it has remained the worldwide standard in electricity ever since.

However, while DC power is not generally used for the transmission of energy from power plants into homes as Edison and others intended, it is still common when distances are small. That’s because DC is easier for electrical devices to use directly. In fact, DC powers all modern electronic devices such as computers, telephones, etc., just with the aid of “wall wart” power supplies that convert the power coming in from the wall to the current these electronics need. 

Tesla the Inventor vs. Edison the Businessman

While Edison is often villainized in the retelling of electricity’s history – and, granted, he absolutely did rip off his rival Tesla – he was helpful when it came to inventing and improving some products that were key to the advancement of western technology. And the minds of both men were vital to the development and adoption of expansive, electric power systems.

Tesla was a brilliant workhorse. He had a photographic memory and could imagine and model entire, novel, working devices in his head. Tesla would go on to invent, predict, or contribute to the development of hundreds of technologies that still play large parts in our daily lives. These include the remote control, neon and fluorescent lights, the wireless transmission of power, computers, smartphones, laser beams, x-rays, robotics and, of course, alternating current, the basis of our present-day electrical system. But, this visionary “mad scientist” was also rather eccentric and a bit out-of-tune commercially. These traits, amongst other things, left him broke near the end of his life, despite all his immense genius.

Edison, on the other hand, was a much more astute businessman than Tesla, and he profited greatly from the ideas, work, and inventions of others. Edison himself was considered more of a sketcher and tinkerer who would only “invent” new things by means of much trial and error. And though many scientists improve upon the ideas and designs of their predecessors, Edison was notorious for relying on his a bit too heavily. Edison had also employed and surrounded himself with hundreds of brilliant workhorses in his various labs and companies – and he, or at least his company, often took credit for their patents.

But, he had become a power figure who focused on the marketing and financial success of his inventions. And, as a result, Edison left a profound impact on the nation’s energy sector. Beyond inventing an improved light bulb that was both practical and inexpensive, he devised a whole system of electric lighting. And we’ve improved upon these initial models to supply the nation with power to for more than 100 years.

So the next time you plug in your home electronics, flip on the TV, or check your email, remember all the genius inventors and wise businessmen who contributed to the creation of these devices and the generation of the electricity that powers them. Share their stories and honor their efforts so that we continue encouraging others to invent, as well as distributing their power for generations to come.

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