Tesla vs. Edison vs. The Myth of the Lone Inventor

We're going about this feud all wrong says Matt Novak, who blogs about techno-history at Paleofuture. "The question is not: Who was a better inventor, Edison or Tesla? The question is: Why do we still frame the debate in this way?" Novak asked in a talk yesterday at SXSW. He's got a damn fine point. The myth of one guy who has one great idea and changes the world drastically distorts the process of innovation. Neither Tesla nor Edison invented the light bulb. Instead, the light bulb was the result of 80 years of tinkering and failure by many different people. Novak's point (and one I tend to agree with): When we buy into the myth, it gets in the way of innovation today. I've only been able to find a couple of small bits from this talk — a write-up by Matthew Van Dusen at Txchnologist and a short video from the Q&A portion where Novak talks about Tesla, Edison, and the Great Man Myth with The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman. But, rest assured, this is something you'll see more of at BoingBoing soon.


  1. I’ve never heard a debate as to whether Tesla or Edison invented the light bulb.  In fact, I never remember anyone claiming that Tesla had anything to do with the light bulb.  I thought the whole debate came from the AC vs. DC battle.

  2. Tesla invented the fluorescent lamp, even made himself a glowing cane to walk around with. But in reality few people invent things out of the ether.

    1. Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel was the first to come up with the idea of placing fluorescent material on the inside of a high voltage gas discharge tube.Tesla was simply the first to do it.

  3. @twitter-14758089:disqus I’ve not heard Tesla credited with the light bulb either, but I have heard Edison.  In truth, Edison was just one of a large number of inventors at that time who were involved in the invention, design, and improvement of electric lighting technologies.  Giving Edison sole credit (which is typically done) shortchanges the efforts and influence of a bunch of people.

    Similarly, many people were working on AC at around the same time Tesla was, including some known to have influenced Tesla.  Giving Tesla sole credit (which is typically done) shortchanges the efforts and influence of a bunch of people as well.

    The “Great Man” myth is the idea that inventions and other discoveries come whole-cloth from some sole genius, rather than the product of a large number of people influencing each other.  Other “great men” include Newton, Einstein, the Wright Brothers, etc, none of whom were working in a vacuum (see the Liebnitz/Newton calculus priority wars, look at the relative timing of the works of Lorenz, Fitzgerald, and Einstein, and count the number of powered flight experimenters around 1900).  This is not to say that Newton, Einstein, the Wright Brothers, Edison, and Tesla didn’t make great contributions, nor that they don’t deserve their fame, but rather that they weren’t the solo geniuses myth would have them be.

    1. Oh sure, but would you expect our grade-schoolers to memorize the names of all the committee members?  Or conversely, would you expect adults to learn anything beyond the grade-school level?

  4. Somewhat off topic, I’ve never been able to work out why Charles Proteus Steinmetz has never reached Tesla levels of pop culture appeal. Dude was 4’3″, a communist, kept alligators as pets, and freaking tamed lightning. He should have all the memes.

    1. Steinmetz had a rep of wearing the same suit and never bathing.  At a company party, a matron accosted Steinmetz with:  “Sir, you SMELL!”

      Steinmetz replied:  “No, madam, you smell.    I stink.”

      The $4,000 hammer blow story is supposedly about Steinmetz.   During his retirement, GE was having major troubles with some extremely important piece of Steinmetz-designed equipment.  After much pleading, Steinmetz finally agreed to come in and take a look  …for a $4,000 consulting fee.  GE bit the bullet and agreed.  He of course gave it a solid whack, and it started working again.  GE accountants then objected to the agreed-upon $4,000.   Steinmetz re-submitted his bill as:  $1 to hit the device with a hammer, $3999 for knowing where to hit it.

  5. I’m confused… if innovation isn’t the result of hard work by a few exceptional individuals then why is it that the world’s wealth is concentrated that way?

      1. Nonsense, wealth is almost always the result of hard work. Just not the work of the person who controls said wealth.

  6. A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks  by Clifford Conner does a nice job of opening up not only the great man myth, but the myth of “work with the mind” versus “work with the hands.”

  7. Very interesting article!

    Buddha Buck, you make outstanding points about no one working in a vacuum and the Tesla/AC and Edison/lightbulb distinction, (which continues in public memory today).
    To your first point; I agree with you as science is based on stepwise improvements that can be interdisciplinary. To the second point; I think the primary argument that rages onwards is more about the personalities of the two, and their individual contribution to electricity/energy/science and the credit they either do or don’t receive for it today…

  8. The man we should be celebrating is Westinghouse. At least according to this documentary he was a great man (http://www.amazon.com/Westinghouse/dp/B004SB1D62/ )

    Not only was Westinghouse a great inventor but unlike Edison he was actually a super nice guy. Westinghouse  et employees have their own names on patents unlike Edison who claimed the patents of all those who worked under him. Westinghouse was one of the first big company owners to give his employees extra time off. One of the first to give his employees insurance. And many many other things.

    I’m not a scholar on Westinghouse so I’m taking that documentary’s word for it but after watching it it seems like the world would be a far better place with Westinghouse has a role model rather than Edison 

    Seriously, watch it. You’ll come away wishing all company founders / presidents were like Westinghouse.

      1. Wow, you read that completely different than me. (or maybe I’m reading negativity in your comment that’s not there).

        From the article:
        “Westinghouse called on the inventor, pleading for an escape from the initial contract that gave Tesla generous royalties. In a magnanimous and history-making gesture, Tesla said he tore up the contract. He was, after all, grateful to the one man who had believed in his invention.”  

        Sounds to me like they were friends, Tesla liked Westinghouse.

        By the way, like it mentions in that article and also in the documentary, the banks, through methods that are now illegal, took control of the Westinghouse Electric Company away from Westinghouse. They did the same to Edison.

  9. This is like the nature vs nurture debate. For a long time we emphasized the individual inventor and now in the Wikipedia era it’s all the rage to say the individual isn’t important. Of course both perspectives are correct.

    My favourite Tesla story is at the end of the 19th century, when he demonstrated his remote control boat and told onlookers that in the future we would all just be pushing buttons. Something so far ahead of his time that the audience couldn’t even really understand what he was talking about. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tesla_boat.jpg

    I don’t believe aliens are amongst us pulling the strings of technological evolution… but if they were, Tesla would be at the top of my suspicion list.

  10. Veteran watchers of science and technology have long known about the myth of the lone inventor. It’s pop culture that doesn’t. I think this came about in the early days of science when you did indeed have mostly gentleman scientists experimenting on their own. Now it’s hard for any discoveries to be attributed to any unit smaller than a team. And they all know they are building on the work of others.

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