Tesla vs. Edison vs. The Great Men of History

Matt Novak (aka Paleofuture) is a historian and blogger who writes about the history of innovation and the history of the way we imagine the future. A couple of weeks ago, at South by Southwest, he gave a fascinating presentation that I wanted you guys to hear more about.

The basic thesis: Tesla vs. Edison — UR DOIN IT WRONG.

Whether you think Tesla > Edison or Edison > Tesla, Novak says you're missing something important. In reality, technology isn't shaped by one guy who had one great idea and changed the world. Instead, it's a messy process, full of flat-out failures and not-quite-successes, and populated by many great minds who build off of and are inspired by each other's work. This is about more than just getting history right. Letting go of The Great Man paradigm has implications for everything from copyright law, to how we go about innovation today. When we focus too much on Great Men, Novak says, we lose sight of what innovation actually looks like ... and we impede our ability to build the future.

You can listen to my interview with Matt Novak here, or download it at Soundcloud.

Image: Atomic Zeppelin, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from puuikibeach's photostream


  1. I live near Edison’s old West Orange laboratory in New Jersey (which is now a federal park), and it’s similarly illuminating about how Edison ran the place but still had hired on some of the smartest and hard-working people around. I’ve heard comparisons about how Tesla was a superior engineer, but Edison had so many engineers working for him that I doubt it was a substantial difference in real terms.

    Personally, I find it interesting that both parties were heavily bankrolled by what would soon be deemed monopolies, and subsequently broken up. The insane level of R&D investment created a lot of new technologies, and the breakup of monopolies coupled with the shorter term on patents versus copyright led to a lot of public good.

  2. The real question here is who was greater – the band Tesla or the Edison Electric band :) Thanks for the sounds. Here are some more http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-MxU3PKvqM Enjoy! 

  3. That’s great, but Tesla was still an intuitive genius who made countless advancements in all kinds of fields, caring only about the advancement of science to the detriment of his own health and relationships. A GREAT MAN who did good in the world and hardly asked anything in return.

    Meanwhile, Edison was a fairly good salesman, excelled at coercion and had a remarkable talent for lying and thievery. He happily tortured-to-death people and animals, all for a sake of making a buck, and at best, can be said to have not fucked up the world he lived in too much, despite his best efforts.

    1. Let’s not go crazy now….

      Tesla *was* right about AC and Edison *was* an asshole about sticking up for DC, but it’s revisionism of the silliest kind to pretend that Edison didn’t develop all kinds of useful applications of his own. Neither Tesla nor Edison was much of a scientist, anyway; neither had much use for theory, and this led both of them astray, to waste many years and large amounts of money on silly useless activity like the laxative-vibrator plate Tesla demonstrated for Samuel Clemens. At least Edison didn’t actually go insane. Scoring the face of the Moon? Zero-loss broadcast power through the Earth’s magnetic field? Give me a break.

      Of the dozens of other far superior scientists during that period, why does only Tesla generate this kind of fervor? Why isn’t there a sub-sub-genre of Maxwell tensorpunk sci-fi, or Heisenberg/Bohr quantum slash fiction? Is it all down to the fake death-ray?

      1.  While I admit that the hype surrounding Tesla usually revolves around stoners talking about perpetual motion between bong hits, the fact is that Tesla had crazy dreams that he wanted to turn into reality, and he worked every day to make them come true. Edison had crazy dreams of making money off of other people’s ideas. There’s a difference between collaboration and annexation.

        Planck, Heisenberg and Bohr ARE famous to the people who actually care about the subject. Their names occupy a place in serious discussions about science all over the world, all the time.

        Edison is famous because he sold his own “great man” image like Billy Mays could sell a ketchup popsicle. Tesla is famous because of his fantastic visions, the mystery generated by fans and the fact that the sad story of him losing his mind (which has a little bit to do with Edison, quite frankly) inspires sympathy from like-minded dreamers.

        1. Please read up on the facts about Tesla.  I think his contributions were invaluable.  But the guy wasn’t some endlessly beneficent wonder-scientist who had the hopes and dreams of humanity in his heart.  First and foremost the guy was an engineer and he actually wanted to “engineer” human society as well. He believed in order and force to rule the “less civilized” I suggest reading this link to get a more nuanced version of him instead of the hagiography that tends to spring up whenever he is mentioned. http://teslapress.com/tesla_what_he_is.html

          1.  Psshhh… EVERYBODY was into eugenics at that time. Alaxander Graham Bell was the president of the Second International Eugenics Conference. Shit, most decent people today are still a little prejudice in one way or another.

            The point is that comparing Tesla and Edison is like comparing apples to narcissistic, cruel, overblown (by orders of magnitude) rotten oranges who try to take all the credit for everyone else’s work.

            And the point of the whole interview above was that advancements in science come from long lines of collaboration and minor steps forward. Tesla would’ve happily admitted that. Edison would probably have tried to have you killed for suggesting it.

    2. It’s kinda trippy how much I imagine the same relative descriptions as applying to Wozniak (Tesla) and Jobs (Edison).

  4. I have no complaints about Tesla, but Edison was not a great man. 
    He did horribly evil things to animals in his attempts to secure a business empire for himself, selling electricity. He engaged in elaborate demonstrations just to con the public with disinformation about his competitors and staged public electrocutions of animals, even elephants, to do so. He was a grasping, cruel and selfish man. He may have achieved some feats of invention and he may have helped advance some branches of science, but his astonishing lack of character and his wanton deeds have stripped whatever respect I may once have naively held for him only because I had been taught, as a child, to do so. But the man does not deserve his myth.All that he achieved would have inevitably been accomplished by others, had he never existed. I don’t doubt that we could have been better off without him and the progress of science and discovery would not have paused nor suffered.

  5. Oh, also…is it just me or does this page looks like it’s from McSweeny’s rather than Boing Boing?

  6. I tend to agree that it’s a false dichotomy. Well, Edison was pretty much a scumbag. He clearly appropriated ideas more than actually coming up with them, and certain of his experiments were tantamount  to war crimes. Tesla on the other hand not only was batshit insane, as many great people are, but he was also not nearly as good a scientist in reality  as he was an engineer. For instance, his statements rejecting the theories of relativity reveal that he seemingly didn’t understand a word of them (the word “space,” especially). And of course his most mythologized experiments like the deathray and power transmission, which “really worked, only nobody saw it and he didn’t write down how he did it,” are at best the equivalent of cold fusion.

    Not to say that Edison wasn’t objectively a much bigger asshole in terms of his behavior, but the good guy vs. bad guy conspiracy theory of “how the modern world was invented” that people like Matt Inman love so much are more entertainment than reality. To put it another way, there’s no doubt that Edison was morally inferior; a murderer at least of animals, maybe people. But the ideas that he presented (or stole, as it may be) were all scientifically sound and reproducible, which can’t quite be said of Tesla.

    1. The notion that killing an elephant to demonstrate the danger of AC current would be morally wrong wouldn’t have occurred to anyone at the time. If Edison secretly believed AC was better and was doing the electrocution demo just to be spiteful, that would certainly have been rather nasty; but I think he really thought DC was better. He was being vindictive because he thought one of his employees was betraying him, which was not very nice, but that’s somewhat beside the point.  Remember this was the period in which naturalists killed animals indiscriminately for study, and in which vast slaughter took place across the country of any wild animal that might conceivably have any value. I doubt anyone much cared about one elephant either way.
      So I reject the idea that Edison was a bad guy merely because he killed an animal in a demonstration. There are other more legitimate examples of him being an asshole, but some of these posts suggest he was an outright criminal. 

      Also, “appropriating” inventions made by engineers under contract to your company is standard practice, universal through all of the tech world in the present day. You write up your invention disclosure, the lawyer puts it through as a patent application, and the rights are assigned to the company. Admittedly, having the CEO claim he invented the thing himself is a bit much, but it’s not like Edison’s inventions were stolen, and of course he did invent many things on his own, and presumably collaborated after the initial concept on many of the others. Not giving proper credit is a moral failing, sure, but it’s different from theft.

      1. Not “an” animal. According to the Oatmeal story, he paid to have local pets kidnapped for the electrocutions, not just the elephant. I can’t say whether this is true, but it would have made him a criminal under the current law. As for the law then, it wouldn’t have made him any less of a thug if other thugs excused it. (But again, the source is Inman, so I can’t be sure.)

        It’s also not hard to say that Tesla’s way of sharing his own work freely (as he did with Marconi) is rather more impressive than the mere legality of Edison’s standard practices. But neither one of those things was my point. My point was somewhere in there after the first two sentences.

        1. Yeah, I just picked your comment as the point to insert mine, not that you were over the top. Nothing personal :)

          1.  Interesting way of avoiding saying, “yeah that’s right, I guess he WAS an asshole, even for the time.”

            But I like how you pointed out another reason he was a bad inventor.

    1.  Why then did Westinghouse screw over Tesla over patent rights. Esp when Tesla had worked for him without pay when he was on the verge of bankruptcy. I am sorry but I disagree with the Supreme court, I believe that your ideas and inventions should belong to you not your employer.

      1. When did Westinghouse screw Tesla over patent rights? As far as I know Westinghouse risked his entire company on Tesla and end up losing it to JP Morgan

  7. I get the point, and actually listened to the interview (which some clearly didn’t do) and I saw your comment re: the BB commenters on Twitter, Maggie.

    If you frame this question around Tesla and Edison, of course you’re going to get people repeating the standard Tesla and Edison arguments :) 

    There’s a fundamental difference between Tesla and Edison that actually plays in perfectly here to the point Novak is trying to make that helps punctuate the divide between Tesla and Edison fans quite well (and some of the previous commenters have covered it already). Something that makes Tesla v. Edison the wrong – and misleading – example to use, however.

    Edison is the premier example of Novak’s point. He took enormous amounts of personal credit not only for things that his employees did, but for the previous work of inventors and scientists (and writers of fiction, as Novak mentions) over the previous decades, without which Edison could have barely done anything. The next-best-known example is Steve Jobs. Both were great men, but are far from solely responsible for their innovations, which is the whole point.

    If it were left at that, it’s an excellent point. Tesla is a completely different matter, though of course Edison’s rivalry with him does place Edison in a very negative light.

    Tesla was a dreamer who didn’t seek fame and fortune. Were all of his ideas perfectly original? Of course not – he built on earlier work, just as Edison did. But we like his ideas because they were way ahead of their time, and yet given Tesla’s talents they were plausible (some of his more outlandish ideas notwithstanding, but again – he was doing things just to see what was possible, not for personal gain). As Novak notes, most of Tesla’s lasting contributions would have been made by others had Tesla not done it first, same as with Edison, but with Tesla that isn’t the point.

    Tesla should have been a research scientist with support of a university, where people would have been supporting him in the right ways and, crucially, limiting him in the right ways as well. Edison would not really have been compatible in that role. Academic scientists are in many ways more noble (and Nobel, heh), and thus easier to idolize, and again it comes down to selflessness. Which is not to say that Tesla wasn’t a showman and an exaggerator in order to secure funds, because he was.

    In the right academic setting though, with relatively steady financial backing regardless of how flashy his projects were, Tesla would have been Nobel Prize material and would be at the mindshare level of Heisenberg and Bohr today instead of his problematic god-like status. I don’t know that he would have done all of the biggest things he’s famous for if that were the case, but I think the number of real, lasting innovations he came up with would be far higher, and the aspect of over-attribution would be less of an issue. Edison would certainly be able to convince the world that he was Nobel Prize material, but he wasn’t. And yes, I do know the 1915 Nobel Prize rumors. 

    Tesla is popular because he was a noble man of science who also had some crazy and wonderful ideas. That also describes modern scientist-geeks (including myself, ahem) – Tesla’s biggest fans. He’s flawed, of course, but with many qualities worth looking up to. Kind of like Sherlock Holmes, Hemingway, and countless other heroes of real life and fiction that people look up to. Once you know the truth about Edison – and Steve Jobs – it’s not clear they really fit that bill.

    1. Tesla should have had plenty of corporate funding and his own private lab as a sort of principal-engineer/lab-director. He shouldn’t have been at a university because he wasn’t really a scientist, and he wouldn’t have been able to cope with those who were. Remember Maxwell did his work well before Tesla, and I’m pretty sure Tesla couldn’t hack that level of math.

      1. Yeah, this is the thing I think people usually misconceive about Tesla (especially those that are talking between bong hits). For all his vision, high-level physics were not his strong suit.

    2. On reflection, I think that Tesla and Edison are somewhat apples and oranges because what they did was fundamentally different. Tesla, for instance, invented the iPhone sometime during the 1920’s. Conceptually, that is. He didn’t have any of the technology to make it work, but he came up with an idea for a device to do those things, based on analog radio, cathode ray tubes, and such — again, not that such performance was possible for those things at the time. But without knowing the solution, he had a vision of what might be possible and he wanted to achieve it because that was the kind of thing he did.

      Edison on the other hand was a marketer; his “prime directive” was to get technology and capitalize on it. And while I am less disposed to be impressed or sympathetic with the kind of things marketers do, I realize that Edison’s actions also made the technology available to other people who would do things with it, and therefore he made a contribution. Even though somebody else could have done it, he did, and that should probably be acknowledged.

      1.  Problem is we (as a society) celebrate Edison. Then again we give *&^%% about Tesla. If anyone should be forgotten this should be Edison and if anyone should be remembered- this is Tesla.This conflict reflects how screwed up our priorities are.

  8. basically Matt’s argument is the entire basis of the series “connections” with James Burke.  which minus the threat of global nuclear meltdown is still to this day one of my favorite science series.  is it 100% accurate NO but it shows the interaction that leads to the true path forward and no one man or idea is really responsible.  the way forward is to take all the little pieces and get them to fit together into a greater whole that ends up significantly changing things.  

    perpetual copyrights and long patents lengths don’t allow for this natural process.  we are what we are because we learn from one another and each person , generation takes it one step further than the last.  without the ability to add to the innovation of someone before we’d still be wandering the plains of Africa  opportunistically eating whatever we could.    

  9. Tesla developed a ray gun (that looks like it should work)…that makes him better than Edison any day.

    1. The warp engine of the Starship Enterprise looks like it should work. Tesla’s best friend was an imaginary pigeon. 

          1. There were several real pigeons, but the one who always appeared when he thought about it? Pretty simple explanation for that one.

  10. Am i missing some obvious button, or do i have to have an account at Soundcloud to download this?!

  11. late to the party here, but I was at Novak’s talk at SX and it was fantastic. It became even more entertaining when Matthew Inman (of The Oatmeal) showed up as the first person to ask a question during the QA. You could tell Novak was nervous, probably considering Inman’s history of going rather nuclear on critics, but it turned out to be a pretty friendly and substantive little post-talk debate. (There’s a video out there of part of the Q&A, but not sure where it is now.) Novak really knows his stuff and makes a really good point not just about the importance of the proper context for understanding this history but also about the implications our understanding of the inventive process can have on innovation/invention in the future. Awesome stuff, thanks for posting this!

  12. I’d personally far prefer the phrase “Great people of history” or “great names of history”.

    But I won’t grumble too much about “Men”: it’s the truth that it was much harder to become “great” for women, so there are far fewer of them.

    But still – there ARE great names of history to conjure with, across all disciplines: we computer geeks get Blaise Pascal, Ada Lovelace, Anita Borg, Grace Hopper… physicists get Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Marie Curie, and so on. Whatever the topic, there are female names there too: Margaret Thatcher, Sally Ride, Mother Theresa, Susan B Anthony, Sacagawea, Pocohontas, Joan of Arc, Beatrix Potter, Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Queen [anything here really], the Bronte sisters, Helen Keller…
    all these names and more should be just as common on the tongues of history teachers as names like Edison, Shakespeare, Armstrong and Darwin.

      1. Seriously? All these years I thought… well, dang!

        (I am happy to discover that I am considerably more surprised by this, than I was by the “I fucking love science” lady. Yay! I might not be a giant douche after all! Much, anyway.)

      1.  Oh sure, there are TONS I missed out! :D I tried to give a light cross-section across a range of topics, but yeah – there are zillions of historical “names to conjure with” that are women :)

    1.  Thatcher? Come on.
      BTW, you will see noone (including yourself) mentions any Eastern world scientists.

      1.  Good call – there’s a really strong regional bias in the history we’re taught. I’d love to learn more about the scientists from elsewhere.

        1.  Ancient China, Persia and Egypt are a good place to start with.
          Some breakthrough work in cell and molecular biology comes from Japan and Korea.
          Then we have Hungarian mathematicians (Lánczos for example), bunch of excellent Russians (Mechnikov, Mendeleev, Tsiolkovsky, Lomonosov,  etc.), oh and one Serb- Nicola Tesla ;-).
          Of course this page is too short so I will leave it at that.

  13. So I guess “download it at Soundcloud” means I have to listen to it sitting in front of my computer. Sorry, if I can’t download it and add it to the queue on my ipod it’s not gonna happen. Too bad…

  14. Edison may have invented some stuff, but he behaved like an old-timey patent troll and (as others have alluded to) electrocuted animals to demonstrate how awesome DC is (yeah… ?)

    If you need any convincing of how much of a dickwad Edison was, listen to this episode of Tank Riot on Tesla.

    Or for the insta-hate version you can just watch this video of him electrocuting Topsy the elephant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RnHXSL5jW-c

    Seriously… That guy could’ve done with a dose of DC himself.

  15. I’ve got an impression the participants were equating works of art (i.e., creations) with scientific inventions (i.e, discoveries). I don’t believe they are the same, or even similar in nature. In other words, an unfinished painting (a novel, a music piece, etc. – try copying Mozart or Dostoevsky) can’t be finished by someone else; whereas an unfinished scientific invention, well, can be successfully completed by someone else later.

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