Saturday, June 4, 2016

Tesla Versus Edison

In the past months, I have written a series of Tesla Versus . . . posts. And now for the biggie:

Tesla Versus Edison.


I have avoided Tesla versus Edison, in part because the subject matter is huge. A hefty book could be written and several medium-sized books have been written about "The Current Wars" of the late 1880s and early 1890s.

In this entry, I will attempt to provide the major events in the history of the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, toss in a few well-known and some less-commonly cited anecdotes and offer my opinion on the subject.


Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He began inventing while working as a telegraph operator, creating automated telegraph devices. He later said that he had begun 18 hour work days from the age of twenty. In an interview at age 46, he described himself as 84 years old, having worked double the hours of others from the past 26 years. (Future Work of Edison. February 5, 1893 Omaha World-Herald, p. 5 - interestingly, he would die at 84.) Long hours were a key to his success, relentlessly tackling his creations with a blunt force and a well-staffed laboratory.

He considered his greatest creation to be the phonograph and he was probably correct in this. His patents for electric light-bulbs and many other inventions were incremental or moderate leaps forward. The phonograph was wholly original.

Nikola Tesla was born July 10, 1857 in what is now Croatia. He shared Edison's philosophy of long hours and little sleep. In nearly all other matters they were opposites. While Tesla dressed elegantly, spoke appreciatively of poetry and arts and became a toast of society, Edison slept in his clothes on a bench nearby his work, seeing no need for the pleasantries of life. Tesla imagined his inventions and strove to first perfect them in his mind. Edison had no patience for that, instead tinkering with them until something worked.

Tesla was an idealist. Edison was the ultimate pragmatist. Tesla made a poor businessman; Edison helped found General Electric (originally Edison General Electric) and one of the first motion picture companies (among many other endeavors).

The 1880s: Collaboration and Rivalry.

Nikola Tesla began working at the Société Electric Edison while in Paris in 1882, designing dynamos for Edison lighting systems (Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson, 2013, p. 64). Tesla's work there was appreciated but he could not gain support for creating his own dynamo.

Tesla received a letter of introduction to Edison from Tivadar Puskás, the man entrusted to introduce Edison's patents to Europe. He wrote: "I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man." (Carlson, p. 61)

Having been robbed on his way over, on June 6, 1884, Tesla arrived in New York penniless. When he passed immigration, a clerk told him: "Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!" (Carlson p. 69)

Tesla began his American career at Edison Machine Works. Within the month, Edison had patented an arc lighting system based mainly on Tesla's work. Tesla described his time there in his autobiography:

For nearly a year my regular hours were from 10:30 A.M. until 5 o'clock the next morning without a day's exception. Edison said to me, "I have had many hard working assistants, but you take the cake." During this period I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and uniform pattern, which replaced the old ones. The Manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars on the completion of this task, but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock and I resigned my position. (My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla and Ben Johnston. 1919)

After Tesla quit, he spent 1885 working for a company redesigning arc light systems. For his efforts, he was left with worthless stock. In the coming winter of 1885/1886, he dug ditches.

In 1886, the foreman of the ditch diggers introduced him to two men who would become sponsors for his ideas to create alternating current generators: Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. In 1887, the Tesla Electric Company was formed and over the coming year two of his greatest patents were completed: the A/C generator and the A/C motor.

While both were revolutionary, this contemporary description of the A/C motor describes the wonderment:

D.J. Cable, a well-known electrician of this city, examine the completed motor. He was very much pleased, and in speaking of it to a reporter, said: "Mr. Tesla deserves credit for all he has accomplished. He has worked out what no other man has before him, and has produced in fact a motor which some eminent electricians claimed was impractical and beyond reason. ...

"Its simplicity and cheapness are remarkable. Any number of them with great capacity to do work can be attached to an electric light line, if the dynamos are large enough. With two simple wires connecting the motor with the wire that supplies a common electric light, a manufacturer will have power enough to run his machinery, and the steam engine he uses now can be relegated to back to obscurity. It is a great saving of time, labor and money." (A New Motor. San Francisco Chronicle, August 23, 1888)

Tesla's A/C system was better than the system of DC generators and batteries Edison's company put forward. George Westinghouse took note. Westinghouse bought out Tesla and his inventions at a high price. A contemporary report summed up the consolidations and oncoming rivalry:

The Westinghouse company was incorporated in 1886 and absorbed the Tesla Motor company, the Waterhouse Electric Company and leased the Sawyer & Man company, which owned the fundamental patents on incandescent lights.

"As matters now stand," continued Mr. Curtis [lawyer for Westinghouse], "there are only two great companies face to face in this country now. These are the Westinghouse and the Edison." (Absorbed by Westinghouse. February 12, 1889. New York Herald, p. 11)

Edison saw Tesla's system as dangerous and impractical and "not worth the attention of practical men." (Carlson p. 90)

On April 24, 1889, Edison's several companies merged through the financing of Anthony J. Drexel and J.P. Morgan to form Edison General Electric.

Even as the mergers were finalized, the electric current wars were underway.

The Electric Current Wars.

In retrospect, powering a major city by batteries seems ludicrous. Even then, it was impractical, but Edison had invested a lot of money in this scheme.

Edison undertook a variety of underhanded means to persuade the public that direct current was the only reasonable and safe way to go. He lobbied state legislators and regulatory agencies asking to ban or limit A/C. He sponsored public electrocutions of animals. He helped promote the electric chair as a means of executing criminals emphasizing its lethality while claiming that it was pain-free.

On June 5, 1888, Harold J. Brown, a freelance electrical engineer of no great renown, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Post warning of the great dangers of alternating current. He quickly became Edison's surrogate electrocutionist. Although Brown claimed his crusade "represented no company and no financial interest," Edison made available to Brown a work-space in his laboratory and provided the services of Arthur Kennelly, Edison's chief electrician, for Brown's demonstrations. (the quotes and story in this section are from Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World. Jill Jonnes, 2003.)

Brown declared he would prove the dangers of alternating current and sent out engraved invitations to a presentation at the Columbia College, School of Mines, for the evening of July 30, 1888. This "proof" came in the form of electrocuting a dog, first with several levels of DC in which the dog writhed in agony, then by AC which killed off the dog. The audience was horrified: not by the fearsome power of AC, but by the cruelty of the demonstrator. Some walked out. A reporter stood up and called out his objection to the torture. Brown declared the demonstration a success and said "the only places where an alternating current ought to be used were the dog pound, the slaughter house, and the state prison."

Four days later, Brown repeated the demonstration, this time with three dogs. One of them took four minutes of electric shock to die.

Then Edison and Brown upped the ante. They decided to execute large animals to establish that alternating current was the most efficient means of electrocuting humans to carry out executions.

On December 5, 1888, Brown rigged an electrocution pen at the Edison research complex in West Orange, New Jersey. Along with representatives of the New York State Death Commission and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Edison himself attended. They executed two calves and a full-grown horse. Brown was soon hired to construct an electric chair.
A Victim of the Current Wars

The first criminal set to be executed by electricity was the murderer Harry Kemmler. The novel means of his execution became a basis for appeals and Edison testified in court as to the instantaneous and painless nature of electrocution, while also providing lurid descriptions of what alternating current could do to a human (and at the same time making it clear he didn't know what he was talking about). He said that several thousand horsepower would be sufficient to carbonize a man. "His temperature would rise 3 or 4 degrees above the normal and after a while he'd be mummified. . . . The heat would evaporate all the fluids in his body and he'd be mummyized."

On August 6, 1890, Kemmler was executed in what proved to be a horrifying mess, with the victim being pronounced dead then found alive. The current was turned on a second time trying to instill death. All in all, it took eight minutes. Westinghouse commented. "They could have done it better with an axe."

What ultimately doomed the Edison side is that their system was more prone to fires, it was more expensive and less generally useful. It could not transport electricity for anything but short distances.

In February of 1892, the Edison General Electric company merged with Thomson-Houston Electric and the Thomson-Houston management took over. Edison's name was dropped from the company, now becoming General Electric. J.P. Morgan financed this takeover, not bothering to notify Edison that he was about to be removed. Morgan had screwed Edison the way he would later become a nemesis of Tesla.

Edison spent much of the rest of the 1890s working on his most futile long-term venture: mining iron ore in New Jersey.

The New Edison.

By the mid-1890s the current wars had ended. Tesla who had spent the winter of 1886 digging ditches had defeated the most prominent inventor of his generation (and perhaps the most prominent American). Tesla was the toast of the town, indeed, the toast of the nation.

A new Edison has appeared in the person Nikola Tesla, who has come to the United States from Servia to work still greater revolutions in the wonderful application of electricity. (A New Edison. March 21, 1894 Tacoma Daily News, p. 2)

Beyond the Current Wars.

Although Edison did not write an autobiography, his official biography came at age 60. In it, Tesla was only mentioned in passing, first in a pair of anecdotes, one mentioning how hard Tesla worked and one mentioning how much Tesla ate at a meal. Tesla was also mentioned  in the recounting of play that parodied Edison and Tesla and how they might approach the Spanish-American war.

 From: Clank—Clank, the Cranks are Clanking.

"Mr. Edison (proudly): 'It is done! I have filled these lobsters so full of electricity that they buzz when they move. When the Spanish warships come in sight I will turn 'em loose in the bay, and then you'll see what you will see. These lobsters will establish a current with a line of electric eels that I have stationed at Sandy Hook, and the haughty hidalgos will get a shock that will make 'em look like twenty-nine cents marked down from forty.'

"The Crowd: 'Hooray! Cuba libre!'

"Mr. Tesla (interrupting the demonstration): 'That scheme won't do at all. Now, I have a fan here that is charged with four billion volts of Franklin's best brand of bottled lightning, and when this fan gets fanning the results are astounding. Not ten minutes ago I fanned a fly from off Emperor William's nose, and fluted the whiskers of the King of Siam. Now, when the Spaniards come up the bay I'll just climb a tree and pour a broadside of vibrations at 'em. Say, I'll fan 'em off the earth in not more than a minute and a half.' (As related in: Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty years of an inventor's life. By Francis Arthur Jones, 1907. p; 366-7.)

As has been noted in another post, a false report came out that Tesla and Edison were to share the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics;

In 1916, Tesla became the seventh recipient of the Edison Medal, given out by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Cognizant of their long-term rivalry, at first Tesla was reluctant to accept the award. He acceded.

In his speech he contrasted his method of inventing with that of Edison and praised Edison for his single-mindedness.

I could do it all in my mind, and I did.  In this way I have unconsciously evolved what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is exactly opposite to the purely experimental of which undoubtedly Edison is the greatest and most successful exponent. ...

[Of their first meeting:] I met Edison, and the effect he produced upon me was extraordinary.  When I saw this wonderful man, who had had no theoretical training at all, no advantages, who did all himself, getting great results by virtue of his industry and application, I felt mortified that I had squandered my life.  I had studied a dozen languages, delved in literature and art and had spent my best years in ruminating through libraries and reading all sorts of stuff that fell into my hands.  I thought to myself, what a terrible thing it was to have wasted my life in those useless efforts. (Excerpted from Nikola Tesla acceptance speech at the ceremony for the 1916 Edison award, May 18, 1917 as presented on the website, Twenty-First Century books)

Edison did not attend the ceremony.

In the 20s and 30s, having lived through the time of the devastation of the First World War, Edison and Tesla both considered what must be done to prevent another.

 "We should experiment with the most deadly gases and the biggest guns," he [Edison] said. "Not that we will ever make use of them, but so that we may be prepared in case some other nation, through rascality, should attack us. I want all nations to be prepared so that it will be so terrible that game is up."

(Edison, at 75, Says 15 More Birthdays Are Coming to Him. February 12, 1922. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 12.)

Keep the nations of the world from obtaining money to prepare for "the next war." If this is done–and America has the power to do it–President Harding will succeed in the conference he has called for limitation of armament.

In that manner the situation was summed up today by Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford and H.S. Firestone as they sat on the shady bank of a rippling West Virginia mountain brook, munched sandwiches, frizzled bacon and talked about disarmament, prosperity and golf.  (Advise Poverty As Only War Remedy. August 2, 1921. Salt Lake Telegram, p 20)

Tesla, in contrast, came to believe that defensive means were the only way to end war.

I inherited from my father, an erudite man who labored hard for peace, an ineradicable hatred of war. Like other inventors, I believed at one time that war could he stopped by making it more destructive. But I found that I was mistaken. I underestimated man's combative instinct, which it will take more than a century to breed out. We cannot abolish war by outlawing it. We cannot end it by disarming the strong. War can be stopped, not by making the strong weak but by making every nation, weak or strong, able to defend itself. (A Machine to End War. Liberty, February 1937 by Nikola Tesla as told to George Sylvester Viereck.)

End Note.

As I said at the beginning, this conflict could make up a very long book and some good ones have been written with parts of the tale. Many take Tesla's side as the battered idealist. Many see Edison as the evil opposite of Tesla.

I believe such a point of view is simplistic: Tesla was not a saint. Edison, however, did show himself in their battles to be petty. Between the two and considering their contributions to the modern age, I favor Tesla.

Other popular links which take Tesla or Edison's side:

Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek ever.
The response in Forbes:
Nikola Tesla wasn't God and Thomas Edison wasn't the devil.
and, for those interested:
The Tesla Vs. Edison Board Game.

Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.


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