Nikola Tesla versus Thomas EdisonScience Technology 

Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison

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Coca Cola vs. Pepsi, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones – although these rivalries are well-known and consistently argued, there is one feud that perhaps trumps all of them. The longtime battle between two of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, was a decades-long bout of intelligence and ingenuity. But why couldn’t two of the greatest minds of the 20th century get along?

Nikola Tesla circa 1890
circa 1890; “A photograph image of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) at age 34” author Napoleon Sarony

There was a time when Tesla actually worked for Edison. After taking a job with the Continental Edison Company in 1882, Tesla received high praise from his supervisor – he eventually took a job in the United States with Edison after his work was praised as genius, and on par with Edison himself. Edison saw great potential in Tesla, but differences in their ideology were apparent from the advent of their professional relationship; Edison described Tesla’s work as “splendid, but utterly impractical.”

Edison’s work relied heavily on experimentation – many observers of his process described his laboratory as full of wires, tubes, coils, and droves of ideas sketched out on paper. On the contrary, Tesla had an eidetic memory – this gave him the ability to precisely recall images and objects. Although the two were not different in intelligence, they did have differing levels of education – Edison lacked a formal education, but Tesla had years of engineering training. This led the two to publically criticize each other’s work later in life.

Thomas Alva Edison Portrait
circa 1922; “Thomas Alva Edison, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front”. Photographic print. author Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke

Aside from their inventions, there were also differences in the way the men conducted themselves. Tesla was known as a charismatic, witty man with an impeccable sense of style, and Edison was known as an introvert who often wore shoes two sizes too big so he didn’t have to tie them.

Edison and Tesla’s biggest disagreement was over the use of an alternating current vs. a direct current system. Although Edison said Tesla’s system was impractical, an alternating current (AC) allowed for the flow of energy to periodically change direction – this made the transfer of large amounts of energy much easier. When power was less common, Edison’s direct current (DC) seemed like the right choice – after all, a one-mile radius from the power source may have been practical in the early 20th century. But as electricity became commonplace, the need for more power rose. This conflict between Edison and Tesla was ultimately coined the “War of Currents.”

Although the two fought for most of their careers, they are remembered today as visionaries. All in all, Edison holds 1,093 patents – Tesla holds around 300, and both men’s contributions to modern society are irreplaceable.

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