To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.—Thomas A. Edison
My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get a new idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination, and make improvements and operate the device in my mind.—Nikola Tesla
WE INHABIT an era which does not tolerate ambiguity, one disposed to regard progress in terms of absolutes, a universe of black and white. We seek the example of leaders who show us innovative, creative, success-giving conduct in what we believe to be a concrete environment. But stop for a moment to reconsider two scientiﬁc pioneers who shared a common historical context a century ago. Possessed of divergent work method, ethos, and fates, these individuals survive in our collective memories as near-archetypes of the industrial age. Yet how irreconcilable they seem at re-examination.
The ﬁrst is Thomas A. Edison, American inventor, born in 1847 in Ohio, seventh child of a middle class family, deaf, home schooled, self-educated. He left home at thirteen and took a job as newsboy. Obsessed with self-improvement and a voracious reader—especially of scientiﬁc texts—by age 16 he had taught himself how to operate a telegraph, and became a full time telegrapher. At 19 he received his ﬁrst patent, for an electric vote recorder, designed to speed the election process. The invention proved a commercial failure, and Edison resolved that thereafter he would only invent things he was certain the public wanted. By 1869 at age 22 he had invented an improved stock ticker, the sale of which, along with a group of other patents, brought him $40,000, approximately $630,000 in today’s money. This enabled him to set up in 1871 his ﬁrst small laboratory, where for the next ﬁve years he invented and manufactured devices which improved the speed and efﬁciency of the telegraph. By 1876 he set up a complete R&D facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey, containing all the equipment necessary to work on any invention, in essence prototyping what we now call a research lab. In 1878 Edison registered his ﬁrst patent from the new space, the tin foil phonograph, the ﬁrst commercial machine that could record and reproduce sound, single-handedly creating the consumer category today called home entertainment. The following year he patented the incandescent light bulb. It was the incandescent bulb which opened the door to his contact and eventual rivalry with a precocious emigre Serbian scientist nine years his junior named Nikola Tesla.
Nikola Tesla was the son of an Orthodox priest and an unschooled but highly intelligent mother who was an inventor of household appliances. From an early age he demonstrated exceptional powers of visualization and memory, eventually speaking six languages. A dreamer with a taste for poetry, he also was known for self-discipline and a desire for precision. After university studies in engineering, he worked for a Budapest telephone company. During a walk in the park, Tesla visualized an induction engine driven by a rotating magnetic ﬁeld, which he sketched in the dirt, then later built, a solution still widely in use over a century later. Though the motor did not ﬁnd acceptance at ﬁrst in Europe, Tesla brought it along to America in 1884, when he emigrated—penniless and bearing only a sheaf of his poetry—to begin a job with Thomas A. Edison. Edison had invented the icandescent bulb, but had not solved the problem of how to power it. His lamps were weak and inefﬁcient when powered by the system called Direct Current (DC).
Tesla’s task was to improve Edison’s dynamo designs, but he quickly recognized the limitations of the DC system. Coupled with radical differences with Edison on everything from business attire (Tesla came to work every day in suit, tie and white gloves) to business practice (Edison verbally promised Tesla $50,000 for the improvement of the dynamos, only to later renege on the offer and dismiss it as "American humour"; he also ﬁled patents under his own name for work done by Tesla) the collaboration was doomed. At the end of a year, a disappointed Nikola Tesla left Menlo Park and sold his patents for Alternating Current (AC) to George Westinghouse, the start of a public rivalry with Edison which continued for decades.
Character is fate
One could ﬁnd no better example of polar opposites than these two scientists. If Edison was of the left brain—analytical, egocentric, mechanistic, aggressive—Tesla was of the opposite: side-intuitive, altruistic, instinctive, compassionate. In problems solved best by observation, experience or deduction, Edison might score higher. In problems necessitating induction, intuition, imagination or vision, Tesla holds the advantage. Edison’s extant remarks are pithy and plain-spoken, homespun, concerned with work, trial-and-error, product development and the nature of success. Tesla’s quotes are ﬂorid, eloquent, lyrical, cosmological, philosophical, and prescient.
Most people don’t recognize opportunity when it comes, because it’s usually dressed in overalls and looks a lot like work.—Thomas A. Edison
Edison was the inveterate tinkerer, who worked obsessive hours in shop coat and apron, then slept on the workbench of his laboratory. Edison’s deafness made him more solitary and shy in dealings with others, and though he counted titans like Henry Ford among his conﬁdants, he favoured friendships with his fellow workmen. Though he had a reputation as a family man, his ﬁrst wife was sickly and deferential to his wishes; his second wife, a social activist, spent a lot of time trying to improve her husband’s often careless personal habits.
Tesla, a lifelong bachelor, led a somewhat isolated existence, devoting his full energies to science. He built labs for ambitious experiments performed on a heroic scale. For many years he resided at the Waldorf Astoria; there he threw elaborate dinners inviting famous people, then demonstrated spectacular electrical experiments in his lab. Tesla rubbed shoulders with the intelligentsia of the day, counting the author Mark Twain among his closest friends.
The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside inﬂuences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.—Nikola Tesla
The idea of collaboration was better understood by Edison. He generally worked in conjunction with, and co-opted many of the ideas generated by others. Thomas A. Edison was not circumspect about this aspect of his work. He freely admitted, "I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off."
Tesla preferred to work alone, the quintessential mad scientist. During 1899, when he did experiments with high voltage, high-frequency electricity and other phenomena outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, he managed to create artiﬁcial lightning bolts 30 ft long, earth tremors and blacked out the entire city’s electrical system.
In search of proﬁt
To my mind the old masters are not art; their value is in their scarcity.—Thomas A. Edison
Thomas Edison was by far the greater businessman, insulated from his own ﬁnancial folly by corporate shields and a constant stream of income. He amassed 1,400 patents in his lifetime, and at one point he and his companies controlled most of the technology connected to sound recording, incandescent lighting and the motion picture industry. Over the years the goals of General Electric became more to maintain market viability than to produce new inventions frequently. Edison demonstrated real genius as a salesman throughout his career in promoting his inventions. While he claimed to have made unwise investments in the ﬁnal years of his life, Edison’s residence alone was valued at $12 million at the time of his death, equal to $172 million in today’s money.
Tesla, always impractical in ﬁnancial matters, made a succession of bad business decisions during his lifetime. Though he ﬁled over 700 patents in his own name, he systematically sold them off over the years. He left huge bills of unpaid rent for all his apartments notwithstanding, his Colorado lab was dismantled and sold for the value of its wood to satisfy unpaid rent. The Wardenclyffe laboratory became the greatest ﬁnancial disappointment of his career when J. P. Morgan withdrew funding in 1905—had the experimental site gone online it would have been the world’s ﬁrst international transmitter. By 1907 he had given up rights to his Westinghouse royalties for a fraction of their immense value. In 1916 it was revealed that Tesla was penniless, and had ﬁled for bankruptcy.
Axes to grind
If Edison had a needle to ﬁnd in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search … I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.—Nikola Tesla
Both men carried grudges throughout their careers. Edison’s resentment at the superiority of AC current caused him to mount a decade-long negative publicity campaign after Tesla won the AC contract to power the 1893 Columbian Exposition. In order to demonstrate the dangers of AC current, Edison systematically electrocuted hundreds of animals, including an elephant in 1903.
The half-century feud with Edison was not Tesla’s only regret. As early as 1893, Tesla had pioneered research and ﬁled patents inventing radio. He was deeply disappointed when Marconi and Braun were awarded the Nobel Prize for it in 1909. Some sources speculate that one reason Tesla did not receive the Nobel Prize in 1915 is because he refused to share the award with Edison. In 1943, the year of Tesla’s death, Marconi’s radio patents were revoked and reassigned to the Tesla estate.
At the time of his death in 1931, Thomas Edison lived in a 29-room mansion called Glenmont on a 13½-acre parcel in an exclusive neighbourhood of West Orange, New Jersey. He had been in declining health for 20 years, and spent his last days in relative comfort. After he died the lights of most major western cities were dimmed for one full minute to honour his lifetime accomplishments. Ironically the same year as Edison’s passing, Time magazine featured Tesla on its cover in honour of his 75th birthday.
Nikola Tesla lived the ﬁnal ten years of his life in a two-room suite at the Hotel New Yorker, across from Bryant Park. Most days he could be found seated on a park bench, feeding pigeons. He died alone, reclusive, broke, an eccentric driven by compulsions and a progressive germ phobia. At his funeral held at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, Tesla was lauded by Nobel laureates as ‘one of the outstanding intellects of the world.’
Prediction and legacy
Edison spoke little about the distant future. He made remarks about horrible weapons with unthinkable destructive powers, but the sum of his recorded comments are grounded in practicality, the celebration of perseverance, and common sense. General Electric, what Edison’s ﬁrst businesses merged into, survives as a century-old multinational organization with over 300,000 employees around the world today. Thomas A. Edison’s career work gave birth to what we now call telecoms, he illuminated the planet, launched home entertainment, innovated sound recording, developed moving pictures, created the dictaphone, mimeograph, and the storage battery. Today in many ways these automated utilitarian consumer items of the post-industrial age deﬁne our culture. While Edison claimed he never invented a device which killed people, one of his patents still in use remains that for the electric chair—an invention created out of spite.
Reporters respected Nikola Tesla for his eloquence, but his futuristic prophecies met with criticism. He believed he intercepted radio communications from other planets—scientists today suspect he was simply hearing static electricity from space. He asserted he could ‘split the earth like an apple’, and offered the Department of Defense a ‘death ray capable of destroying 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles’. The same man who uttered these claims brought to mankind the elegant reﬁnement and efﬁcient automation of electrical conduction, invented radio, did early work with X-rays, researched radar and sonar, and posited cryogenics, particle-beam weaponry, VTOL aircraft, and smart mobile devices. Every electronic device started up anywhere in the world today applies a scientiﬁc principle harnessed by Nikola Tesla. He is present in every technology we employ.
I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.—Thomas A. Edison
For Thomas Edison to make a discovery he needed to apply his inexhaustible energy to ideas generated by someone else. He made no great scientiﬁc breakthrough in his career, but deployed principles discovered by others, especially in the creation of new consumer goods and applied technology. His solutions were arrived at through rigorous processes of trial and error, and by eliminating that which did not satisfy the technology’s need. Edison tested the product until it worked, a kind of paralysis by analysis. In essence, no scientiﬁc breakthrough could be made except by happenstance. He looked to what the market-place sought, conﬁdent that the world would yield the solution.
If you only knew the magniﬁcence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have the key to the universe.—Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla possessed the gift of vision, the ability to see the result, to perfect his inventions completely in his mind before committing them to paper. Throughout his career he intuitively sensed hidden scientiﬁc secrets which came to him in an instant. He then applied scientiﬁc principles to what the problem required. This talent for seeing and dreaming the answer, ﬁnding the appropriate analogy, made him the iterative inventor he was. This liberation of thought was also his limitation. Tesla lived in a world of theory, a philanthropist of thought who dreamed of bringing power to the world. As such he did not really build anything that lasted, a kind of extinction by instinct, driven by the notion that his brain would always give him the solution.
Viewed from the vantage point of today’s world it might be said that Edison embodied the method and mindset of the west: pragmatic, results-driven, interested in the market-place, focused on the economics of discovery. Tesla can be seen as more a man of the east: mystical, possessed of a sense of awe with the magnitude of the universe, seeking to deploy science for the greater good of all mankind, focused on the elevation of the spirit, preoccupied with the divine.
No single individual can demonstrate all aspects of both Edison and Tesla. Those more Edisonian produce inventions which drive the market-place, found great institutions and probably die rich, though they tend towards ruthlessness and selﬁshness. Those disposed to more Teslian behaviour solve the greatest mysteries of the universe, but cannot work in teams, squander their fortunes, descend into madness. We all have inclinations in one way or the other, those more Edison-like and less Tesla-like (ETs), those more Tesla-like and less Edison-like (TEs). It is the balance of these two personality types that make successful teams. Today’s Edisonians might include Gates, Jobs, Ellison, Dell, Branson, and Ted Turner. Today’s Teslians might include Elon Musk, Paul Allen, or Dean Kamen.
Socrates advised us: know thyself. In reconsidering Thomas A. Edison and Nikola Tesla, it’s important, therefore, to ask: are you an ET or a TE?
The thing I lose patience with most is the clock. Its hands move too fast.—Thomas A. Edison
We are whirling through endless space, with an inconceivable speed, all around everything is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere there is energy.—Nikola Tesla
An odd and charming web site admiring of Edison, rich in revealing quotes, with surprisingly little about Tesla’s role: http://thomasedison.com/quotes.html.
The best, most comprehensive site on Tesla, warts and all, with excellent photography: http://www.teslauniverse.com/nikola-tesla-quotes-start_30.
An article published shortly after Edison’s death, discussing his personal wealth: http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2008/02/10/did-thomas-edison-die-a-poor-man/.
A one-minute ﬁlm clip of the 1903 elephant electrocution: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkBU3aYsf0Q.