Edison is often considered the most famous inventor in American history. But there was another character often overlooked by the history books that accomplished much more, and whose contributions may end up being far more significant than Edison’s over the next hundred years or so. His name is Nikola Tesla, and some would say he had a mastery of electricity that has yet to be matched. He was born in what is now Serbia, and moved to the US while still young and impressionable. Tesla actually worked for Thomas Edison for a number of years, and at one point, Edison promised him $50,000 to do tackle the huge project of renovating all the dynamos in the power plant.
Being an ambitious young inventor, Tesla jumped at the opportunity to prove his worth; within a year he had successfully rebuilt the whole plant and presented his work to Edison in order to claim his reward. Edison just laughed and explained he was “only joking” and that Tesla obviously didn’t understand the “American style of humour.” Understandably, this was totally unacceptable to Nikola Tesla. He quit his job and started his own power company, and ended up competing with Edison on a number of different fronts.
War of the Currents
The chart here shows only a couple of the ways that Edison and Tesla disagreed. Edison thought Direct Current (DC) would power the world, but due to the weak signal strength, this would have necessitated repeating power plants almost every mile of electrical cable. Can you imagine our beautiful landscape cluttered with ugly power plants all over the place? Tesla came along and pioneered using Alternating Current (AC), which could travel further without degrading in strength, and this is the system that was adopted for widespread use and is still in use today. This battle became known as the War of the Currents and has spawned several books and documentaries.
Furious with his former employee’s success, Edison started a smear campaign to try and illustrate how dangerous AC really was. Enter Topsy, a baby elephant who had apparently lashed out at someone after they had fed her a lit cigarette. Edison made a spectacle of electrocuting this poor elephant in 1903, and the footage still exists to this day:
In fact, the very idea of executing prisoners by electric chair was cooked up by Thomas Edison in another brilliant scheme to discredit Nikola Tesla. Unfortunately, the idea caught on, and only now are prisons realizing just how much it really costs in terms of electricity to end a human life.
A Brighter Bulb Prevails
The other area where Tesla was proven correct in the long run was on the subject of light bulbs. Yes, Edison’s incandescent bulb was the standard in homes and workplaces for nearly 100 years. But now, in the 21st century, it is Tesla’s fluorescent bulb that we are switching to because they last longer and are more energy efficient. Every office, school, and home now has several fluorescent bulbs in place.
In fact, Tesla’s inventions are almost everywhere nowadays. Radio, Radar and Sonar, Remote Control, and Hydroelectricity are all products of ideas Tesla either developed or patented. He was the first one to look at the raging current of Niagra Falls and realize the sheer power that could be harnessed, and much of the area surrounding Niagra Falls receives its electricity to this day from the power plant he started there.
One of my favourite examples of Tesla’s legacy is the company Tesla Motors. In an attempt to wean Americans and others off of their addiction to gas and oil, Tesla Motors is developing a range of electric vehicles and has prompted almost every other major car company to start doing the same. In 20 years time, nearly half the vehicles on the road could be electric, and the impact on the environment will be immeasurable.
Edison’s legacy carried him well into the 20th century. The incandescent light bulb and the phonograph resulted in both fame and fortune for him. Tesla died a poor man, perhaps too far ahead of his time, but in the 21st century I feel he will become a household name, as we realize what an immense impact his inventions really have on our every day existence.