Edison and Tesla – Experts Weigh in

It seems somewhat fashionable today, especially among young folks, to believe Thomas Edison took unfair advantage of Tesla … but it’s not true. The experts and archivists at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ cannot find anything on file to indicate acrimonious exchanges between these two great inventors. For a brief period of months, Tesla worked for Edison at one of his New York City shops on a specific project, and when that project was closed down, Tesla left. He did not even work directly for Edison. Somehow, the conspiracy theories continue to grind out all sorts of terrible things that Edison was purported to have done.

Edison versus Tesla: The Truth Behind the Edison/Telsa Controversy as Discussed by Experts

A very well documented book [Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age] by W. Bernard “Bernie” Carlson, noted technology author and professor at the University of Virginia, carefully analyzes this complex man. Consider some salient points Carlson makes about one of America’s first celebrity scientists.

Tesla was an astute self-promoter and gifted showman who cultivated a memorable and dramatic public image as an eccentric genius. He promoted his inventions by creating [fanciful and perhaps unrealistic] visions of future peace and prosperity. Unlike Edison, who started with an idea and drove it all the way through to establishing companies to manufacture his products- a classic vertically integrated entrepreneurial approach- Tesla preferred to patent, promote, and sell his inventions to investors and businessmen. What escaped Tesla was the need to do the nuts and bolts engineering, manufacturing optimization, and incremental improvements needed to make a product customer worthy.

Edison and Tesla saw the world very differently. Edison practiced what is called market-pull innovation, letting the demands of the customer drive the economics and such. Tesla practiced knowledge-push innovation, creating a vision for his technology and selling it that way.

Tesla advocates, often young folks, tend to see Tesla as the ultimate geek, unsullied by profits and debased by the give and take of the business world.

In many ways we have a need to cast comparisons of Tesla and Edison as good versus evil, but Carlson shows it is just not that kind of comparison. They are two men who looked at the world of invention from two distinctly different standpoints. Both men helped propel a young America forward, stimulate technological development and instill in millions of Americans the benefits of technology. Both men…giants of the times … succeeded … and, that is really what we need to remember.

See for yourself in the video below what the experts say about these two giants of electricity. Bernie Carlson and Leonard DeGraaf, archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, recently shared the dais at the Mark Twain historic home in Connecticut to discuss the Edison-Tesla interactions. Enjoy.

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineThomas Edison said … “I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others … I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent …”

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What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Companies and educators try to define creativity and inventiveness. Business gurus and motivational speakers earn lucrative fees by likening it to a series of traits that can be easily identified and exploited. They know that, like Edison, inventors are agents of change and great economic growth; moving the world in new directions, creating wealth and new infrastructure. They are the ones who shift the paradigms, causing earthquakes in the fabric of civilization.

What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Consider these characteristics of inventors [not in any rank/priority order]:

  • Not easily shaken by detractors—persistent in their work
  • Passionate about what they do
  • Willing to go against accepted thinking
  • Visionary and intuitive
  • Quantitative and analytical—facile with math
  • Not afraid of risk
  • Tolerant of ambiguity
  • Well developed sense of humor
  • Know how to unleash own creative spirit
  • Not afraid of failure—willing to learn from it
  • Can see the creative links to the arts
  • Focused on the future
  • See the whole problem and key parts simultaneously
  • Can sell their ideas to others
  • Builds teams with multi-disciplinary skills to accomplish goals
  • Document and protect inventive work
  • Solve problems from a multi-dimensional viewpoint.

Edison had his own defining characteristics, but those enumerated above tend to capture most of them. For the great inventor, it was largely the thrill of running to ground the problem at hand, to do something useful for mankind, and to constantly learn new things. These motivations fascinated the man throughout his incredibly productive 84-year life; and probably accounted for why, no matter what field he decided to work in, he was a success – and radically changed that field.

What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Edison was a man in love with new ideas, someone who never seemed to lose that natural awe we have in childhood. Many of the great scientists who changed the world of physics and chemistry loved to “play” with ideas too-retaining that natural awe of the world. Edison was a man in continual re-birth. What a potion this would make for education at all levels today. Actually, educators are re-discovering the Edison magic, urging kids to think out of the box, like Old Tom did; and to use the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] techniques he pioneered at his legendary West Orange Labs. Edison….ever relevant…ever inspirational.

What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent…. “

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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The Changing of the Thomas Edison Light

The classic Thomas Edison’s light bulb design has changed relatively little over the past 130 years, a testament to aesthetics and tradition. The design has also come to signify the genius of a new idea…the lighting up of something brand new. Now with the mandated use of compact fluorescent light bulbs, what is the message here?

The Changing of Edison’s Light

The compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) was invented in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Though these light bulbs have been around for some time, it’s only in recent years that they have caught on as America and the rest of the world seek to become energy efficient and independent. CFL’s consume significantly less energy and last about eight times as long as the traditional incandescent light bulbs. To encourage the use of these more energy efficient bulbs, international  governments have banned or scheduled phase outs of the Edison style light bulb. Many European countries began the phase out in 2009, and the US is set to phase out in 2012.

The Changing of Edison’s Light

Edison, who ushered the world into the energy age, was no stranger to energy efficiency and energy independence. Indeed, from a conversation with friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone comes this Thomas Edison quote. “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide.” He always searched for ways to make his inventions more efficient, especially his new electric power stations, squeezing as much energy as possible out of his coal fuel.Edison’s electric vehicle was conceptualized for the same reasons too. For a man of his time, Edison was surprisingly forward thinking when it came to energy efficiency.

All in all, Thomas Edison would approve of this new technology using electronically generated light, and if alive today, he would be in there with the competition, coming up with his own lighting innovations. However, the classic light bulb shape will not go quietly. We are seeing compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs encased in the classic rounded bulb shape—perhaps a compromise to the strong visual and dare we say emotional [visceral] attachment the rounded bulb image has inculcated in the psyche of billions of people worldwide. We strongly associate electricity with the very form of the light bulb itself.

 

LEFT: Edison Fluorescent Lamp - Patent No. 865,367 RIGHT: Original Edison Incandescent Bulb

LEFT: Edison Fluorescent Lamp - Patent No. 865,367 RIGHT: Original Edison Incandescent Bulb

Just for the record, Edison did dabble in florescent lighting in the late 1890s, receiving a patent in 1907. The really fascinating aspect of his invention was he used X-rays as the excitation technique. While this invention was never commercialized, it demonstrates his ability to conceive of applications from new scientific areas of study. X-rays were accidentally discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen. Edison filed his patent on X-ray based fluorescent lights in 1896, using a unique tungstate of calcium or strontium [tungsten compound coatings] as his fluorescing or light giving materials.

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“My desire is to do everything within my power to free people from drudgery and create the largest measure of happiness and prosperity.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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