"Fuel for Fire: Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison"

Jonny Bannoura

Lightning Talk Presented: April 2015
Published: May 9, 2015

What makes one great? Is it the fame, the character, the contributions, or the people he/she surround them self with? The question is hard to answer, but one thing is certain, in a struggle between two opposing parties, one is usually depicted greater than the other. That's how it went for Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. An explanation for this will be mentioned shortly, but before we make that dive, let's take a trip back into history before their fame…

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison are considered to be the godfathers of electricity. Before these two, there came greats like Michael Faraday, who "had made a leading discovery of electro-magnetic motions" (Jones) which eventually came to be the electric motor. Another great contribution was that of Luigi Galvani. "In 1791, when dissecting a dead frog's hind leg, it suddenly jerked. Galvani thought he had discovered a new form of electricity produced in muscle…" which most biologists now know as ATP (adenosine triphosphate). "Later, Galvani's friend Alessandro Volta, a physicist, found a better explanation" (Rensberger). Volta used what Galvani experimented with to successfully invent the battery.

Even before these great contributors of science came even older examples of electricity like that of the Greek god Zeus and Benjamin Franklin. The Greeks have always told stories of lighting and made attempts to harness its energy but were not that successful. Even Ben Franklin and his kite and key experiment was not that successful. All he did was open doors to support future experiments, like many did before and after him.

In 1882, Tesla took a new job for the Continental Edison Company. It's a little known fact that the Tesla and Edison used to work together. In many ways, they were a lot alike, too. Edison believed Tesla was great but thought his ideas were farfetched. Tesla finally had enough of Edison's ridicule and promptly quit. Eventually, Tesla "raised enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company, where he developed several successful patents including AC generators, wires, transformers, lights, and a 100 horsepower AC motor" (Sanford). He then sold his patents to George Westinghouse; a wealthier, more formidable competitor to Edison. Tesla and Westinghouse joined forces to exploit Edison.

Edison, at the time, had already invented the assembly line; a leading beneficiary in all mass production plants worldwide. The assembly line was a system that gave a group of individuals a task and their overall efforts would contribute to a complete finished product.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had been working on a combustible gas engine whereas Nikola Tesla had been working on an electric motor car. During this same time, the kerosene industry was hurting, electricity was on the rise and now you have two leaders at risk of one another's inventions. Though an electric car would be revolutionary, it did not make the cut. A famous broker, J.D. Rockefeller, helped finance Henry Ford during his production of the Model T car. Rockefeller was the largest oil company around which is why he teamed up with Ford on a gasoline car. Nikola's electric car could not compete.

Ford was so successful not only because of his Model T automobile but also because of his partnership with Edison. Ford established use of Edison's assembly line to out produce the competition and revolutionize the market for many years to come. This is the same reason why today we have a great number of gasoline burning cars on the road.

The Edison/Ford/Rockefeller alliance was able to sweep any idea of an electric car under the rug and made the gasoline car veryaffordable. Though Edison and Ford won over the automobile industry, it was the electric industry where Edison was not so valiant. He had created power supplies and storage units to make electricity available to the public but on a small scale and only directly. That's particularly why Tesla left Edison; Tesla had a pitch for a new form of electricity that would then come to defeat Edison's previous direct current model.

Tesla and Westinghouse's revolutionary alternating current would change electricity forever. Alternating current would make it possible for electricity to stretch for very long distances. The power supply would be carried in large quantities through a network of power lines like that of a grid system we currently use today, and through a series of transformers developed by Tesla; they would reduce the amount of power so that it could be used in homes and cities worldwide. This eliminated any need for power storage units that Edison was currently using and Edison was aware of the power their technology would bring, he tried everything in his effort to diminish it, even going to great lengths to kill a man and many animals just to share to the world how dangerous his competitor's alternating current could be.

Edison and his team developed the electric chair, a device used to electrocute a human being using Tesla's alternating current. He also gave a presentation in which he electrocuted a massive elephant using the same technology used in the electric chair. Edison and his efforts would merely fail when a victory was finally spoken for Tesla and Westinghouse at the Worlds Exposition of 1893 in Chicago where they gave a presentation that illuminated the entire event. It was a full scale demonstration of alternating current and what it could bring to the developing cities to come. The people attending the fair had never seen this before and, in due time, alternating current would eventually be adopted world wide. There was nothing Edison could do to refute his opposition.

Tesla did invent alternating current, wireless communication, electric motor, basic radar and laser technology, x-rays, neon, robotics, remote control and cellular technology all over a hundred years ago" (B.C. Songsmith) but he never received the credit as a pioneer of electricity. Edison would take Tesla creations and work them in a way of his own. Edison was able to successfully do this with the automobile industry and rightfully owned over one thousand patents along his blazed journey.

But how is it we know so little about Tesla's legacy? This is mainly due to the feud between him and Edison. His contributions were far reaching, but along every step, Edison was there to cut him down. Tesla's only goal was to use his inventions to better the lives of others while Edison's plan was to make them lucrative. Tesla's ideas were stolen, he was depicted as a crazy mad scientist, and he really lacked social skills. It truly is sad to look back on all that he has done without being able to really propel it because of his odd nature. "In an attempt to give him long overdue recognition, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers decided to award Tesla their prestigious Edison medal, but on the night of the presentation, the guest of honor was missing and Edison was conveniently away on business. They found Tesla across the street at the New York public library feeding the pigeons" (Fabian Kolman).

So, again, I ask the reader; what makes oneself great? Is it the fame Edison possessed by belittling Tesla? Is it the people they surrounded themselves with (Tesla/Westinghouse and Edison/Ford/Rockefeller)? Or is it the contributions these men gave to society? All three actually.

Although Edison was more famous and well known, both men gave their life to science and both men would be meaningless without the help their peers gave to them. Ask anybody about the history of electricity and most likely the name Edison will be mentioned before that of Tesla. Both men are equally great regardless of the questions asked prior about greatness. Both these men are one in a million and what they brought to life was essentially the climax of electricity as we know it.

For Further Reading

Nikola Tesla (left) and Thomas Edison (right).