Nikola Tesla: The man who invented the 20th century

I’d just finished reading the Edison book and thought it fitting to now read the Nikola Tesla one. The book provided a good overview, though some inconsistencies made me question how a much of what I read was fact and how much was fiction. The author mentions on Page 4, for example, that Tesla was 20 years younger than Edison when in fact they were just 8 years apart.

The difference between Edison and Tesla is often depicted as Edison the industrialist vs Tesla he theorist. In reality however, Edison was hardly the best businessman of his time - though he was still immensely better than Tesla at getting his ideas out (and reaping a tiny portion of the value he created). Tesla died a poor man, despite having created the radio, AC, transformers, generators, the AC induction motor and many more astounding inventions.

Their research methods differed starkly too. Edison was diligent and would keep experimenting until something worked. Tesla was learned, and would use theory to guide his experimentation – a decidedly better approach for intelligent inventors to take. My feeling would be: start as Edison, optimize as Tesla.

In the end, Tesla would get most of his pride from the inventions that he did see go mainstream (and not the countless others that didn’t see the day of light). Turns out we all just want to make an impact after all.

Notable notes

With uncharacteristic self doubt, he wondered if he had been wasting his time studying mathematics, science, literature, art and a dozen languages. Perhaps he needn’t have spent so lo in libraries … If Edison became so popular without theoretical training at all, what good was academic study?

“If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.” - Tesla

He was driven by the need to solve a problem and, once it was solved, he never thought about how to persuade people to pay him for his work. This was his main weakness and it was present from the very start of his career.

Edison had quickly realized that he needed to make his lamps use less current so that he could use thinner copper wire in his distribution system. He knew that voltage drop would restrict how far he could send his electricity unless he cut down the current he used. He was in fact applying Ohms law without having really understood it. It took Tesla to solve the problem of transmitting electrical power over long distances, and he did this by understanding and using Ohms law. (Edison didn’t know Ohms law!)

Edison had acted towards Tesla (on AC) in the same way that gaslight companies had acted towards him, and probably for the same reason: the fear that all the effort, equipment and capital invested in DC would be lost if AC replaced it. Unfortunately, the essence of great scientific work is that it is transitory and will always be replaced by new discoveries.

Why? Is a great question to ask yourself when you are defending the status quo.