Who’s your hero? If you’re a sports fan, then it might be David Beckham or Jessica Ennis-Hill. If you’re a musician, then it might be someone like Jimi Hendrix or Adele.
For many scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs around the world there’s a good chance that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla will be high on the list.
Both Edison and Tesla were technical pioneers, responsible for inventing or developing many of the technologies and major advancements that we all know and love today. You’ll probably remember from your science lessons that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and the light bulb (although, as we’ll find out later, that’s not entirely true), whilst Tesla pioneered the electric motor, x-rays and the radio (although again, that’s only partly the case).
But as well as being hugely influential figures in the world of innovation, did you know that Edison and Tesla also spent much of their time engaged in a bitter feud? And that for two people so driven towards invention, you’d struggle to find two more different characters?
Let’s take a look at the warring inventors for which the modern world owes so much…
Name: Thomas Alva Edison
Born: 11/2/1847 in Ohio, United States of America
Name: Nikola Tesla
Born: 10/7/1856 in Smiljan, Croatia
What were they most famous for?
Edison: Edison is probably most famous for inventing something that he didn’t actually invent. Say his name to anyone and people will tend to respond with ‘light bulb’, but in fact the light bulb had already been around for a number of years when Edison started tinkering with it. The catch is that what had previously been invented was expensive and unreliable – what Edison did was figure out a way to make the light bulb practical and economical, so that it could run at a lower voltage and last for much longer. He and his team did what was necessary to bring the invention into homes. Clever.
Tesla: Tesla brought power to the people. How? His method of alternating current allowed a flow of energy to periodically change direction when being transmitted, which meant it could be brought to areas in much larger quantities. The concept was chosen to supply the Chicago World's Fair with electricity in 1893 (a major coup), and two years later was used by a construction company to harness the power generated by Niagara Falls. Tesla’s method was not without its controversy though, and actually kick-started a bitter war with Edison, who had his own direct current system.
What else were they responsible for?
Edison: How long have you got? Edison was awarded 1,093 patents during his career across a wide variety of technologies. Apart from the light bulb, perhaps the most notable are the Phonograph (which enabled people to record and play back sound for the first time), the Kinetoscope (which captured motion picture and paved the way for all cinema projection and the creation of video) and the alkaline storage battery. Whilst Edison could not lay claim to inventing them all, he developed the art of commercialising, enhancing and perfecting existing ideas in order to bring them to a wider audience.
Tesla: Don’t feel too bad for Tesla, he still picked up a whopping 300 patents himself over the years. He played a central role in the development of x-rays, created the world’s first remote control (used to control a toy boat) and devised the electric motor – which has since been popularised by Elon Musk and the automotive brand currently brandishing the Tesla name. And although Guglielmo Marconi is credited with inventing the radio, Tesla actually invented everything we associate with the device, first sending a wireless transmission from his lab at Houston Street in New York City to a boat on the Hudson River, 25 miles away.
Edison: As well as being a world-class inventor, it was Edison’s business acumen that really set him apart. He understood what the public wanted and how inventions could be used to make profit. He set up a series of laboratories and manufacturing facilities and surrounded himself with an army of smart inventors, many of whom were responsible for the patents that lay under Edison’s name. He knew how to manipulate the press (which he used to fuel the AC/DC ‘Battle of the Currents’ feud with Tesla) and tweak ideas just enough so that they fell under his name. So whilst Edison’s brilliance as an inventor is never in doubt, he was just as smart as a business entrepreneur.
Tesla: As we’ll find out later, Tesla was an eccentric character. But this was also partly what made him great. His brilliant mind was always working – he had an eidetic memory, meaning he could memorise images, moments and books in their entirety. He could speak eight languages and claimed to only need a maximum of two hours sleep at any one time. We’re exhausted just thinking about it.
Edison: As well as the many great inventions and stream of patents to Edison’s name, he also experienced the odd notable flop. He spent a huge amount of time and money trying to come up with a better way to mine iron ore, but was never able to follow through on his efforts. He also created a stir with a Talking Doll, but after negotiating lots of production issues, the final release was fragile and poorly constructed, meaning the voice recording lost its strength after just a few hours. The dolls were swiftly taken off the market.
Tesla: Unlike Edison, Tesla’s business instincts were his ultimate downfall. Often awkward to deal with, Tesla’s obsession was with tinkering and creating, not turning his ideas into commercial successes. He often bit off more than he could chew, and many projects failed to make money. The most notorious was the Wardenclyffe Tower, a wireless transmission station designed by Tesla to be built in New York to send messages from the US to the UK. As Tesla’s ambitions got the better of him and designs continued to change, the project’s backer JP Morgan pulled the funding, sending Tesla into a spiral of debt that he never truly recovered from.
Edison: Edison was smart, shrewd and great for a quote. Indeed many of his sayings are still repeated in the media today. But his personal style was less eye-catching – he was often described as a bit of a loner, having a handful of very close friends and little else. He was hard of hearing and difficult to engage in conversation, and has frequently been described as a bit of a slob. Fashion wasn’t of interest to him, and legend is that he deliberately wore shoes two sizes too large for him so that he could easily slip in and out of them without having to waste time untying the laces.
Tesla: Tesla on the other hand was incredibly stylish and always dressed to impress, with a meticulous moustache and impeccable hygiene. He was tall and slim and kept very good company, with a host of celebrity friends and acquaintances in very high places. His eccentricity eventually became too extreme for many to handle though – especially when in later life he spent a lot of his time caring for the wild pigeons in New York City.
The legacies of both Tesla and Edison will live on forever. From the inventions they pioneered to the people they inspired, they’re without a doubt two of the most influential people in the worlds of science and technology. Chances are you’ll have heard of them or concepts related to them even if you previously had no interest in science – whether that’s because you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory TV show or the rock band AC/DC!
And if it wasn’t for them, companies like E.ON could not be where we are today. Their inventions paved the way for us to provide the services to customers that we can. Tesla and Edison were innovators – they found ways to take ideas, concepts and thoughts and improve them for society. And their work is a constant source of inspiration: we’re looking at how we can use technology to improve things for our customers by introducing smart meters and investing in our onshore and offshore wind farm projects. So whilst Edison and Tesla both had their differences, we all have a lot to thank them for.