An Educated Guess

Musings on life in general

Why Tesla Was Really Awesome, But Not That Awesome

There’s a recent comic about Nikola Tesla by The Oatmeal, and it’s been making the rounds on the internet. This comic essentially goes on at length about all the amazing things that Tesla invented, but were either credited to others or simply ignored.

For the most part, this is true. Tesla did get pretty screwed by Edison. Several times, in fact. However, the comic makes a big deal of how Tesla died penniless and insane, and also villifies Edison. Again, everything it says about Edison is true. He was certainly a magnificent bastard.

However, this comic which people have been spreading around really paints an unfair picture of the real life of Tesla and Edison.

First of all, Tesla’s worst enemy wasn’t Edison, it was himself. Tesla was a Grade A genius, but he paid a high price for it. In many ways, Tesla was like a real version of Sherlock Holmes; he traded high-functional, genius-level intellect for poor social skills and extreme eccentricity. Except that it eventually got to the point where his mental disabilities were so overpowering that they prevented him from accomplishing anything, whereas Holmes simply retired to be an apiarist (beekeeper).

Despite Tesla’s many inventions, as he got older he began to blur the line between fact and fantasy, and many of his later ‘inventions’ were never built. There remains to this day no proof that some of them were even possible, much less feasible. His failure to deliver on certain projects made him an unreliable investment, which is the real reason he wasn’t able to monetize his inventions later in life. Not to mention that the man was absolutely awful at managing money.

Second, Edison did a lot of good in addition to the awful things he did. Despite the comic’s claim that he wasn’t a scientist (he wasn’t, really) he most definitely was an inventor. Even if we eventually prove that every single one of his inventions was first made by someone else (which has frequently happened throughout history, I should add), we can still put him down as the inventor of the modern research laboratory.

We tend to look back and see technological progress as inevitable, but that really isn’t the case. In almost every single era, there are people who fight change. Do you know how long it took for the electro-magnetic telegraph to be adopted into use after its invention? Despite its immense practical value, it took nearly 30 years before people were willing to treat it as anything more than a curiosity. That’s because the optical telegraph already existed, and was ‘good enough’. This is far from an isolated incident; as a modern example, the first tablet computer was made twenty years ago, and yet it only now caught on.

The point is that technology doesn’t just need innovators, it needs champions. That’s the role that Thomas Edison played, and he played it very, very well. His talent was not just getting technologies adopted by the general public, but in monetizing them. Without his work, many of the inventions developed during that time may have languished in obscurity.

So the point of all of this is that Tesla was a deeply flawed genius, and Edison was an enormous bastard who did a lot of good in the world.

They’re both just people, for better or worse. Putting either of them on a pedestal is going to be problematic because neither of them are without blame for the way things turned out.

So honor Tesla for who he was, a man who overcame tremendous difficulties to invent amazing things, but don’t make him a martyr for the archetypal figure of the underdog.

  • 15 May 2012
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