Edison vs Tesla: The War of Currents

by Josh Burns

Who invented the light bulb?

Thomas Edison right?


Edison invented was the first commercially viable lightbulb.

Edison’s shrewd business sense is a huge part of the reason we remember him today – but it’s also what gave him one, very powerful enemy…

Nicola Tesla was a Serbian immigrant to the US – very smart, very skilled in math and physics… He was a budding electrical engineer and inventor like Edison – who later went on to invent an X-Ray machine, the radio, and dozens of other inventions we take for granted today…

Edison was wise enough to hire the young Nicola Tesla – to help refine and develop his inventions.

But Edison never knew just how brilliant Tesla was… and he wasn’t skilled enough with his employees to keep young Tesla – a mistake that caused him the biggest headache of his professional life…

One year, he told Tesla that if he could create a more stable DC electricity system, he would pay him $50,000 (millions of dollars in today’s currency)…

Tesla accepted the challenge, and quickly improved the design, saving Edison over $100,000. Edison was impressed, but when Tesla asked for the $50,000 prize, Edison laughed and told him that he “simply didn’t understand American humor”.

Tesla was furious.
He left Edison’s company, and quickly pulled together business partners with money, power, and connections like George Westinghouse. (The inventor of the air-powered brakes that trains still use).

Tesla seduced him with the promise of a new kind of electricity:

Alternating Current.
It was cheaper than Edison’s Direct Current technology, more efficient, and it was far, far more powerful.

Alternating Current (or AC) is the type of electricity we use the most today; it’s what power plants generate, it travels across power lines, and comes out every household outlet.

We still use Edison’s Direct Current (DC) electricity in electronics (especially anything with a battery), but back in Edison’s day, he had the monopoly on Electricity. DC lines ran from power stations to houses in Manhattan, Boston and other cities around the world…

Edison’s company got paid royalties every time anyone installed his patented DC systems – so Tesla’s promise of cheaper, more efficient energy technology was a huge threat to the Edison fortune… The prospect of losing all of his royalties to Tesla’s new AC systems was more than Edison could bear.

The War of Currents Had Begun

Edison was practically a mafia don when it came to media relations. He lashed out publicly, denouncing AC as dangerous, irresponsible and fatal if mishandled, and he even hired a man to create the first ‘Electric Death Chair’ as a demonstration of the destructive nature of AC power.
The first electrocution went poorly – causing the unlucky convict / guinea pig an incredible amount of pain and suffering during the botched attempts to fry him.

Edison’s smear campaign worked for a while – the public was scared of this newfangled “AC” power…

But Tesla fought back.

In 1893, only three years after Edison’s electric chair fiasco, Tesla decided to hit Edison where it hurt.

He convinced the powers that be that his technology should be the at work on the biggest electricity project in history: The Niagara Falls Project.

Tesla promised that if his patented AC power systems were used in the power plant, they would generate enough electricity to power the entire eastern seaboard.

Then, to add insult to injury, Tesla snaked the contract for the 1893 Worlds Fair out from under Thomas Edison.
The World’s Fair was the biggest of big deals.
In 1893, over 26 Million people came out to the fair during the six months it was open (that’s equal to about HALF of the entire US population at the time).

Having your inventions featured meant getting the most powerful kind of exposure you could hope for.

Tesla outbid Edison for the contract to supply the electrical systems for the entire fair by over $100,000.00. Edison just couldn’t compete with Tesla’s inexpensive AC power systems…

Tesla even patented a new kind of light bulb so he wouldn’t have to license Edison’s design or even buy his bulbs! In fact, Tesla’s lightbulb design was cheaper, lasted longer, and burned brighter than Edison’s (without infringing on a single patent)…

It was a serious shot below the belt. Imagine, if you had an invention that the world thought was revolutionary, only to have some young punk from your company leave and create something even better!

At the fair, Tesla dazzled the crowds with his eerie new technologies, He introduced his new phosphorescent lighting (basically the first prototype for neon lighting and fluorescent bulbs) – and he displayed it by twisting glass into the names of famous scientists…

But nothing ‘wowed’ the crowd like Tesla’s next trick:

He used gigantic ‘tesla coils’ to safely illuminate a line of light bulbs with his fingers –

Imagine it – a man walks over to a row of disconnected lightbulbs, touches them with his finger, and they light up like a Christmas tree.

Then, he demonstrated how “safe” AC power can be by shooting enormous 12 foot purple and blue lightning bolts from his fingertips into the crowd.

Of course, nobody was injured (although you can bet there were some terrified onlookers!)

That was his final victory over Edison in the War of Currents.
Within years AC power was the industry standard. Power lines crisscrossed the nation, and right now, between your computer and the power plant, there’s about a dozen of Tesla’s patents at work around the clock.

But Tesla’s beginning wasn’t all inventions, glory, and success (and his end wasn’t either, but I’ll get to that)…

Nicola Tesla was born in Serbia, and had a strange and troubled upbringing – he was often deathly ill (From Wikipedia):

“During his early life, Tesla was stricken with illness time and time again. He suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions.”

Soon, his “flashes” took a strange turn… He developed a photographic memory, and often memorized entire scientific texts… And to boot, he had synesthesia – or cross sensory experiences.
Usually when people think of synesthesia, they think of acid trips in the 60’s and 70’s.
Just picture Woodstock and imagine a mud covered hippie saying: “I can taste purple” or “I can see the music man! I can SEE it! It’s beautiful!” Those are examples of a synesthetic reaction…

But for Tesla, it was much less psychedellic and much more debilitating. Thankfully, he soon learned how to use his synesthesia to his advantage…

In fact, there were times when he would hear a word, and immediately have a picture of a new invention flash into his mind, triggered by just hearing the word (for instance “semi-conductor”).

He would feverishly start building the image he saw in his mind, and when it was done, it would be the solution to a problem he had been wrestling with for months.

Tesla overcame his physical and mental struggles to become one of the founding fathers of Electricity. He harnessed the mighty Niagara. He controlled lightning with his hands… and in his later years, he even proved that with the right equipment, he could split the entire planet in half.

And what fires me up about Nicola Tesla is that the very mental ‘problems’ that many people would have succumbed to (and ended up in an awful Victorian Era insane asylum) – he was able to use those to his advantage.

He used his disadvantages to be a better scientist, a better inventor, and a brilliant innovator.
Alas, in the long run, Edison had the last laugh.

Edison used cutting edge product marketing to innovate and build his industry, he used Barnum’s advertising secrets to build his personal brand (which is why we remember him as the greatest inventor of all time, even though his inventions paled in comparison to Tesla’s)…

And Tesla just didn’t have the right mind for business.

He was a hero for the things he overcame – his mental challenges might have crippled you or me, but he was able to become a demi-god to the poeple of his era.

The townspeople spoke of him in hushed whispers… The ground around his laboratory would shake from time to time when he was doing his experiments

(hey, what’s an accidental earthquake or two in the name of science, right?)

Late at night if you were brave enough to walk by, you might see the grass glowing blue and purple with St. Elmo’s Fire… Or have the shock of seeing little lightning bolts coming up to meet your feet as you walked…

And, as one local kid found out, you could even hold a screwdriver next to the fire hydrant a block away, and create a 4 inch arc of electricity…

But for all his brilliance, Tesla died poor and broken.

He gave up his most valuable contracts, he ignored high-potential product marketing opportunities in favor of his wild and weird inventions, and he died poor, troubled, and surrounded by his only friends, a group of wild pigeons he had enticed into his hotel room.

Tesla learned how to turn his weaknesses into strengths, but he was missing a key to success that Edison figured out early on:

Your ideas for products are only ‘good’ if they’re ideas for products that people will want to buy.
So – the next time you’re setting up a website, or working on an ebook – or doing ANYTHING that has to do with marketing – stop and ask yourself:

Is this something I can sell to a lot of people, or is this something I’m making for myself?
It’s fine to make things that you’d want to buy, but keep in mind the lesson of Tesla – sometimes you can spend a lifetime working on your passion, and get beat out by a less skilled, less intelligent competitor who knows what people want to buy.

I think you can tell from my tone I’m a big fan of Tesla – but I want to know who’s side you’re on:

Leave me a comment below and let me know who’s team your on – Team Edison, or Team Tesla!

To Your Electrifying Success,

Josh Burns
Creative Director,
Overcome Everything Inc.


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