Tesla and Edison

Thomas Edison is widely known as the greatest inventor the world has ever known. Nikola Tesla is also known as a great inventor and many people say he was more brilliant than Edison was. In our last post, two weeks ago, we discussed Edison’s 5 million page note-taking system and received a reaction from some of Tesla’s fans.

Should we really care who was brighter? Or is it productivity that really counts? Who was the more productive of these two famous men?
Edison is famous for inventing the phonograph, incandescent light bulb, cement making technology, motion picture camera, DC motors and electric power generation systems, battery and several other things we use every day and don’t think much about. Tesla similarly invented radio, fluorescent light, AC motors and electric power generation systems. Both these men lived long lives, well into their 80s, at around the same time a century ago.

There are big differences between Edison and Tesla. The main one seems to be based on who got the credit for what. Many Tesla fans accuse Edison of having stolen much from Tesla who worked for Edison during his early years. They claim Edison was a thief and that he died a rich and powerful man surrounded by friends because he robbed Tesla and others like him. Meanwhile, Tesla died broke and miserable and lonely with his closest friends being wild pigeons he had enticed into his room at the Hotel New Yorker. Edison fans similarly suggest Tesla was a swindler who deceived investors into financing his ideas with promises he rarely kept. They suggest Tesla got his just rewards.
Both versions appear to be true. For example, Edison did not invent the light bulb. Joseph Swan was installing them in homes and landmarks in England years before Edison got his light bulb patented and working. Edison was buying out other people’s patents and when Swan eventually sued Edison and won, Edison had to take him in as a partner in Edison’s British company. Likewise, a deceitful Tesla managed to convince J.P. Morgan, the world’s most powerful financier at the time, to finance his concept for wireless free electricity production under the guise of sending radio messages across the oceans and to and from ships at sea. Tesla was making artificial lightning with Morgan’s money that was eventually cut off.

Edison and Tesla came to technological blows in the late 1800s when Tesla’s AC (alternating current) power systems that are used all over the world today came into competition with Edison’s DC (direct current) power systems. As it turns out, Tesla’s system was the better one. Tesla’s technologies were bought by railway air brake inventor George Westinghouse who developed them into what became the multinational Westinghouse company. Edison is the godfather of General Electric, presently the world’s 12th largest company. Both these guys were prolific inventors and became famous for it. But comparing them on a point by point basis, the reasons why Edison died rich and famous while Tesla died broke and lonely become clear based on relative productivity.
The Edison versus Tesla productivity scorecard:

  1. Innovation output. Edison had received 1093 lifetime U.S. patents while Tesla had received 112. Although some of Edison’s patents (perhaps many of them) were bought or stolen, this is a huge number. Since Tesla wasn’t taking much money from Edison and only worked for him a short time, there is no way Edison could have stolen many from him.
  2. Innovation success rate. Almost 100% of Edison’s patents were tied to commercial successes while Tesla’s number was similarly high in the early years while working for Westinghouse then plummeted to about 20% after he went out on his own.
  3. Capital productivity. Edison built up sophisticated laboratory operations, employing some of the best and brightest people in the world, with Tesla among them for a while. Tesla built up similar labs while involved with Westinghouse and when on his own. The difference is that Edison did not hesitate to scale down or close operations from time to time as his organizational needs changed to remain solvent. Tesla had his creditors closing them for him.
  4. Labour productivity. This is one of the greatest differences between Edison and Tesla. Edison always had several people involved with his projects while Tesla generally worked alone. Tesla might have had extremely high levels of personal productivity at times, but Edison had the advantage of having a virtual army at his disposal. For example, Edison was able to accumulate over 5 million pages of organized records while Tesla had relatively few and they were not as well organized as Edison’s. Edison and Tesla both had legendary work ethics, but only Edison had it instilled at an organizational level.
  5. Media output (the Google Test). A quick Google image search of “Thomas Edison” generated 123,000 returns while the same search of “Nikola Tesla” generated 35,000 returns. Edison and Tesla each had the ability to engage the media in their day although Edison had the upper hand in this regard too.
  6. Network productivity. This is the Who’s Who test. Edison developed close relations with some of the most powerful and influential people around in his day, including Henry Ford, while Tesla also knew such people but tended to alienate most of them over time.

Did we miss anything important here? Or did Edison simply out-produce Tesla in every measurable way? Vote for the person you think was the most productive. If you don’t agree productivity is what counts, cast your vote anyway but let us know how you compared these two famous and controversial inventors.

Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa are co-founders of Atomica Creative Group , a specialized strategic product marketing firm. Through leading edge insight and research, sound strategic planning and effective project management, Atomica helps companies achieve greater success in bringing new products to market and in improving their existing businesses. They have co-authored Overcoming Inventoritis: The Silent Killer of Innovation now available.

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