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Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla: Who is more productive?

Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla: Who is more productive?
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.

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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.

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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:

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  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.

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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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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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