In Defense of Thomas Edison

Hey, it’s Edison’s birthday and Google’s doodle today is about Edison. And the Tesla Cult is angry about it.

When I was growing up, Thomas Edison was regarded as a hero. His reputation has been tarnished in recent years by what can almost be called a Tesla Cult. I was carried along by the Tesla Cult for a while, and then I realized one day that none of Tesla’s inventions actually worked.

Okay, that’s a little strong, but the Tesla Mystique is mainly flash and not much substance. You say, “But he invented AC electric power!” No, actually, others were experimenting with it at the time, and anyhow AC power is what comes naturally off a generator as the shaft spins between the poles.

Once you realize that Tesla didn’t even invent what is his primary claim to fame, the entire Tesla Myth quickly deconstructs itself.

After all, Tesla also claimed to have invented a death beam. Well, it’s been a hundred years, and where is it? And what about his claims to broadcast power economically, and about being able to extract energy from the atmosphere? He also claimed to have received intelligent signals from Mars. You would think that in a century afterwards, someone on this planet would have caught up with him.

Based on his propensity to make grandiose claims for inventions that never materialized, I have my doubts about Tesla’s character, frankly.

Now, you may have heard the story about how Edison once employed Tesla and said that he would give fifty thousand dollars if certain problems could be solved. Tesla solved the problems and instead of paying up, Edison replied, “You obviously don’t understand the American sense of humor.” And maybe you’re thinking that this story proves that Edison was the jerk and Tesla the great inventor.

All right, but who’s telling us this story? Tesla. And as we’ve just realized, Tesla was prone to make things up. So maybe the truth is that Edison decided to let Tesla go because Tesla wasn’t productive, and in order to salve his pride, Tesla made up the story about how Edison cheated him.

The typical response of the Tesla defender is, “It’s a conspiracy, man! He did invent all kinds of great things! He was a man ahead of his time! It’s just that the government confiscated all his plans when he died.” And so today his plans for a system to pull limitless free electrical power from the atmosphere reside in that warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant.

When Tesla died, he had been living in a hotel room for years without paying the bill. Don’t you think he could have come up with just one little invention during that time to cover his expenses? How about consulting work? The greatest electrical genius of all time, and he can’t get consulting work? Something’s not adding up here.

I have a conspiracy theory too about Edison and Tesla. My theory is that the big financiers back in that day were trying to set up an electricity trust just like they’d set up a railroad trust and a steel trust. But to do that, you need to neutralize the dominant figure in the electrical power industry, Thomas Edison. And how do you topple a man who not only owns all the patents but is regarded as a planetary hero?

Well, one day you and your cronies are sitting around smoking stogies at the Gentleman’s Club, and one of you says, “Hey, you know, there’s talk in the engineering community about how AC power is better than DC power. And it just so happens that Edison thinks AC power is dangerous, so all his patents are for DC devices. If we could get someone to champion AC power, then we could build AC power transmission grids and run Edison out of business.”

In Tesla they found their man — someone who obviously despised Edison and wouldn’t let a little thing like truth get in his way. So the Trusters made Tesla their champion — and dare you question his reputation, why that just means that you’re stupid and evil.

Tesla had a good run as the poster boy for the Power Trust folks, but then Edison saw the writing on the wall and capitulated, and then the Power Trusters had no further use of Tesla and stopped financing him and promoting him, and so Tesla dwindled into an obscure old age of unpaid hotel bills and pigeon-love (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does suggest he had lots of free time on his hands whereas Edison was working diligently up to his death).

Now, the low point of the Tesla Cult’s attack against Edison is the assertion that Edison wantonly tortured animals by electrocuting them in order to claim that AC power was dangerous, so that he could continue to make money from DC power. “Torturing innocent animals for greedy profit! How low can you get!”

Well, in the first place, the animals selected were going to be put to death anyhow because they had either attacked humans or were approaching the end of their lifespans. What Edison was doing was more humane than the slaughterhouse — which is to say, what millions of people are complicit in every time they have a hamburger.

And even more importantly, Edison was tragically and prophetically right. He was trying to warn us as graphically as possible that AC power is much more dangerous than DC power. Literally, he was trying to stop a human genocide at the hands of the electrical power industry.

The danger was and is so great that in 2001, 411 people were electrocuted accidentally in the US. The number of deaths from accidental electrocution runs to thousands for the entire world each year, and perhaps totals around a million since the dawn of the electrical age. And most of these people died from being electrocuted by AC power, which even its proponents acknowledge is more lethal than DC.

“But we have to use AC power because it’s more efficient for transmission over long distances.” I have always accepted this as true, but then there’s this disturbing admission in the wikipedia article on power transmission lines: “High-voltage direct current (HVDC) technology is used only for very long distances (typically greater than 400 miles, or 600 km) . . . .”

Let’s admit it, I and probably you as well lack the training and experience and financial facts to know for sure whether AC or DC power is cheaper over long distances. We have to trust the electrical power industry cost accountants. And did they ever factor in the relative public safety risk that Edison was so concerned about?

But there’s one thing I do know for sure, and that’s which of these guys spent more time grooming his hair:

And I guess I also know which one of these dudes is proud of his extremely popular invention . . .

. . . and which is trying to distract with flash and noise from the fact that he doesn’t have a marketable invention . . .

Well, I do admit Tesla Coils are cool. But as far as jumping all over Edison versus Tesla, it’s been a century and we don’t know what really happened between the two men, so maybe we should just give it a rest. Then maybe we could take the time we save from not bickering and spend it instead on making inventions of our own. And you know, that might even be cooler than a Tesla Coil.

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About engineerzero

Once and future engineer.
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8 Responses to In Defense of Thomas Edison

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. Steve J says:

    Excellent article. I am sick of the Tesla cultists who babble away about Tesla’s great inventions, but you’re right—where are they? Oh, I forgot. There has been a conspiracy all along to suppress them. Let me put that tinfoil at on…oh yeah, Tesla came up with the idea of getting free energy from the Cosmos, or somewhere, and that guy who figured out how to do it actually died a mysterious death. What’s more, WWF wrestling is REAL, Bill Clinton didn’t inhale, and OJ is innocent!

  3. Mike says:

    Excellent post.
    All electrical devices ultimately run on DC, AC is only useful for transfer, just to remind.

    Tesla didn’t demonstrate radio. There is not a shred of evidence that Tesla did anything other than just talk radio. He didn’t even believe in hertzian waves!
    http://earlyradiohistory.us/tesla.htm
    Tesla was actually using wireless electrostatic induction.

    His biggest patent in the radio field was the Tesla coil, but even that was not something that he did alone.The Tesla coils were actually invented by Elihu Thomson and William James Morton.

  4. Joe W says:

    “Literally, he was trying to stop a human genocide at the hands of the electrical power industry.” Um, exaggerate much?

    • engineerzero says:

      Genocide is the systematic killing of ‘all or part’ of a racial or ethnic group. There is nothing more systematic than the electrical power grid, and there is no bigger racial or ethnic group than humanity itself. Yes, the corporate electrical power generation industry won’t kill all of humanity, unless there’s a nuclear power plant meltdown, but fortunately the probability of that is only one chance in a million.

  5. Paul says:

    The truth, I suspect is somewhere in the middle. One cannot deny that Edison electrocuted (with AC) numerous animals, including Topsy, the elephant, to display the dangers of AC. In Edison’s dealings with Carl Lemuel, Edison’s 200+ lawsuits paint a vivid picture of the man – as well as his action of hiring gangs to disrupt and destroy Carl’s film events and the film itself. The man had the foundation to be quite an ass.

  6. Michael Bracke says:

    Ask a welder if he’d rather have AC or DC running through his heart, I’m sure he’d agree dc is much safer 👍.

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