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AC vs DC

How the 19th century’s War of the Currents became a touchstone for 21st century innovation

Ten years ago, if you had asked the average American to list the inventions and innovations of the great Nikola Tesla, they’d probably have answered “Nikola who?” But today, there are innumerable Tesla T-shirts, a thriving Tesla Motors, annual TeslaCon, and a multi-million dollar crowd funding campaign for a Nikola Tesla museum in the U.S.

So how did Tesla go from a semi-forgotten semi-nutcase to champion underdog innovator of our time? It’s all due to the thematically-enhanced retelling of Tesla’s historical relationship with Thomas Edison.

The bare facts go something like this: gifted inventor Nikola Tesla immigrates to the U.S. in 1884 and briefly works for Thomas Edison. But Edison doesn’t pay or listen very well and so Tesla quits. In 1888, a wealthy entrepreneur named George Westinghouse comes along and pays Tesla a handsome sum to license several patents that enhance or rely on an alternating current electrical system. Westinghouse also hires Tesla as a consultant for a year.

Alternating current was gaining notoriety in Europe at the time and Nikola Tesla’s inventions made it a cheaper and more powerful infrastructure than had been previously imagined. However, Thomas Edison, then America’s reigning king of electricity, owned hundreds of patents for systems powered by direct current. So, naturally, he wanted the country powered by his own technologies.

In the business realm, Westinghouse and Edison duked it out over whether America’s infrastructure would run on AC or DC. Known as the War of the Currents, this technological battle has recently been recast as a struggle between Edison and his fellow inventor Nikola Tesla, leaving Westinghouse out of the picture.

Nikola Tesla explaining the rotating magnetic field to representatives of Westinghouse Electric & Man. Co. on May 10, 1938.

Nikola Tesla explaining the rotating magnetic field to representatives of Westinghouse Electric & Man. Co. on May 10, 1938.

It’s true that Tesla had some skin in the game. After all, he’d make more money if Westinghouse kept licensing his AC-powered patents. But Tesla was never Edison’s target (Edison famously tried to replace the word “electrocuted” with “Westinghoused” in an anti-AC smear campaign). And Westinghouse’s system incorporated a slew of patents from other well-known European engineers.

Westinghouse knew of the viability of an AC electrical system since Rome had been electrified with AC in 1886. And Westinghouse’s technologies (purchased from some of the most brilliant minds of the day, including Tesla) helped make AC power even more affordable and dependable as larger infrastructure. By 1893, it was clear that alternating current would win the infrastructure war.

So what gives? Why is Edison being pitted against Tesla with arch-nemesis-worthy furor when it was Westinghouse’s business acumen that really fought the good fight?

Well, who sounds like a better nerd hero: Westinghouse the uptight capitalist or Tesla the eccentric genius inventor? Everyone loves a good story, particularly those tales of brilliant young upstarts unseating established behemoths. Since the 1990’s, comic book artists and steampunk storytellers have been appropriating Tesla’s biography and fictionalizing it to fit more of an anti-establishment mold.

But it wasn’t until 2012 that Matthew Inman, cartoonist and creator of The Oatmeal, whipped up his now-famous comic “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived” that this retelling was compellingly packaged as fact for a mass audience. Millions were energized by Inman’s (not always historically accurate) interpretation of Tesla’s epic electrical struggle against a self-serving and stodgy Thomas Edison.

Matthew Inman's Tesla cartoon in The Oatmeal

Matthew Inman’s Tesla cartoon in The Oatmeal

In the end, this manufactured story of Tesla beating out Edison isn’t even about historical happenings at all. It’s about us.

The Tesla vs. Edison tale is about trusting the uber-nerd more than the stuffy status quo. It’s about the potential of the technologically-literate underdog. It’s about the battle between ideas and the digital disruptions that swoop in every few years to utterly change our technological landscape.

Edison vs. Tesla is a modern myth about how the novel and advanced supersedes the old and outdated. It’s the battle of dumb-phones versus smartphones or the conflict between Walkmans and iPods. Just think about the legendary status of the late Steve Jobs; we live in an era where it feels good to believe that genius and technology transcend criticism and disbelief. We like unseating old gods in favor of new ones. And so we undermine Edison and raise Tesla.

Yes, Nikola Tesla’s inventions forever altered our world. But so did Thomas Edison’s. So remember, when we glorify one and criticize the other, we’re really just praising the notion that brilliant ideas have an electricity all their own.

Got you hooked? Here’s more:

Learn

Lessons From Tesla
Enduring insights from the 20th century’s mad scientist extraordinaire.

Lose

7 Epic Fails Brought to You by Thomas Edison
The Smithsonian Magazine examines seven Edison blunders

Laugh

Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison
Epic Rap Battles of History interpret the Tesla/Edison conflict

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