Monday, May 14, 2012

This Tesla Love-Fest Has Got To End

Over at The Oatmeal, a popular online comic, there's a sprawling, gushing graphic about Nikola Tesla. Inside it, Edison is referred to as a "douchebag," a "bloated, misguided ass," and a "f-ing idiot."

First, let me disclose: I have read three different biographies on Edison and two on Tesla. I know my shit. The author's depiction of Edison reminds me of FoxNews' depiction of President Obama.

But let me start with one minor detail. The author suggests Tesla, not Edison, is the "father of the electric age" and buoys this claim by pointing out that alternating current (Tesla's invention) "powers the world" and not direct current (Edison's invention).
The irony here is that the computer that the author used to draw this graphic runs on DC power. The author's cell phone also runs on DC power. In fact, if the author went around their house and looked at all the electronic devices (coffee maker, microwave oven, clock, television, laptop, stereo, etc.), they would notice that almost every single one requires a conversion from AC power to DC power before it can be used. This is because while alternating current is indeed great for long distance transmission of power...it's shit for powering electronics. So perhaps I could suggest a compromise: if Tesla is the Father of the Electric Age, then Edison is the Father of the Electronic Age.

Let me break this down even further. The author blatantly lies to the audience by suggesting that alternating current is Tesla's invention. But alternating current (and direct current) were first demonstrated before Tesla was even alive, by a Frenchman named Hippolyte Maxii. And he got the idea to create alternating current from the pioneering work of Faraday. Further, alternating current was already being used in Europe by the time Tesla was born. Which explains why Tesla was able to study it in college.
People forget that Edison dropped out of school after 3 months of kindergarten, and never received formal education after that point. Tesla, on the other hand, studied electrical engineering in college.

The author credits Tesla with "the modern electric motor" although a prototype was demonstrated by Galileo Ferraris three years before Tesla "patented" it.

Enough of this. Here's my point: innovation is a convoluted, collaborative, bloody, competitive process. It is almost impossible to credit one person with one thing. Literally two dozen people were trying to make light bulbs before Edison. He made the first affordable one. Not the first one. Almost a hundred years before Tesla built an A/C motor, Faraday had proven it would work on paper.

Here's a recent example from my own work. We're developing a device that was brought to us by a doctor. He'd seen a similar device that was used in a different procedure, and realized that with a few modifications we could make it work in our application. We made some design changes, did some testing, and are about to submit for FDA approval.
So who is the inventor? My engineering outfit? The doctor? Or the device we're modifying...its inventor? The truth is there is probably a long chain of inventors and trying to separate one out is nearly impossible.

Which brings me back to Edison. His real innovation - and the reason he's so much greater than Tesla - is that he developed and perfected the "industrial research lab" where a bunch of smart people all worked together, collaborated, and through an evolutionary process developed the inventions that drove the industrial age. Tesla was a brilliant scientist. I give him full credit. But to make graphics where he is painted as a superhero and Edison as a greedy scamp is disingenuous and unfair.


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16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Abstracted. Good point!

Anonymous said...

If I had a negative response..... would the Blog owner allow the post to be approved for viewing? Interesting that it is managed and approved. hmmmm......

Snowcap said...

I have been a massive Tesla fangirl ever since reading Man out of Time in 2002, and on one hand I liked this article for bringing a little reality and moderation into the starry-eyed hero worship. Edison did some pretty massively douchey things, but of course the reality is not quite the hyperbolic version presented by the Oatmeal. On the other hand, IT'S A COMIC, not a journalistic report, and comics are renowned for using hyperbole for comedic effect, so you might want to take a step back before criticizing A COMIC for sounding like bad journalism from Fox News.

SleighBoy said...

For me, holding regard for Tesla is not about an argument over priority of invention and practical application of discoveries, but about the spirit behind his work. He was the analytical inventor who relished in specifications and understanding his work fully. He was dedicated to his work even when it did not bring a financial return. He wanted his work to advance mankind, and make him a tidy sum of course, but the motivator was his passion.

I think those who hold Tesla in such high regard are the people ( especially engineers ) that carry out their work with an intense personal interest and work for personal satisfaction above the ends itself. That is why I regard Tesla so highly, because of who he was as an inventor and human.

alias~GenieLogan said...

good post man...

Tessio said...

Innovation is convoluted and collaborative indeed. What makes it bloody is patents and guys likes Edison.
It's completely absurd to put such a great reward for the first man to run to the patent office, when it's clear no-one can innovate on a vacuum.

Anonymous said...

Here you go, answers to all critics of Tesla Comics. I love the ending lines quoting Tesla and Edison both.

http://theoatmeal.com/blog/tesla_response

Michael Straight said...

What a bizarre non sequitur. Edison isn't the "Father" of using of DC power in modern electronics. His contribution (as you say) was the development of long-distance
transmission of DC power, which nobody uses anymore, because it turned out to not work as well as AC,
even though Edison promoted DC transmission long after that was apparent.

Anonymous said...

Exactly what Michael Straight said...reading biographies won't make you "know your shit"...Edison was a proponent of DC, but not for the use it's used today, read some physics, 101's suffice, douche.

Anonymous said...

He never explicitly stated that Tesla invented AC. He does say that he helped to usher in the second industrial revolution, but never that he invented it.

Alex Waller said...

Ridiculous. He explicitly states "alternating current was invented and to this day powers every home on the planet. Who do we have to thank for this invention that ushered in the second industrial revolution? Nikola Tesla"

Toss Newsense said...

I thought it was Hypolite Pixii whose work expanded on Faraday's?

Mike said...

Another myth about Tesla is with radio.

Tesla didn't demonstrate radio. There is not a shred of evidence that Tesla did anything other than just talk radio.

http://earlyradiohistory.us/tesla.htm

He was basically using other forms of wireless like electrostatic induction.

Tesla' biggest contribution to the radio field was the Tesla coil, but even that was not something that he did alone.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Tesla is just the most over-rated scientist ever !!!

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty late to the argument, I know but to begin, I thought Edison was a pretty crappy human long before I read the Oatmeal comic in question. That said, I reject the defense that it is a "COMIC," and therefore artistic license "for comedic effect" trumps the need to be factual. What a garbage argument.

First of all, there is no intended or actual comedy present in the slanderous statements the cartoonist made about Edison. These statements were presented without humor as (apparent) factual evidence that Edison was evil/awful/etc. If the intent were humor, why not use this supposed 'cartoonist's creative license' to invent awful things about Edison that actually are funny, regardless of fact? This is because he will not achieve his agenda of building up Tesla and tearing down Edison by presenting his often-contrived evidence in a humorous light.

Additionally, I would argue that it is a RESPONSIBILITY of any writer/artist/cartoonist to have his/her facts straight when the goal is to tear down the reputation of an actual person or group of people. If artistic license allows this kind of slander, again, why not take it further? If this is fine, then may I use creative license to make a cartoon that claims that Matthew Inman (the Oatmeal's author) is a known pedophile? When he objects to my lie and takes me to court, may I just use the defense that I made my statement "because I'm a comic writer and I thought it was really funny?"

Yeah, Edison was a pretty major d-bag, but Inman is a pretty major d-bag for writing shit like this and then having the nerve to defend it against logic and real evidence.

Anonymous said...

The author of The Oatmeal does go off into deep Tesla-fandom...but you make a huge error in your read on his argument. He never talks about AC powering electronic devices. I'm sure he knows DC does. But DC is wildly impractical for long-distance transmission of electrical power.

The Oatmeal's author is not in denial about what powers his PC. It's the one part of your article that doesn't belong here, mostly because you're the only one suggesting it.