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.