Let There Be Light – The Clash between Tesla and Edison


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July 10th is the birthday of Nikola Tesla, the man who invented the most widely used power transmission system in the world today; the alternating current (AC). This year will be his 162nd anniversary. To commemorate his birthday and celebrate his accomplishments, we have consulted authoritative and objective sources to bring you documentation of the clash between him and his foremost archrival, Thomas Edison, who invented direct current (DC). Both men were accomplished inventors who transformed the world of electricity, but they had strong opposing views on the preferable mode of transmitting it, with each man rooting for his method. When you have power wars between two famous legends, expect sparks, fireworks, and even a real fire.

The Lightning Storm


(Photo by Enver Hanci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

On July 10, 1856, a storm that was accompanied by fiery thunderstorm raged in the night in Croatia, a poignant sign of what was happening; the future Master of Lightning, Nikola Tesla, was born.His father wasan Orthodox priest who looked forward to his son joining the clergy. Nikola’s other career option was to be drafted into the military. His father convinced him to follow in his footsteps, but in a strange twist of events, Nikola contracted cholera while was getting ready to join the seminary. Tesla was only 17 years old. As the illness became worse, Nikola persuaded his father that he would get better if he were allowed to pursue Engineering. His father immediately promised to send him to the best technical college in the world. Tesla quickly recovered and later joined college at the age of 21.

The Journey to America


(Photo by Jacques Boyer/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

During a sunset troll in 1882, Tesla suddenly had a vision of the design of a functional alternating current motor. He tried to pitch the idea unsuccessfully. After he failed to secure the production of his induction motor in France and Germany, he sought to meet the only man he believed could help him; Thomas Edison. Edison was a successful businessman who had invented the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph. His nickname was ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park.’ The 28-year old Tesla set up on a trip to America. He experienced misfortunes along the way, including loss of his money and tickets, and even came close to losing his life. On June 6, 1884, he arrived in New York to meet Edison, armed with four cents, poems and big dreams. He also had a recommendation letter from an associate of Edison. Nikola could not wait to demonstrate to Edison how his alternating current motor invention operated.

The War of Currents


(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Edison was a huge advocate of Direct Current, and he could not entertain the idea of Alternate Current, perceiving it to be dangerous and a huge risk. However, the direct current had two significant limitations; it could only be transmitted over a short distance, and it could not be adjusted to a higher or lower voltage. Nikola saw a way around this through the alternating current, which he was still experimenting with. Alternating current could transmit power over long distances, but it needed a transformer to regulate the power of the voltage. A motor that utilized alternating current did not exist at this point.

Clashing Style and Personalities


On the left Nikola Tesla. On the right Thomas Edison. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Though both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were brilliant inventors who revolutionized the electricity industry, their personalities could not be more different. This difference, along with their deeply-set, differing views on electricity transmission mode, contributed to their conflict. Edison was a smart businessperson, a skilled entrepreneur who was publishing his newspaper while he was only aged 12. He ensured his ideas were commercially viable. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is a success,” he would say. He was a ruthless entrepreneur who did not mind playing dirty to trump over his competition. On the other hand, Tesla never seemed to factor commercial success in his inventions. He was unassuming at best and dismissive at worst as far as money was concerned. “Money does not mean to me what it means to others. All my money has been invested in inventions to make man’s life a little easier,” the Serbian inventor would say. His perception of money led to people taking advantage of him and his inventions, and he always faced financial struggles for the majority part of his life.

The $15,000 Joke


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Even though the two inventors differed on their modus operandi, their global outlook, and their economic views, Edison hired Tesla as one of his chief engineers and tasked him with improving on his existing generators which ran on direct current. He promised him $50,000. When Tesla went for payment upon successful completion of the task, Edison dismissed the promise as a joke. “You just don’t understand our American sense of humor,” he laughed. Bitter with the betrayal, an annoyed Tesla resigned on the spot. He would spend the next year grieving the cruel treatment and doing tedious work of digging trenches for $2 a day to lay underground electricity cables for Edison’s Company.

Construction of Laboratory


(Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

With the help of some investors, Tesla set up a laboratory to bring to reality his idea of developing an alternating current induction motor. The laboratory was set just a few meters away from that of his former boss, Edison. He constructed the motor prototype he had visualized earlier and developed all the components of the alternating current power generator and its transmission that still exists today. He unveiled his new invention in 1888; the AC motor which he argued would showcase the remarkable flexibility of alternating currents. The U.S. awarded Tesla 22 patents for alternating current generators, transmitters, and transformers, generators as well as transmission.

Tesla’s Investors


(Photo credit ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images)

His new invention and patent awards drew global admiration and the envy of his peers. Inevitably, it also attracted the attention of investors, among who was George Westinghouse, an industrialist in Pittsburg. He was trying to find a way to supply alternate current on a large scale and over a long range, and he saw investing in Tesla’s invention as the best way to compete with Thomas Edison who had almost monopolized the electricity industry. After a visit to Tesla’s laboratory, he immediately offered Tesla an upfront payment of $1,000,000 for all the alternating current patents he had been awarded. Also, Tesla was offered $2.50 for every horsepower that would be generated by his invention.

The Propaganda War


(Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

When Edison saw that Tesla had teamed up with Westinghouse to supply alternating current in bulk, he knew that his successful direct current business which had been the standard in the U.S. was threatened. Consequently, he and his associates set out on the warpath and started a media campaign to tarnish the alternating current. He termed that system of electricity as dangerous and unnecessary and sought to have it prohibited. This feud famously became known as ‘the war of currents.’ He claimed that Westinghouse’s alternating current would kill a customer in less than six months, no matter how small the current ran through the body. Edison discreetly enlisted a relatively prominent activist to do his dirty job.

Harold P. Brown


Source: Wikimedia

Brown was an activist and a hired propagandist who became widely known for his vocal opposition for alternating current which he blamed for a series of deaths that had occurred by as a result of a high voltage electricity pole. He hoped to scare off competitors and shut down Westinghouse’s business. He disguised his motives as a proper safety concerned, but letters published later proved that he was a hired hand for Edison and Thomson-Houston companies, which were Westinghouse’s main competitors. Harold campaigned for the state to ban alternating current and when that failed he fought to have the voltage reduced to 300 volts, which would have rendered that system useless. When that also failed, he decided to include horrific public demonstrations to prove his point.

Animal Cruelty


Electrocuting an Elephant, Luna Park, Coney Island, NY, USA, Filmed by Thomas Edison, 1903. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The negative campaign against Westinghouse by Edison notched up when, to demonstrate just how dangerous alternating current was, Edison had his employees and Brown electrocuting animals using alternating current. They would collect stray cats, dogs, cows, and horses and electrocute them in staged public demonstrations. His most horrific public electrocution display was that of Topsy, a circus elephant that was based at Luna Park, which he killed in 1903 with 6600 volts and even documented the event using the camera he had invented earlier. This was how far Edison was willing to go to prove his point against the new form of electricity.

The First Electric Chair


Thomas A. Edison stands next to his American Barker electric car, circa 1895. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

However, the worst was yet to come. While Edison touted himself as an opponent of the death penalty, it still did not deter him from using Brown to talk the state of New York into using an electric chair that he funded to be developed by his associate as a death tool. New York had been seeking to replace death by hanging with something that was more humane and less gruesome. In a barbaric move, Brown advised them to go for an electric chair that would use alternating or intermittent current, which was being purveyed by George Westinghouse. He wanted to use this to his advantage in their war of currents to convince the world that his form of electricity was a safer option and his rival’s alternative could kill swiftly.

The Stolen Generators


Execution of Kemmler, the first man to die in the electric chair, USA, 6 August 1890.(Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Westinghouse refused to provide their generators for the execution so Thomson-Houston, who also supplied alternating current, stole them by exchanging them with their generators. William Kemmler became the first person to be electrocuted using the electric chair, but it took him a few minutes to die because they had to repeat the process several times. Tesla who regarded the death penalty as inhumane and unnecessary in the scheme of modern civilization was disgusted and said they could have done a better job with an ax while Edison noted that the excitement had caused some bungling. He even said that the death by electric chair should be renamed, Westinghouse.

General Electric


(Photo by Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The adoption of alternate current was gaining traction which forced Edison General Electric’s board members to rethink their strategy. In 1892, the board resolved to merge with Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric to increase their profit and market share. Knowing Edison’s unyielding stance against the alternate current, they did this behind his back and even erased his name from the new Company’s name. The merger was pioneered by their financier J. Pierpont Morgan who also appointed Thomson-Houston managers to be in charge of the new company, thus sidelining Edison further. A bitter Edison vowed to do something that would be so big that it would overshadow his electric accomplishments.

The World’s Fair Expo


The General Electric Tower of Light display at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, 1893. (Photo by Souvenir Photo Company/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

It was at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that the war of currents came to its climax. It was to be the first time the Exposition would use electricity for lighting and electricity companies were bidding for that lucrative tender. Westinghouse saw this as the perfect platform to showcase the merits of alternate current. They placed a bid to supply electricity for the Exposition and won since they were more affordable. General Electric refused to sell them their light bulbs and Westinghouse house had to improvise two-piece stopper lamps. This proved to be their breakthrough as they were able to show to the world that their form of electricity, the huge alternating current generators, could provide power on a large scale. The dazzling, multicolored lighting that outnumbered all the bulbs in Chicago wowed the World Fair spectators.

The Rotating Magnetic Field


The first A.C. transformer constructed by the American industrialist George Westinghouse. Great Barrington, 1890s (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Tesla was also able to overcome the ‘death current’ propaganda spread by Edison claiming that alternate current was dangerous. He changed the world’s view and reversed the existing propaganda through a series of public demonstrations at the World Fair. He devised a device he named the egg of Columbus to showcase the rotating magnetic field that his alternate current motor created. He would touch the terminal and electricity would flash through his body and engulf him in flames but leave him unharmed. This fascinated the Chicago attendees and left a lasting impression on them as they hailed Nikola Tesla’s inventions, which included a light that did not require connecting wires.

Niagara Falls


(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Tesla had always been fascinated by the Niagara Falls since his childhood. As a young boy, he once pictured a large wheel rotating in the fall during a mysterious disorder that would manifest to him as images and strong flashes of light. This vision prompted him to tell his uncle of his desire to travel to America in the future to accomplish it. His 30-year old dream to harness the power of the Niagara Falls was about to come true. An international commission was seeking someone who could do exactly that and its boss, a famous British physicist, happened to be at the Chicago Exposition and witnessed Tesla’s amazing alternative current demonstrations. He was so impressed that he immediately awarded Westinghouse the contract to power the Niagara with the alternate current. Nikolas Tesla and Westinghouse had finally won in the ultimate showdown, ending the war of currents that had raged brutally between them and their heavyweight rival, Thomas Edison. Tesla went on to build the first hydropower power station in the world.

The Royalty Contract


The American industrialist George Westinghouse. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

As business grew and Westinghouse continued to expand, the company started experiencing financial hardships after straining its resources. To save the situation of the man who had always been genuine to him, Tesla tore up the $2.50 per horsepower generated by his invention royalty contract he had signed earlier with George Westinghouse when he bought his patents. By doing this, he relinquished the royalty licensing fees owed to him, which was worth millions of dollars. He would probably have been among the first billionaires in the world. If that contract would still be in place today, it would have accrued into trillions of dollars. Call it naiveté, but money had never been his motivation. True to form, he was shortly pursuing his next invention; the wireless technology.

Tesla Coil


In 1893, Tesla created a device known as the Tesla Coil that amplified voltages and generated high frequencies. It transmitted radio signals through resonant action. This device would also prove to be essential for his subsequent inventions. He would allow investors and friends like Mark Twain to light lamps by passing thousands of volts through their bodies. It introduced neon and fluorescent light and X-ray to the world. In 1893, he also found out that by using Tesla coils, powerful radio signals could be transmitted and received when tuned at the same frequency. This led to him patenting it in 1897.A thermoelectric coil developed by Nikola Tesla. (Photo by Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

The Supernatural Experience

Tesla had a vision in which he saw his mother appear in pure form among the clouds. He immediately knew with certainty that his mother had passed away. This, combined with his friend Sir William Crookes’s belief of telepathic communication when tuned into high-frequency brainwaves convinced Tesla of the same-frequency tuning theory.


In 1892, he was able to transmit and receive radio signals successfully. In March 1895, as he was getting ready to test the transmission of signals over a long range, disaster struck. The fire broke out and burned down his Manhattan laboratory, destroying everything. He was devastated but quickly resumed his experiments when he heard that Marconi, an Italian inventor, was doing similar tests based on his patents. A year later, Tesla successfully controlled a manual boat remotely using radio, making it the first radio-controlled device in the world. He tried to sell this idea to the Navy, but he was unsuccessful. Fearing that Marconi will capitalize again on his invention, Tesla applied for a patent in 1897, and it was granted in 1900, forming the fundamental technology for radio.Original Tesla induction motor, 1887-1888. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The Tower of Dreams


Original Tesla induction motor, 1887-1888. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Tesla’s wireless technology idea consumed him, and he sought to build a wireless global communication network. This idea interested J.P. Morgan who invested $150,000 into making the enormous 186-foot tall Wardenclyffe radio transmission tower also referred to as ‘The Tower of Dreams.’ The construction on Long Island started in 1901, and he enlisted the help of Stanford White, a distinguished architect. That same year, Marconi succeeded in sending a signal from England to Newfoundland. Impressed by this feat by the Italian inventor and frustrated that Tesla’s project was becoming more expensive and taking longer to become a reality, J.P. Morgan withdrew funding Tesla and backed Marconi instead who had proved tangible progress. The tower was later demolished in 1917.

Marconi Awarded Radio Patent


Original Tesla induction motor, 1887-1888. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi shot to fame after becoming the first person to transmit and receive transatlantic signals successfully. Marconi had been testing signals using several of Tesla’s patents. He had moved to New York a year earlier and had attracted J.P Morgan and Edison, among other investors. In 1904, Marconi was awarded a patent by the U.S. Patent Office for his radio invention, a decision that was contested by Tesla who claimed the young Italian inventor had used 17 of his patents. In another attempt to undermine his rival, Edison supported Marconi in getting the patents that rightfully belonged to Tesla.

Marconi Wins Nobel Prize


This combined seven-inch radio and television receiver was originally priced at 35 guineas. Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), after whom the television was named, was an Italian physicist and pioneer of wireless telegraphy, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

In 1911, Marconi was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for his wireless telegraphy system, a move that infuriated Tesla who justly felt aggrieved for having someone else take the credit for his work. Marconi had developed a very close connection with noble families in Britain. Combined with his radio patent and wealthy investors who clamored to partner with him, he could quickly get away with it. In 1915, Tesla tried to sue Marconi for using his patents, but he did not have the financial muscle to go against the influential people who backed the aristocrat. He continued to fight to have the patents back for the rest of his life.

Tesla and Edison Nominated for Nobel Prize


Thomas Edison And His Big Bulb. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

In 1915, Tesla and his archrival Edison were considered potential Laureates for the Nobel Prize Award in Physics. Neither of the two won the award which went to Sir William Henry Bragg for his X-ray crystal mapping. Rumors abound that the reason they did not win was that of their long embittered rivalry which had been played out on the global platforms and their undermining of each other’s work. It was reported that the two archenemies refused to share the award. When Tesla and Edison were contacted, they both claimed that they had no idea that they had even been nominated.

The Wireless Technology


The guitarist of the band ‘Lightningfan’ Wang Hongbin creates lightning with a Tesla Coil in their village outside of Fuzhou in China’s Fujian province on June 24, 2013. (Photo credit PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

After the immense success of the Niagara project, Tesla started researching and experimenting on his latest experiment; the transmission and receiving of energy without the use of connecting wires. He had developed fluorescent and neon lights and X-ray photography, but it is Wireless Technology that would become his lifelong obsession. He had once said that a vision was like a sacred vow to him that would become a matter of life and death. He wanted to create a transmission system that could distribute electricity as well as provide communication wirelessly on a global level. So convinced was he that he retreated from social life and buried himself in research.

Colorado Springs


Nikola Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his ‘Magnifying transmitter’ – 1899 (Multiple exposure) (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1899, Tesla headed for Colorado Springs, where he built a laboratory to test his ideas on wireless technology. The location enabled him to experiment on a large scale because unlike in his New York laboratory; space did not limit him. He constructed the most massive Tesla coil in existence. During one of his experiments, so much power was generated that it caused a power outage in the area after destroying the generators. It also created the most considerable artificial lightning in the world and caused tremors around the region. Tesla later claimed to receive communication through signals from the other planets.

Death Ray


Columbine Hills Elementary School student, Trystin Swan, left, 9-years-old, watches her classmates, Nicholas Turner, 10-years-old, center, and Maggie O’Neill, 10-years-old, put their foreheads on a ‘plasma ball’ during a science demonstration put on by the National Science Center’s Mobile Discovery Center in Littleton. The ‘plasma ball’ was invented by Nikola Tesla. (Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

At the beginning of World War 1, Tesla was rumored to be working on a death ray which could take out 10,000 flying enemy planes from a distance of 250 miles. The electromagnetic weapon was to use charged particles projected by a beam. Tesla countered that by claiming he was working on peace beams that would give every nation the ability to defend itself from external attacks in the air and on the land. He said he wanted to be remembered as the inventor who abolished the war. He tried to sell his idea to the U.S., U.K. and the USSR in vain.

Tesla Receives Edison Medal


Tesla’s Rapid Alternator. Photo Credit: Getty Images

In an interesting twist, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal in 1916 by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) for his pioneering achievements in his work with high-frequency electric currents and polyphase. He declined the offer and was only persuaded to reconsider his decision by Bernard A. Behrend, a notable engineer. Unsurprisingly, there was a bit of drama on the day of the AIEE’s highest award event. Thomas Edison, after whom the award is named, and the guest of honor was conveniently absent from the Award ceremony. Tesla had to be fetched to come and give his acceptance speech after he disappeared during the event and went to feed pigeons.

The Death of Edison


Professor Albert Einstein, the famous German scientist, is seen above as he congratulated Thomas A. Edison on the latter’s fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the electric bulb, over the radiotelephone from Berlin, Germany, directly to Dearborn, Michigan. The laudatory speech was rebroadcast to the entire United States. Photo Credit Getty Images

Thomas Edison died on October 13, 1931. As tributes flowed for one of the greatest inventors ever for his contribution to humanity, Nikola Tesla had a different opinion, proving that even death could not end their feud. He had this to say about his lifelong rival: “He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene. His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labor. However, he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.” Ouch!

The Death of Tesla


(Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Nikola Tesla died of coronary thrombosis on January 7, 1943, in a hotel room in New York. He was 86 years old. His last days were spent at the same hotel, and his bills were paid by Westinghouse and the Yugoslav government. The Master of Lightning did not have money and had filed for bankruptcy earlier. He had spent the last few months keeping to himself, save for the pigeons that visited him all the time. He also took strolls in the park where he would feed them. Nikolas had remained celibate, and he had no wife or children.

Tesla Immortalized


A young man has an image of Nikola Tesla tattooed on his breast during the 2016 Moscow Tattoo Week. (Photo by Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images)

Tesla’s name lives on through many of his predictions and inventions. Most of the electricity that the whole world currently uses is generated and transmitted using the alternate current he designed. Additionally, his name has literally and significantly made a mark on some of the new inventions like the world’s best known the electric car which bears his name. So does the Belgrade airport. Tesla’s name is the standard unit of measurement of the magnetic field strength of MRI scanners and is denoted by the capital letter T. I will end by quoting the futuristic Nicolas Tesla, “Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have worked, is mine.”