Dirk Knemeyer

On Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Steve Jobs

During my recent, voluminous research for Edison vs. Tesla: War of Currents, I’ve had the opportunity to deeply consider the popular opinion about those two great men. Of course, for much of the 20th century, Thomas Edison was remembered as THE great genius of American ingenuity, while Nikola Tesla was rather an afterthought. More recently, geek culture has put Tesla on a pedestal for being the ultimate mix of visionary inventor and idealistic dreamer, while denigrating Edison for his negative characteristics, both real and perceived. Which of these pictures is more correct?

In the course of considering these men I have naturally also seen comparisons to Steve Jobs, the important figure in the software industry within which I work, who rightfully is in the same galaxy as Messrs. Edison and Tesla. Let me talk first about the two contemporaries, then dovetail that analysis into an evaluation of Mr. Jobs.

To be sure, it is easy to paint Tesla with a loving brush. His vision and raw genius far surpassed that of Edison, and his natural kindness and idealism are accepted as fact. Reading Tesla’s speeches and conversations, it is easy to get swept up in devotion and exuberance for his lovely qualities. Particularly for me, with a general antagonism toward capitalism, the things that move and define Tesla as being an admirable human being resonate with my personal values.

However, Tesla’s contributions of discovery are not remembered in a sanguine way. To be sure, his visions for technical solutions to electric power and the radio were prescient and remarkably easy. The best things Tesla contributed were done so in flashes of inspiration. Whereas Edison famously said that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, in Tesla’s case the converse was true. It is precisely what differentiated them as contemporaries who ultimately had very little in common.

It also underscored Tesla’s limitations. There was not a single of his big visions that Tesla was able to shepherd to a reasonable commercial state. Westinghouse engineers took years to commercialize his AC electricity innovations, a process that he initially participated in but quickly abandoned, due to some mix of boredom and frustration. While famously Marconi’s radio relied on many of Tesla’s patented ideas, it is notable that Tesla himself was not able to bring it to market. Not only was he a visionary dreamer, he was an impractical eccentric whose personal limitations counter-balanced his wonderful genius. This is not to criticize Tesla so much as give a more balanced view of who and what this magnificent man really was. After all, none of us are so good as our most ardent supporters claim we are.

On the other hand you have Edison. If all you went by is the scathing Oatmeal cartoon about he and Tesla, you would indeed believe Edison was a contemptible human being. While perhaps nuanced and complicated, I struggle to criticize Edison’s character beyond saying that he was typical of his time. The whole electrocution series of incidents, as distasteful as they certainly are, were driven by other people and – in the context of the 19th century – not appalling to modern sensibilities as we view them today. The same goes for Edison’s pursuit of patents and use of patent law: that was the style of invention at that moment, and indeed Edison lost far more in business intrigues – including control of his beloved Edison General Electric to notorious banker J.P. Morgan – than he gained by similar means. So many of the anecdotes and particulars used against him boil down to being consistent with his time and the activities he was participating in. That doesn’t make him a monster, it just makes him typical. He made the mistakes most of us would in the same situation. Other competitors in this rough-and-tumble period of free-wheeling invention surely did far worse. It is unfair to castigate him with our modern constructs of the world.

I think what Edison critics, especially in the context of Tesla, misunderstand is not that Edison was so very bad, but that Tesla was so very very unusual. Even by today’s standards, Tesla’s odd mix of vision, naiveté, idealism and inability to go from incredible insight to actually make something work within a large society and market would brand him an oddity. He was a brilliant and remarkable man, one certainly deserving of admiration. But Edison as an evil contrast just rings hollow. Edison wasn’t evil; he was pragmatic. He was enterprise-minded. While those don’t align with my personal values they are certainly perfectly acceptable within the constraints of the capitalist system, perhaps doubly so in the free-wheeling 19th century. So while Edison’s life may be deserving of few humanitarian acknowledgements, he was hardly a villain.

What Edison WAS? He was curious. He was dogmatic. He was persistent. He delighted in tinkering. While perhaps a “genius” by some average standard of the word, I suspect that within the pantheon of geniuses Edison’s intellect would rate more modestly. Whereas Tesla was singularly brilliant, Edison combined being very, very smart with this special ability to triangulate his interests, with a very effective problem solving approach, combined with a keen understanding of creating to satisfy a market. This was foremost in Edison’s thinking about what to work on: he wanted to make things that people wanted to buy. And that perhaps more than any of the other notable melange of skills he had helped make him truly important.

Which brings us to Steve Jobs. The way that Edison worked, in particular, made me think of Jobs. You see, most of Edison’s career was spent presiding over large laboratories of assistants. Indeed, his workshops have been called the precursor to the industrial laboratory. Just as, I suppose, a company like Apple is the successor to them. Edison’s own ideas and direction were seminal to many of the advances realized in his laboratory, but ultimately it was people who had more specialized skills than he who saw those ideas developed into the final thing. Experts in glass, vacuum, metallurgy and so many other fields were there to finally make the most of what Edison saw and thought. Tesla also, to a lesser degree, had laboratories of assistants who worked with him. The title of “Inventor” so specific to these men ultimately is about vision and idea being brought to fruition by a group larger than the one with the idea. Thomas Edison had Charles Batchelor; Steve Jobs had Jonny Ive.

At some point thinking about this became very personal to me. I’ve long thrashed with “what I am” professionally. On my tax returns over the years, this has evolved: researcher, teacher, advertising executive, consultant, designer, executive, entrepreneur. It has been “entrepreneur” for a while, now. After all, for the last few years, I keep having new ideas, and I keep starting new companies to realize them. But reading about Edison and Tesla, their lives followed the same course. To be sure I have not “invented” anything of note, much less something that would approximate their incredible achievements. Still and all, “inventor” feels the most correct to me. As a committed anti-capitalist, I have always chafed at the profit motive and hated the implication that my being an “entrepreneur” communicated that I am trying to amass capital. I’m not. Like Tesla, when my money comes in, it goes right back out again into my next idea.

To bring it back to Steve Jobs, I think that he and Edison had a lot in common. Some have argued that Edison’s greatest achievement was being the first media superstar, and knowing how to leverage the media and his reputation. Jobs’ mastery in this area is without dispute. Also, like Edison, I think Jobs’ reputation will suffer as time passes. Jobs and Apple took advantage of a late capitalist moment where mass consumer products released on yearly cycles with diabolically planned obsolescence is still accepted and simply seen as “just doing business”. A century from now, I think history will look back on this with the same horrified eye that we apply to men in Edison’s employ electrocuting animals in the late 19th century . Whereas Tesla’s strengths and weaknesses are entirely universal – idealism and being a good person are always positives, and being idiosyncratic and unable to bring your ideas complete to fruition will always be weaknesses, so much of the men Edison and Jobs were is unique to their time. It allowed them to enjoy celebrity far beyond their objective contributions, and couldn’t have succeeded in quite the same way at any other time. It is also notable that they were absolute pioneers in entertainment media, Edison on the back of electricity, Jobs thanks to digital technology.

As a post-script to this conversation, the person I am most admiring in my research is…George Westinghouse. Who? Most of you probably know the “Westinghouse” name simply as a dying company that made electrical products more than a generation ago. Well, originally the Westinghouse family of companies were created by George Westinghouse. A machinist by training, he went on to be one of the great industrial titans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a marvelously capable and balanced individual. His brilliance was more akin to Edison’s than Tesla’s, but whereas Edison – like Tesla – was ultimately a geek who would get lost in his technical problems, Westinghouse was a full-on industrialist who – while a “product guy” – was a heavy hitter among the industrial titans of his time. He paid his employees more than he needed to, treated them with respect – remember, many of them were factory workers – and stood out as a pillar of morality and idealism during a very dirty time in the history of American business. He also paid enormously generous royalties to inventors and patent holders – he loved his geeks – and instead of trying to “protect” his patents licensed them under very reasonable terms.

While I lack the profit motive to pursue a “Westinghouse path” to my life he strikes me as the character in the whole “War of Currents” most deserving of emulation. His goodness coupled with his ability to channel his technical knowledge and interests into applied success – underscored by remarkable morality and goodness – is indeed inspiring. For any entrepreneurs out there, studying George Westinghouse and using him as an example would be a heckuva place to get good direction and inspiration from.

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2 thoughts on “On Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Steve Jobs

  • March 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm
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    Excellent analysis. I had to do an extensive amount of research on Edison and Tesla recently, and came away from it feeling exactly as you do; down to my reaction to the Oatmeal’s famous Tesla paean, and more importantly coming away from it all with a deep respect and admiration for George Westinghouse.

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