Edison & Tesla

Nikola Tesla’s direct association with Edison was very brief. Tesla began work at the Edison Machine Works on 8 June, 1884. The only record in the Edison Papers regarding his employment is a list of Machine Works employees and their monthly salaries. Tesla is listed as "Electrical Engineer" at the salary of $100. Tesla left Edison's Machine Works after about six months and joined with a group of investors to establish a company to market his arc light. Edison had decided to develop an incandescent street lighting system and did not adopt Tesla’s light. Nonetheless, continued interest in arc lights for street lighting led Edison and Samuel Insull, then manager of the Machine Works, to investigated Tesla’s arc light in 1887-1888. They again decided not to go into arc lighting. Thereafter, only periodic references to Tesla appear in the Edison Papers. Click here for a list of all Tesla related documents in the collection.

TESLA: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson

Article featured in October 2013 Newsletter

No finer engine of misinformation has ever exceeded the World Wide Web. It is here that thousands of false memes and rumors are planted daily and grow virally until they become, in the popular imagination, something like the truth. One need only to type the word "Edison" into any search engine to find a myriad of web sites, blogs, and assorted writings which declare that Edison, recognized in his own time as the greatest of inventors, stole all of his ideas and that the chief victim of his thievery was Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). There is even an online debate in progress that considers the proposition: "Nikola Tesla should be taught about in schools for his inventions instead of the people who stole his ideas like Marconi or Edison."


These rather scurrilous stories seem to have their root in a popular misunderstanding of how invention takes place. Inventions rarely spring fully formed from the mind of a single person. The inventor or discoverer proceeds from the information he or she has about what has already been accomplished in the field. In the case of Edison and Tesla, this fundamental misunderstanding and the exaggerated tales that spring from it have proven to be highly damaging. They defame Edison and rob Tesla of his rightful and well-deserved place in the history of the development of electric power. In his new book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, published by Princeton University Press, W. Bernard Carlson, takes pains to readjust our perception of Tesla, and in so doing presents a more realistic perspective on Tesla's relationship with Edison.

While not ignoring Tesla's recent rise to the status of a cult figure, Carlson concentrates his attention on Tesla's very real technological achievements and also sheds light on his failures and their causes. Tesla's career, says Carlson, a professor of science, technology, and society at the University of Virginia, provides the scholar with an unusual symmetry. "It allows us to study a big win and a big loss." The win was, of course, Tesla's alternating current motor and his idea of three-phase power, which sealed the victory of AC power over Edison's preference–direct current–in developing the modern electric power system. The big loss was in radio where Marconi's idea of transmission through the air bested Tesla's notion that wireless waves might better be transmitted through the ground.

Carlson demonstrates that the success or failure of an "invention" often comes down to which form of the invention has the most practical and economical application and is, therefore, able to gain financial and commercial support. Tesla's system of AC polyphase power succeeded because it was a good idea and because AC was cheaper and more efficient to transmit over long distances (at least in 1893) than DC. But it also succeeded because Tesla had the commercial and marketing support of George Westinghouse as well as the financial backing of deep-pocket Wall Street investors. Tesla's system of wireless power transmission, by contrast, eventually failed to gain traction, not only because it was not as practically useful as Marconi's idea, but also because Tesla lost the financial backing of Wall Street to further develop his system.

The relationship between Westinghouse and Tesla, which at times was contentious, is instructive. The Westinghouse Company owned the U.S. patents to Tesla's AC polyphase motors and used its control of this technology to land the contract to build and install the generators and motors at the Niagara Falls Power Plant in the 1890s. As Carlson explains, "the successful development of power at Niagara proved to be the turning point for Tesla's polyphase inventions." It also marked a turning point in the development of the modern world. "As a result of the success of the Niagara Falls power plant," Carlson writes, "American and European utilities shifted to polyphase AC; it now forms the standard current distributed in most parts of the world today." The triumph of Niagara also made Tesla a celebrity, establishing his "reputation as one of America's leading inventors."

But the success of polyphase AC at Niagara was not attributable to Tesla alone. Westinghouse played a key role. It was his company that held and protected Tesla's patents, and it was also Westinghouse's promotional acumen in securing the power contract for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago that sealed the deal in Niagara. Westinghouse used the World's Fair to demonstrate the practicability and efficiency of AC. Then, too, Westinghouse engineers, such as Charles Scott and Benjamin Lamme, made key improvements to Tesla's system–particularly Lamme's rotary converter–that made AC power more adaptable to consumer use. Tesla, though, did play a vital role in the final adoption of polyphase AC at Niagara. He wrote numerous letters to Edward Dean Adams, who organized the financing for the construction of the Niagara plant and headed the construction company, explaining why polyphase AC was technologically and commercially superior to other systems. In the end, Tesla's arguments, based on his deep technological knowledge, were convincing.

It is difficult to see how Edison can be blamed for stealing Tesla's ideas . In terms of his premier invention, the polyphase AC motor, Tesla scored a victory over Edison. Edison, whom Adams had, in fact, consulted first, had proposed installing a DC system. Far from stealing Tesla's key innovation—polyphase AC—Edison resisted it. He promoted his own DC system, in part perhaps, out of simple egotism. He had developed the direct current system, therefore he thought it was the better system. But Edison also seems to have had some sincere reservations about the safety of the AC system for consumers.

Where, then, does the idea that Edison stole inventions from Tesla originate? After all, Edison's most important innovations—the phonograph and the commercially successful incandescent light bulb—had come to fruition before Tesla had ever left his native Serbia or gained any public notice. Perhaps, the roots of the misunderstanding date back to the short period during which Tesla worked for Edison's companies. In the early 1880s, Tesla worked briefly for the Société Electrique Edison, Edison's company in Ivry, France. As Carlson attests, while "working at the Edison works in Ivry, Tesla acquired a great deal of practical engineering knowledge about dynamos and motors." "Up to this point," Carlson continues, "Tesla had done mostly mental engineering, visualizing in his mind how an AC motor might ideally work." It was at Ivry, too, that Tesla came to the notice of Edison's right-hand man, Charles Batchelor, who brought the young engineer to the United States in 1884.

Almost as soon as he arrived in New York, Tesla went to work at the Edison Machine Works at Goerck St. For his part, Edison was impressed with the younger man's work and thought him "a damned good man." But it seems the two men had very little direct intercourse. "Tesla only worked for about six months at the Edison Machine Works," says Carlson. "He was one of about twenty or so of what might be called junior field engineers. He met Edison maybe two times."

Still, Tesla was soon put in charge of developing an arc lighting system for the Edison Construction Department. He was able to develop a successful system, but for business reasons, Edison decided not to use it. Naturally, Tesla was disappointed and also miffed because Edison did not offer him a bonus for completing the system. As Carlson notes, Tesla quit "in disgust." He then patented his system independently and entered into a business arrangement with another company to market it. Edison and his associates were understandably upset about this since Tesla had developed the technology while he was an Edison employee. Generally speaking, Edison allowed his employees to patent their innovations under their own names, but the patents were then assigned to the Edison company, which was a common practice. " "This begs the question," says Carlson, "of who stole from whom."

While the contentious end to Tesla's career as an Edison engineer, along with the roles Tesla and Edison played in the competition over AC and DC, may have provided a small factual foundation for the myth of their titanic antagonism, Carlson thinks another source of popular misunderstanding about their relationship is the need many people have for historical figures to be cast in rather simple-minded dichotomies. One such dichotomy, says Carlson, is "the money grubbing businessman versus the dreamy visionary artist." Edison and Tesla, he notes, "have been shoe-horned into this dichotomy." Since Edison proved to be the better businessman, he naturally was set up unfavorably against Tesla. "It seems that we have to have a good guy and a bad guy," Carlson concludes. "There is in the popular mind a battle between commerce and art. Commerce is always the villain, and art is always the victim."

But the reality of innovation is that art and commerce must work together if any invention is to make a significant impact in the world. The research has to find funding and the invention needs to be manufactured, integrated into a larger commercial system, and marketed to consumers. The story, Carlson argues, is always more complex than the simple but popular dichotomies allow.

Then, too, there is the real story of Edison and Tesla's ongoing relationship. "Tesla and Edison learned to live with each other," says Carlson. He notes that "Edison sent Tesla an autographed picture when Tesla started to become well-known." The younger man thought well of the gesture and cherished this token of Edison's esteem. And later, when Tesla appeared before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers to promote his wireless scheme, Edison put in a rare appearance to hear what he had to say. "To show his appreciation," says Carlson, "Tesla got everyone to give the old man a standing ovation.'