Before there were bicoastal battles over rap styles or international incidents about comma use, there was a gentlemanly but sometimes biting standoff between two of the greatest minds in science: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

But did they really hate everyone as much as pop culture would suggest? Probably not.

Coming to America

Nikola Tesla seated next to one of his coils for the conduction of alternating current electricity. Image: Tesla: Master of Lightning, New Voyage Communications

Tesla came to the United States in 1884 with little to his name but an outsized sense of curiosity and an intellect to match. He was hired by Edison to work together on the burgeoning concepts Edison was creating around electricity and the possibility of creating electrical circuits for personal homes and municipalities.

Tesla, who ignored his father’s hopes of entering the priesthood in favour of devoting his life to science, joined Edison at his company in New York and spent a short time there.

The two men, both brilliant, had a fundamental disagreement about which type of current was most efficient and safest to consider for widespread use. Tesla’s first work in electricity was at a Continental Edison Company location in Paris.

He installed incandescent lighting inside buildings as a utility worker but, after his managers learned of his background in physics and engineering, they promoted him to design and build new motors.

When he arrived in the US, Tesla set to work at Edison Machine Works to determine how to electrify New York City. In particular, Tesla was assigned to develop an arc lamp for the city’s streetlight system, but the lamp’s design wasn’t compatible with Edison’s low-voltage system.

He offered an alternative design for the lamps but none were ever accepted or approved.

Business versus science

Edison is considered one of the most brilliant and prolific inventors in human history. At the time of his death in 1931, Edison owned more than a thousand patents. Image: shutterstock

Edison, of course, is known as a brilliant inventor who gave us the lightbulb, phonograph, motion pictures and electronic voting machines, but he had the reputation of being an idea man who benefitted from the work of the teams of people who worked for him, taking credit that maybe wasn’t due directly to him.

The crux of their disagreement was the type of current that would be most reliable and practical for electrifying the cities and homes of the United States: Alternating current, in which electricity can change direction at regular intervals, or direct current, which flows only in one direction.

The story goes that Tesla was determined he could make Edison’s machines more efficient. Edison allegedly bet Tesla a huge sum for that time — $50,000 – if he successfully accomplished this task. Inspired and a little stubborn, Tesla worked tirelessly for months and made significant progress, but Edison laughed off the promised payment.

Instead, he told Tesla that it had all been a joke, that Tesla didn’t understand American humour and he had no intention of paying him the money. Instead, he offered Tesla a raise of $10 per week. Tesla quit. His diary has a message scribbled across the two pages covering December 7, 1884 through January 4, 1885: “Good by to the Edison Machine Works.”

Then the spat, soon to be known as the War of the Currents, went public.

Tesla’s laboratory at Wadenclyffe, Long Island, New York, powered by electricity conducted at his plant in Niagara Falls on the other end of the state.. Image: Public Domain

When in doubt, electrocute an elephant

Edison’s direct current was already widely used but required small power plants to be constructed across a city to relay the current as it was difficult to convert the low voltage electricity from plants into high-voltage lines.

Tesla’s alternating current, because it could change directions, flowed and distributed electricity more easily and without the requirement of transmission stations across a city. Voltage could be lowered as needed.

Edison, angered at his former employee’s successful sale of a patent to his rival George Westinghouse, decided to claim that alternating current was much more dangerous and less stable than his direct current. (Some reports indicated Westinghouse paid Tesla $60,000 cash and stock for his patents.)

He began to stage outrageous stunts of electrocution by alternating current, including the 1903 electrocution of a circus elephant outfitted with copper-wire sandals named Topsy in front of an audience and while a camera was rolling, capturing the footage.

Edison gets richer and Tesla becomes poorer

Just as the feud started, it fizzled out: Westinghouse and Tesla were successful in their bid to provide electricity to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, something Edison had also applied for but lost. Within a few years, Tesla was onto other things, including his original tinkering with technology that would become radio and would set the stage, decades later, for the internet.

Edison’s electrocution of an elephant would be viewed as event more unnecessary in hindsight: General Electric had switched over to alternating current in 1896.

Tesla’s hydroelectric plant in Niagara Falls, NY, during the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Image: University of Buffalo Libraries / C. D. Arnold, Courtesy of Kerry S. Grant.

Edison lived out his days in Menlo Park, NJ, working until just before he died in 1931 at 83 with more than a thousand patents to his name.

Tesla, on the other hand, died penniless in a New York City hotel, relatively unknown and without the respect and admiration he’s had in recent years. He left behind the world’s first hydroelectric plant in Niagara Falls, NY, the power from which electrified Buffalo at night during the 1901 Pan American Exposition.


Cover Image by Martin Driver / wallpapersafari

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Amber Healy

Amber Healy has been writing, both personally and professionally, since she nagged her hometown paper to give her an internship in 1996. She's a big believer that the most fascinating stories are hidden under layers of seemingly boring drivel.