Geek Past

The glorification of the legendary geek inventor Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla is the poster child for the story of the little guy who takes on the world. He came to America with just a few cents in his pocket, looking to find a better life, and prove his point to the world. What adds extra energy to the story is that Tesla just didn't go up against the world, he went up against the greatest inventor of all times, Thomas Edison.

While there is a current coolness to loving Tesla for being the unsung hero, there is also a coolness for bashing Thomas Edison. It is almost impossible to get the words Edison and light bulb out of your mouth without someone shouting, "Edison didn't invent the light bulb!" There is a boastful gloating by some in calling Edison evil, and contrasting Tesla as the good that defeated the evil.

But Tesla didn't stop with just defeating Edison, he took on the other giants of his day. I remember when I was growing up reading that Marconi invented the radio. Ah, how wrong, say the Tesla fans, "Marconi didn't invent the radio!" They claim Marconi stole all his ideas from Tesla!

Tesla defeated the mighty Edison, his ideas were stolen by the great Marconi. But Tesla went after another giant of his day, he took on Einstein, the greatest scientist of his day, and dared to call Einstein, a long haired crank.

Beyond the character of good versus evil, there is the mystical Tesla, who went to the mountain tops of Colorado to harness lightning for the good of mankind, and communicate with other worlds along the way. The final battle of Tesla versus the world are the stories of the mythical free energy that Tesla promised he could create, but was stopped, and silenced by the evil corporate America.

The War of Currents was a battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, but the internet has changed it to a battle between Thomas Edison and Nikola Telsa, it makes for a better story.

Westinghouse spent most of his life running his businesses from the smoke stack city of Pittsburgh. Westinghouse was a quiet man who did not seek the spotlight. For as much as I have studied the late industrial age, I have not found many photos of Westinghouse. Compared to Tesla, Westinghouse was a pretty boring character.

Tesla rubbed elbows with the rich and famous as he frequented the best restaurants in New York City. Tesla was good friends with many famous people such as Mark Twain and loved to share his party tricks and experiments with his famous friends. Edison was called the Wizard of Menlo Park, but Tesla was really the wizard. Nikola Tesla was a handsome well dressed fellow. Tesla was an entertaining guy, he had cool party tricks, he invited the rich and famous back to his lab so he could shoot lighting bolts at them.

Every great epic story needs a hero and a villain. In the romanticized story known as the War of Currents, Edison is the villain. He is the guy everyone loves to hate. Tesla represents the hero we can identify with, the dreamer in all of us. It is the ultimate battle of good versus evil, and all the forces of evil, against that well meaning immigrant, who took them all on, representing every man with a dream who felt dumped on by the world.

People overrate the inventions and accomplishments of Nikola Tesla because they get so wrapped up in the myths and legends of a very interesting character.

The Cult of Nikola Tesla

Sadly, people get so passionate about Nikola Tesla they lose perspective of his accomplishments. If you study the times of Tesla, the late 1800s and early 1900s, you will find many inventors working on similar inventions. Tesla was not a hermit with a secret lab in a case. He was learning the ideas and inventions of others.

Some people get mad when I refer to The Cult of Nikola Tesla, but the followers of Tesla have a religious fervor to their devotion to the man. They take one small bit of information and turn it into a sermon for their beliefs.

But Edison didn't invent the light bulb!

That's right, Edison didn't invent the concept of lighting and electrical distribution systems. But neither did Tesla. The concept of lighting and electrical distribution systems was being developed in Europe before Edison and Tesla.

Tesla invented Alternating Current!

No, he didn't. Michael Faraday and Hippolyte Pixii were working with Alternating Current and electric motors in the early 1800s, years before Tesla was born.

But Tesla invented the AC induction motor!

Maybe, maybe not. Some sources name Galileo Ferraris as the inventor of induction motors. Some sources name Nikola Tesla as the inventor. Not taking any chances on patent issues, Westinghouse purchased a U.S. patent option on induction motors from Galileo Ferraris, along with Tesla's patents.

Marconi didn't invent the radio!

For years I was content with the common story that radio was primarily the work of Marconi. The Tesla fans are pretty persistent in their message that Marconi was a thief, and point to a 1943 US Supreme Court decision as "proof" that Tesla, not Marconi, was the real inventor of radio.

The 1943 US Supreme Court decision does not change the original radio patent of Marconi, but the decision overturns patents for many of the advanced features of radio, affirming prior work and patents that were held by Sir Oliver Lodge and John Stone Stone.

Marconi does not deserve credit for inventing radio, but neither does Tesla. There are many names that add to that list such as Reginald Fessenden.

Fessenden had many striking similarities to Tesla, working early in his career with Thomas Edison, but later teamed up with George Westinghouse to defeat Edison in the famous "War of Currents.

The forgotten geek that everyone knows

You hear the phrase of a "perfect storm" to describe a rare combination of circumstances coming together to make an event much larger that it would be otherwise. With Nikola Tesla there is a "perfect storm" of events which take him beyond just a cool geek to super hero status.

Learn more, the truth is out there:

Who contributed to the development of electricity and AC power

Who is responsible for electricity and AC power in our homes

Geekhistory explores who invented radio