If you read the comments on YouTube under the trailer for the upcoming movie The Current War, they get pretty personal. The film details the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse and their competing electrical systems — Edison was extremely into direct current, despite its limitations, while Westinghouse was adamant that alternating current was the future. The thing that gets people hot under the collar, though, is neither Edison nor Westinghouse, but the involvement of Nikola Tesla.
Tesla worked for both Edison and Westinghouse, and is pretty much the internet’s favorite scientist, which is weird, because until about 25 years ago, Tesla was a reasonably obscure historical figure. Sure, he was a big deal in Serbia (where he was born), and held in high regard by scientists, but compared to Edison’s household-name status, he was practically forgotten. Now, though, the internet adores him and tattoos his face everywhere — but this being the internet, it adores him in a way that mostly involves shit-talking Thomas Edison at any given opportunity.
As for why, the story goes that Edison offered Tesla a $50,000 bonus (the equivalent of $12 million in 2019) if he developed more efficient dynamos. Then, after Tesla worked his ass off doing so, Edison claimed it was all a gag, telling him, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”
It’s a compelling underdog tale — the quiet genius overshadowed and usurped by the flashy, immigrant-abusing charlatan. There’s a romanticism to the unsung brilliance of a man trying to help the world, crushed by the money-grabbing bullshit of a thuggish, money-hungry liar. Everyone has felt unappreciated, and the idea of this shit-upon guy finally being vindicated a century after being dicked over is absolutely appealing. Likewise, the idea of reappraising an American icon found on every middle school syllabus and concluding that he actually fucking sucked is exciting.
The thing is, the story doesn’t seem to be true. In Tesla’s own autobiography, he confirms that the manager of Edison Machine Works, Charles Batchelor, offered him the bonus, “but it turned out to be a practical joke.” An asshole move, certainly, but not by the man it’s so frequently credited to.
Now, Edison absolutely knew what he was doing when it came to self-promotion and building his own profile, often taking existing work and “honing” it into a patent with his name on it. Anything developed by people in his lab also ended up sporting his name on its patent, and he wasn’t above playing dirty when it came to trying to discredit other people or accuse them of stealing his ideas. In all, his name ended up on 1,093 U.S. patents, but while a lot of his achievements did indeed involve piggybacking on other people’s work, he was also unquestionably brilliant.
Edison’s talent for blowing his own horn won him a fan in Elon Musk, CEO of the company named after Nikola Tesla. In 2008, Musk — who wasn’t involved in the naming of the company, being retroactively made a co-founder after getting involved during funding — commented, “It’s an interesting contrast, Edison versus Tesla. The car company’s called Tesla because we use an AC induction motor, which is an architecture that Tesla developed, and the guy probably deserves a little more play than he gets in current society. But on balance I’m a bigger fan of Edison than Tesla, because Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world, whereas Tesla didn’t really do that.” Musk was criticized for this statement, but a few years later ended up donating a million dollars to the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe.
It’s odd that it’s seemingly become impossible to respect both men. Express even a modicum of admiration for Edison online and you’ll be chastised by a bunch of read-up Tesla bros who would happily piss in the former’s grave. At some point it seems to have become entirely binary, where liking Tesla also necessitates detesting Edison. It can’t just be a case of, “This historical figure is finally getting his due, which is great” — it has to be, “Edison was a PRICK and a LIAR, who MURDERED ANIMALS and was SMELLY.”
This comic by the Oatmeal, for instance, is ostensibly about how great Tesla was, but dedicates about half of its word count to calling Edison a “bloated, misguided ass” and a “fucking idiot,” floats the suggestion that he was a pedophile and refers to him with dozens of variations on “douchebag.” The creator of the comic later got Musk to cough up that million bucks for the Tesla Science Center, which is impressive. Slightly less impressively, the comic also led Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for the word “douchebag” to have to be protected due to constant vandalism, as Tesla fans repeatedly edited it to offer a link to Thomas Edison’s page.
One of the frustrating effects of this Tesla-good-Edison-bad dynamic is a tendency among Tesla acolytes to cherry-pick what to scrutinize. His not-great views on eugenics, for instance, are generally given a pass because “lots of people thought like that at the time,” while the erroneous claim that Edison killed an elephant with alternating current — one that requires minimal research to debunk — is mentioned frequently.
(For the record, in 1903, the proprietors of Luna Park on Coney Island electrocuted their elephant, Topsy, as a genuinely vile publicity stunt. Despite repeated claims that Edison did it using alternating current, as “proof” that AC was incredibly dangerous, the electrocution took place a decade after the AC/DC “war,” and the only connection to Edison was that it was filmed by a news crew from his company. Once again, there are complete assholes in this story, but the assholeness is misattributed.)
Edison absolutely dicked a few people over in his time, but using his moments of bastardry to discredit him entirely for what was, by any metric, an extraordinarily achievement-filled life is incredibly reductive. This is a guy who overcame being rendered half-deaf as a child; saved a three-year-old boy from being run over by a train when he was still a teenager; and through a combination of marketing nous, business sense and genuine innovation, changed what the world looked like. He invented, improved or popularized the light bulb, the movie camera, the X-ray machine and loads more, as well as changing how science was undertaken by founding the first industrial research laboratory. He was a vegetarian and — despite his involvement in the development of the electric chair, which ran on alternating current — preached nonviolence, claiming the only weaponry he ever helped create was defensive (Tesla, meanwhile, spent some time working on death rays).
But to the people commenting under that trailer on YouTube, Edison was nothing but a scumbag, thief and piece of shit next to Tesla. An inquiry to one of the moderators of the r/Tesla subreddit — dedicated to discussing the scientist’s endeavors and sharing images from his patents and journals — as to what it was about Tesla they thought dudes found so compelling, garnered an incredibly detailed, 1,200-word response. It name-checked dozens of scientists and inventors that Tesla was better than, and also insisted that while Edison was “a huge fraud who should be remembered as a fraud rather than an inventor,” he “wasn’t the villain of Tesla’s story, because he wasn’t important enough to matter.”
Of course, there might be another reason certain corners of the internet have become so taken with Tesla. Despite being a handsome chap with a magnificent moustache (and 6-foot-6, which doesn’t tend to hurt), Tesla wasn’t what you’d deem a hit with the ladies. He spent his whole 86-year life entirely chaste — he started off considering himself unworthy of female attention and dedicating all his efforts to his work, ultimately deciding his chastity was useful. Later on, he expressed “disappointment” in women seeking equality and positions of power, and “pushing man aside.” He found overweight women repulsive, would occasionally send female employees home to change their outfits if he didn’t care for how they looked and described himself as having a “violent aversion” to women with pierced ears.
So, MGTOWs like him. They really, really like him — this fiercely intelligent man who had no time for such fripperies as sex, due to doing Important Stuff, and whose lifelong chastity proves the world’s fundamental unfairness. He’s mentioned on the MGTOW website as being one of the originators of the idea of Men Going Their Own Way, and you can see why men drawn to that would venerate him.
In fairness to the man himself, it should be noted that it’s not out of the question that the MGTOWs’ adamant insistence that he was one of them is completely ill-founded — Tesla was a massive germaphobe, so it’s entirely possible his aversion to relationships came from being grossed out by the idea of sex, rather than considering himself above it. He often spoke of being lonely, and toward the end of his life expressed regret at having never married.
In the end, both Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were extraordinarily talented, flawed men, who left the world a more knowledgeable, better-lit place. But the weird way Tesla’s story has become defined by who he wasn’t, as well as what he didn’t do, does a fascinating figure a disservice. Surely he deserves more of a legacy than his story being half about what a fucker this other guy was, and half about how he was too damn clever to waste his time boning? He was more than just a victim and virgin — he also had a really cool moustache and tried to build a death ray!