Tesla vs. Edison: Battle of the Brains


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Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are two of the most important inventors the United States ever had. Edison and Tesla worked together and later were gigantic rivals. They had very different styles. Edison was practical. Tesla was more intellectual. Edison invented the first modern-day research laboratory. Tesla’s inventions made wireless communications possible. Who was the top brain? We would need to consider several factors, including different types of intelligence. The final answer is up to you.  

Thomas Edison   

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) is the most famous American inventor. His record in patents was only broken in 2023 by a Japanese inventor. 

He began as a telegraph operator and soon became a full-time inventor. His most famous discoveries include the photograph, electric light, and multiple motion picture cameras. Edison and his team also invented many things involving cement, iron ore, and mining. 

Thomas Edison was shy and introverted. A childhood illness made him hard of hearing. Nonetheless, Edison’s most important invention might be the first modern research laboratory. His famous Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory was an invention factory.  

Edison’s team encouraged innovation and mass production of inventions. His strategy was practical, based on doing. Edison used trial and error. He tried over sixteen hundred materials before finding the correct carbon filament for the electric light. Tesla once noted:

If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.

Nonetheless, as wasteful as it might have been, Edison’s methods served him well.

Nikola Tesla 

Nicholas Tesla (1856-1943) is less well-known than Thomas Edison. Tesla was the inspiration for a famous automotive and clean energy company. Elon Musk is now CEO.  

Tesla immigrated to the United States from Croatia. He studied science and philosophy at university. Tesla was able to speak many languages and loved to socialize.  

Edison hired Tesla as an engineer. Edison was impressed by his intelligence and ingenuity. Tesla spent a long time improving a direct current generator. He thought Edison promised him fifty thousand dollars for his work. Edison handwaved it as just a joke. Tesla went out on his own.  

Tesla bested Edison by showing the world the value of alternating current (AC), which made power plants possible. Edison tried to badmouth the process. The proof was in the results.

He did innovative work in electricity (including the Telsa coil), X-rays, and radio. Tesla is the father of modern wireless communications.  He had over three hundred patents.  

Tesla used research and intellectual analysis more than Edison. He was more of a pure inventor. Tesla had “eidetic memory,” which allows him to recall intricate details and visualize complex 3D objects. Edison was more hands-on, tinkering until he discovered the solution.  

Edison focused more on what was practical and financially successful. In time, Tesla’s financial backers lost faith in his grandiose schemes.  He had many financial problems in his final years.

Tesla struggled with his mental health.  In his final years, Tesla felt most comfortable feeding pigeons. He also claimed to have invented a “super weapon.” 

He did have the last word in one sense. Shortly after his death, the Supreme Court acknowledged Tesla’s innovations in radio over the alleged “father of radio” (Marconi). 

How To Determine Intelligence

The National Association of School Psychologists informs us that intelligence concerns how well students think. We discovered the perils of measuring intelligence when examining the belief that Asians are smarter than everyone else.  Intelligence tests are open to abuse.

Let us say we figure out a way to measure intelligence. A person can be “smart” in different ways. They can think on their feet, including quickly examining a problem’s aspects. Smarts include being a discerning eye, including knowing what will succeed in the long run.  

A person can have a lot of smarts, especially in their chosen career, without having much “book learning.” For instance, Thomas Edison only had a few years of schooling. 

They also should have intelligence that is suitable for their chosen career. Knowing five ancient languages might not be helpful for a chemist. 

Finally, intelligence and smarts do not guarantee success. A person can have bad luck, lack business sense, or have personality quirks or physical problems that cause difficulties. 

Edison or Tesla? 

Both Edison and Tesla were brilliant scientists and inventors. They had different styles that fit their specific personalities. Tesla eventually ran into financial problems and fought personal demons. Overall, more people know about Edison.  Nonetheless, that is not proof of smarts.  

Thomas Edison had more practical success in various respects. Edison and his team had over three times as many patents. Edison’s research laboratory was a precedent for many modern-day research laboratories.  Edison showed more practical smarts overall.  

Nonetheless, Tesla’s inventions were more innovative, having a 21st-century feel. Edison did great things, but it is quite possible that without Edison, someone else could have invented the light or photograph. Tesla was a more out-of-the-box thinker. 

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that Tesla was the most intelligent person alive. Tesla and Edison each have their fans. It makes for a fun thing to debate about. 

How about you? Who do you think is the most intelligent?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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