Today is a special day to an army of internet geek followers, proud champions of the en vogue practice of putting up anything technical as something "awesome!" simply because it is technical and people that work in that space are cool for reasons that can't otherwise be distilled. Yet another day where I get to grit my teeth at the dozens of posts upholding the "unbelievable" genius of Nikola Tesla and how he's been so wronged by history.
I am here to strike a contrarian chord.....Give it a rest. Tesla was indeed a great engineer, he devised some really cool technologies, alternating current and wireless transmission technologies being the two best by far....but he was only an engineer. The fact that he died penniless is direct indication of his lack of *grander vision* for the technologies he created and that's the most sad thing of all.
here) BUT he was also an astonishing visionary. He made use of the engineering ability of guys like Tesla to push forward a far more ambitious plan, to change the world with a new landscape of deployed technology. He saw the need to build infrastructure of what could be beyond just creation of single works of invention.
He saw the destination and knew how to build the car and the road to get there...unlike Tesla who was only focused variably on the road or the car, so though it is often popular (among laymen enthusiasts or non EE's like that theoatmeal guy) to beat up Edison over the fact he electrocuted animals to show of some of his technology it is also very important to realize that the company he founded is today, over 120 years later is still one of the largest companies in the world and still fulfilling Edison's vision in far flung regions of the world...
bringing good things, to light.
If you go by theoatmeal.com's article linked previously you'll quickly come to think of Edison as a talentless hack who was not a geek and only appropriated the technology he got others to create for him but this is a gross twisting of reality. In fact, to disabuse you of this notion straight away here is one of Edison's "tests", as a requirement for working at his company he would personally write down a set of questions of general knowledge that he felt any one who would be worthy of working for him should be able to answer. Here is a sampling of those questions.
Not so bad, but also not very technical either but we need to keep in mind that he was trying to probe the width of knowledge in this test over the depth of knowledge in any particular area, for him width of knowledge correlated with a knowledge hungry mind and those minds tend to be free explorers of the possibilities in what ever they happen to do, their in lies the genius of this approach but let's get back to Edison, before we get to the light bulb what was he all about?
" One of his mentors during those early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the impoverished youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey home. Some of Edison's earliest inventions were related to telegraphy, including a stock ticker. His first patent was for the electric vote recorder, (U.S. Patent 90,646), which was granted on June 1, 1869. "
:At the ripe old age of 22, but he was just getting started:
" Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention that first gained him notice was the phonograph in 1877. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park," New Jersey. "
: So it is clear that he was indeed an engineer and geek and one quite adept at the skills of experimentation and iteration that led to invention and in the particular case of the phonograph invention that seemed completely novel at the time it was created. In fact the closest we can say that the Zeitgeist of the time had in terms of the idea of a sound recording and play back device would be the analog for images created just about 40 years earlier by the Frenchman Louis Daguerre. It's important to note what the Zeitgeist was milling about because that is an indicator of the true novelty of an innovation, when an inventor creates the entire framework for a given technology it is a far more impressive feat than simply iterating on what others had already done. Often the claim is made (as it was done in theoatmeal article) that Edison didn't invent the light bulb that he only learned how to sell it but the truth goes far beyond that as you'll see.
As for Edison, after his invention of the phonograph he continued to create devices and with an improvement to the telegraph really hit his first windfall.
" Edison's major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was built with the funds from the sale of Edison's quadruplex telegraph. "
:This allowed him to start thinking about invention in an industrial way, which also was an innovation. He created his invention factory and started hiring skilled engineers to work on products that solved various problems of the day. This is a visionary concept and one which to this day many large corporations engage as a model in their research and development labs devoted to pure research.
Further on the idea that Edison didn't do math....
" One of Sprague's contributions to the Edison Laboratory at Menlo Park was to expand Edison's mathematical methods. Despite the common belief that Edison did not use mathematics, analysis of his notebooks reveal that he was an astute user of mathematical analysis conducted by his assistants such as Francis Robbins Upton, for example, determining the critical parameters of his electric lighting system including lamp resistance by an analysis of Ohm's Law, Joule's Law and economics. "
So it is clear that not only was Thomas Edison quite a prolific engineer by the time he was in his early 30's but he'd invented already a completely novel technology that on it's own invented the field of audio recording and play back (read that again if it didn't sink in yet)....but he wasn't done, you see this thing called the electric lamp was out there and it posed a conundrum to attempts to commercialize it, not for 5 years or 10 or 20 but for over 60 years.
The Pre Edison bulb
"Another historian, Thomas Hughes, has attributed Edison's success to his development of an entire, integrated system of electric lighting.
The lamp was a small component in his system of electric lighting, and no more critical to its effective functioning than the Edison Jumbo generator, the Edison main and feeder, and the parallel-distribution system. Other inventors with generators and incandescent lamps, and with comparable ingenuity and excellence, have long been forgotten because their creators did not preside over their introduction in a system of lighting.—Historian Thomas P. Hughes"
Humphrey Davy's demonstrated the first incandescent lighting, if you can call it that by running a large current through platinum to get it to glow in 1802.
"In 1809, Davy also created the first arc lamp with two carbon charcoal rods connected to a 2000-cell battery; it was demonstrated to the Royal Institution in 1810."
:and more improvements came....
"In 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue enclosed a coiled platinum filament in a vacuum tube and passed an electric current through it. The design was based on the concept that the high melting point of platinum would allow it to operate at high temperatures and that the evacuated chamber would contain fewer gas molecules to react with the platinum, improving its longevity. Although an efficient design, the cost of the platinum made it impractical for commercial use."
:and more improvements came..."In 1841, Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp, with a design using platinum wires contained within a vacuum bulb."
:and more attempts were made....
" In 1841, Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp, with a design using platinum wires contained within a vacuum bulb. "
:The theme is clear that the general form of the modern lamp was done by 1840 but the methods used were either too expensive or not efficient enough.
" Thomas Edison began serious research into developing a practical incandescent lamp in 1878. Edison filed his first patent application for "Improvement In Electric Lights" on 14 October 1878. After many experiments with platinum and other metal filaments, Edison returned to a carbon filament. The first successful test was on 22 October 1879, and lasted 13.5 hours. Edison continued to improve this design and by 4 November 1879 "
Critically though, none of those inventors thought to figure out a way to have the deployment of the bulbs be paid for by other means as Edison did, it is this genius that is the sole innovation of Edison in the 75 year electric light story. He realized that a bulb was nothing without an infrastructure, he further realized and more importantly that having an infrastructure of power generation and distribution would boost demand for the bulbs which could make the high initial pricing seem palatable and that's exactly what he sought to do the moment he got a good enough bulb design working:
" Edison patented a system for electricity distribution in 1880, which was essential to capitalize on the invention of the electric lamp. On December 17, 1880, Edison founded the Edison Illuminating Company. The company established the first investor-owned electric utility in 1882 on Pearl Street Station, New York City. It was on September 4, 1882, that Edison switched on his Pearl Street generating station's electrical power distribution system, which provided 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan. "
:So although many different bulb designs were being made practical around the same time, Edison was quick to realize that generation and power distribution systems were required to reveal the true inherent value of the bulb, to take them from toys for carnivals to useful means of artificial illumination.
It doesn't take long for one to realize why he saw it this way, artificial lighting could drastically extend the usable hours of work for many types of manufacturing tasks and during the latter quarter of the 19th century the industrial revolution was in full swing. The global boost in manufacturing that was happening on it's own steam could now be accelerated by being switched to electric power generation coupled with electric lighting. Factories could run all night instead of just during the day, shifts could be extended and added...the possibility for productivity improvement existed for orders of magnitude of growth from the current paradigm.
AC versus DC
The war of the currents as it came to be known was more than just a battle between Edison and Tesla as popularly described, it was about two approaches to generating and delivering energy with distinct benefits and drawbacks.
AC power was more difficult to create, requiring various phasing mechanisms to produce with more complex generator designs relative to DC.
DC required greater current flow to be delivered at a given power across a line and thus was less efficient for transmission than AC.
DC at the mains was also more likely to lead to injury in accidents for a given current compared to AC.
AC had the advantage of more efficient distribution of large power amounts using stepping via transformers over vast distances compared to DC.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_Currents
:Ultimately these realities were just tools used by the American and European companies that were trying to boost demand for *their* chosen approach to generation and distribution. Today we see a rather even mix of utilization of AC and DC devices depending on where they are most efficient, back then the market was unclear to the players and anything that could be done to grab a larger share of it as on the table. Edison being a bit more of a business man than most knew the power of publicity in this and chose unfortunate spectacles (electrocuting animals) to show the relative dangers of AC at the mains over DC but this should not blemish his vision, which was to realize that efficient power distribution would achieve the goal of:
" Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. It was during this time that he said: "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."
:It's important to understand the drive behind this idea, it wasn't only about making money off the bulb he wanted to make it cheaper because doing so would unleash it's value to the masses. As a person who grew up in poverty it must have weighed heavily on Edison the task of achieving inventions that had large impact. The phonograph, carbon microphone and the creation of the invention factory at Menlo Park all speak to these grand ambitions beyond just making money.
So where was Tesla in all this? Tesla had worked briefly with Edison before leaving over disagreements on the approaches regarding the power distribution and generation current wars.
" Edison hired Tesla to work for his Edison Machine Works. Tesla's work for Edison began with simple electrical engineering and quickly progressed to solving some of the company's most difficult problems. Tesla was even offered the task of completely redesigning the Edison Company's direct current generators. "
:Here the story gets muddled as Tesla claims he redesigned the systems and was shafted on the word of mouth claim supposedly uttered by Edison and Edison denies such a claim though apparently did make an offer of a large per hour raise after Tesla had done some work, but given the short period of time the two worked together it is difficult to imagine that Tesla was able to make as large an impact as he claims especially given the DC nature of most of Edison's systems. Tesla would quit and proceed to create his own company where he would focus on the AC generators and distribution systems.
The contrasts are clear, where Edison was working across a large landscape of the possibilities of using electric generation, distribution and lighting to improve peoples lives as the main focus...Tesla was focused on the specifics of creating solutions. Both were engineers, but Edison learned from his early personal engineering efforts to invest his winnings in the industrial discovery and refinements of technologies that helped achieve his over all goal.
He was relentless in this...Edison forms a model for people that would come later that would serve similar rolls of visionary and Engineer. Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs at Apple all served a similar role with varying technical abilities between them...on the ascent in this role today Elon Musk stands out. In my own work championing the new paradigm of Action Oriented Workflow that I invented, I am very much echoing the spirit of those mentioned which includes Edison more than it does Tesla in that role of creating a new landscape of possibility and exploring it.
Let's not detract from the great contributions of innovation that Tesla made, he was indeed a brilliant Engineer...as a fellow Electrical Engineer he stands among a list of heroes in the space from Edwin Armstrong to Carver Meade but Tesla was an engineer with only a sliver of the vision that Edison, also an Engineer was able to engage and employ. So to me when people compare the two they are admitting a raft of misunderstandings concerning what was in the minds of both men and what their respective roles were in the process of building the infrastructure we now take for granted. They were two Engineers with two different end games in mind and both were able to find amazing success in achieving their respective goals and we are the benefits of this success.