Column: If Tesla was the real visionary, why does Edison get all the glory?
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from John Wasik’s new book, “Lightning Strikes: Timeless Lessons in Creativity from the Life and Work of Nikola Tesla” (Sterling, 2016), slightly edited for this column.
World-changing inventions made Nikola Tesla a celebrity in his own time, but something otherworldly makes him transcend his era and remain a perpetual beacon for our civilization 70 years after his death.
He’s now an immortal rock star, an icon for billionaires, cyberpunks, artists and “maker” inventors who are still fiddling with everyday machines in their basements and garages. Search engine designers, energy czars, musicians, artists and creators everywhere feel his influence. He’s our Leonardo, the Shakespeare of invention.
A car, a rock band and a unit of magnetic measurement have been named after Tesla. You can talk to anyone who has enjoyed any mad scientist scene in any science fiction or horror movie and see his Tesla coil pulsing electricity like a dynamic spider web of electrons.
Tesla is energy, meters, dials, lightning bolts and the robot-drone master. He’s patron saint, discoverer and wronged entrepreneur. A prophet dishonored in his own time, but revered in ours. To some of his latter-day followers, it’s as if Tesla never died, instead living on as a techno-mystic deity.
Tesla broke the rules to become one of the most successful inventors of all time. To call Tesla just an inventor, though, is to understate his thorough understanding of how energy, science and world peace could co-exist. His was a mind burning with powerful ideas that have resonated and become amplified since his passing in 1943. He’s now seen as a visionary who wanted to marry technology with world peace.
Few of his Tesla’s peers have attracted such devotion, making him an object of cult-like veneration.
New Agers insist that he talked with alien worlds (or was an alien himself), while conspiracy theorists think his idea of a “death ray” that could blast planes out of the sky was eventually developed by the Pentagon and that the government has been keeping it a secret for nearly 70 years. Over the years, Tesla’s technology has been blamed for everything from destroying Siberian forests to Hurricane Katrina.
Today, there are few stronger, sexier brands than Tesla. In our day, Tesla’s achievements have come to overshadow those of his nemesis Thomas Edison, who worked manically, and completely failed, to defeat Tesla’s operating system for the global electrical grid (alternating current). And yet, for all of Tesla’s status among cultists and all the relevance of his inventions to our modern lives, it is Edison who still continues to be remembered as an American hero.
Unlike Edison, Tesla was chimeric; that is, he was like the ancient, mythical beast that was part lion, dragon and snake. (In the Greek myth, the monster is slain by the hero Bellerophon, who rides Pegasus, but later falls from the winged horse.) Metaphorically, to become chimeric is to embody different kinds of human creativity; chimeric transformation is what Tesla showed us, who endured many trials of fire as he transformed himself from an electrical engineer fixing Edison’s early projects to the systemic thinker who was dreaming up solutions for universal clean energy and world peace. A disruptive innovator, he set the tone for generations.
What does Tesla offer for today’s global economy? The inventor looked at changing entire systems. How can we more efficiently move power and information? Remember the electrical grid is antiquated and based on century-old technology.
What about the creative process needed to provoke disruptive innovation? Tesla showed us that we need to visualize what we need to do, then draw or animate designs and make models — and tinker with them.
Failure, by the way, is a key part of the learning process, something that we don’t embrace too readily in Western culture.
The Maker Faire movement, for example, is promoting this process through 3-D printing, robotics and coding. I’ve been to several Maker Faires and I love the way kids come in and just play with things to see how they work. That’s the future of innovation, not manically teaching to standardized tests, offering more PowerPoint presentations or browbeating students into getting perfect grades.
Granted, nearly every major system is in need of reinvention, which is a key component of Tesla’s creative machine. Break it down, rebuild it, make it better. That applies to everything from urban transportation to the political machines that need to be re-engineered to provide broadly shared prosperity and a spiritual economics. It’s Tesla-like innovation that will engender a more compassionate capitalism and political systems.