A biography of T. Edison, comparisons to Tesla, and TANSTAAFL

This little snippet of a book review is 100 years old. It was written about Thomas Edison while he was still alive.

Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life. By Francis Arthur Jones. From Nature 11 June 1908: This biography should do much to disillusion the impressions which are so commonly formed about successful men, that they only have to invent something to make a fortune. It shows clearly that the only road to success is through failure. His career as a telegraph operator was most precarious, and one of his first inventions—a vote-recording machine for election purposes—was refused, really because it was too ingenious and perfect; in fact, it could not be tampered with.

Common wisdom holds Edison above Tesla in terms of fame and historical import. Edison certainly made a great deal more money. Scientifically, it is probably a fair statement that Tesla was the more gifted. The underground conspiracy culture holds Tesla in high regard and supposes that his inventions were so good that they were suppressed so that Edison (and his like) could make more money. Of course, they are not called the conspiracy culture for nothing. I think that the comparison between the two inventors illustrates this: that the balance between science and what we would now call marketing is as fine as a razor’s edge.

Tesla lacked the marketing savvy to get credit for his science. Edison had talent, but also a shrewdness that allowed him to capitalize on it. Ironically, the conspiracy culture that idolizes Tesla is the embodiment of his opposite: they are all savvy and no science. The market for free energy devices is as active as it was 800 years ago, and its success is as imminent now as it was then. It’s too bad that Tesla’s name is caught up with those memes.


P.S. TANSTAAFL is the universal principle that There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.  So don’t you forget it.