Nowadays, when people think about the most important inventors of modern history, minds automatically go to Thomas Edison, when they should in fact go to Nikola Tesla. It’s understandable why this is so. We weren’t exactly taught about Tesla in school, which makes sense considering that, in the two most famous pictures of these men, one is sitting austerely and with tons of dignity, while the other is holding a pair of glowing balls, his handlebar mustache looking like it just can’t wait to command the body it’s taken over to go tie a poor girl to the train tracks. So the education system has decided to teach us all about the sane guy, rather than the one who comes as close to the definition of ‘mad scientist’ as a man whose inventions were actually successful can get. We learn all about Edison pretty much creating mass electricity all on his own, without anyone even mentioning that it was Tesla who created alternating current, the very thing that makes electricity as we know it work. Not only did Tesla invent it, but Edison did his best to destroy it, along with pretty much every other awesome thing that Tesla did. The man did have an awful lot of time on his hands considering a huge amount of the inventions that came out of his workshop came his underlings. He merely slapped his name on them and said, “Look how smart I am.”
It does make sense that we weren’t taught a whole lot about Tesla when you realize that, outside of the incredible contributions he made to the study of electricity and electromagnetism, he truly was a mad scientist, devoting a fair amount of time to studies and experiments that would probably make him look quite a bit like one of the scarier comic book villains. Among the inventions he planned (but never quite got to work) are an anti-gravity air ship and a “memory beam” that could look into your mind and take pictures of the things you’re thinking of. His successful inventions include an EARTHQUAKE MACHINE that even totally-out-of-his-mind Tesla realized was probably a bad idea – after it had already caused an earthquake that nearly destroyed Fifth Avenue, and frakking ROBOTS. He’s also frequently attributed to the 1908 Tunguska Event – a mysterious and still unexplained explosion in Russia that was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb. Tesla had a workshop nearby and was said to be testing a death ray, a particle beam that he claimed could shoot down “10,000 enemy planes at a distance of 200 miles”. He also looked into the future and predicted the internet. He said that, “The household’s daily newspaper will be printed wirelessly in the home during the night.” The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were so afraid of his inventions that, after Tesla’s death, they took all of his personal belongings, terrified that someone might get their hands on his work and use it to take over the world. Literally.
Tesla’s eccentricities went beyond just the weird stuff he created. He likely suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, with a crippling fear of dirt and germs and a fixation on the number three (he would only stay in hotel rooms that were divisible by three). He didn’t like round objects, and found fat people and pearls disgusting (kind of tying in with that whole ‘not liking round objects’ thing). The germ fear was probably the thing that kept him celibate for his whole life (so, basically, Tesla was like George from that one episode of Seinfeld). Tesla was not, however, agoraphobic, like some have said. He actually quite enjoyed giving presentations, but only if his electricity machine was with him. Basically, he liked talking to people, but only if he was allowed to look like the coolest mofo on the planet while he did it.
The rivalry between Tesla and Edison wasn’t just because Edison was mean and jealous. It actually started when Tesla came to America from Croatia. He went to work for the already-established Edison (this was obviously before it was common knowledge that the people working for Edison were the ones inventing things, while Edison sat in his office reading Garfield while his soul and heart grew blacker and blacker, until he was basically Lionel Barrymore in It’s a Wonderful Life). Tesla and Edison had many arguments about how inefficient Edison electricity technique was, and that he could fix it and save Edison, and everyone else once it went into mass market, money. Edison told Tesla that if he truly could improve it, that he’d reward him $50,000. Then he undoubtedly returned to his office, laughing in the way your grandfather probably did when he bet you $10 that you couldn’t climb to the top of the highest tree in the yard, before he realized you were a six year old with a death wish. Tesla completed his task without breaking a sweat, and then asked Edison for his money. Edison then earned the title of Biggest Jerk of the 1880s when he responded with, “You don’t understand American humor.” Yes. He actually said that.
Tesla then went to work for Edison’s rival, Westinghouse. Unlike Edison, Westinghouse wasn’t a dick, and was open to Tesla’s suggestions and was willing to allow him a fair amount of credit. Thus started the War of the Currents, which isn’t as exciting as it sounds. Basically, Edison supported the Direct Current idea, which would basically mean that we’d need a few thousand more power plants than we have now, and that our electric bill would probably be a few hundred dollars more than it currently is. Tesla’s Alternating Current (i.e. the correct one, the one we use today) would make power more efficient and, more importantly, cheaper. Edison’s resistance now had little to do with actually thinking he was right. He just didn’t want to lose all those sweet, sweet patent loyalties that he generally used to light his cigars with. Edison, being the dickwad he was, showed Tesla that he wasn’t the only crazy showman in New York City. Except that while Tesla’s idea of showmanship meant really badass electricity beams, Edison’s meant MURDERING ANIMALS IN PUBLIC. That’s right. To demonstrate the dangers of AC, Edison publicly killed animals to show the possible fatal use of Tesla’s current. He also secretly had the electric chair invented to show that alternating current was more dangerous than direct current. Of course, the plan kind of backfired when the executioners miscalculated on their first execution, and the prisoner was only injured and not killed. So those of you out there who oppose capital punishment can blame the electric chair on Edison and the fact that he was greedy and hated Tesla. Eventually, after proving the Alternating Current’s success after managing to generate an impressive amount of energy from Niagara Falls, it was proven that AC wasn’t just more efficient than DC, but also safer.
And that’s not the only thing we can attribute to Tesla. You’re able to watch television and listen the radio thanks to the Tesla Coil. The doctors at the emergency room are able to tell whether or not that hooker broke your nose thanks to Tesla’s work on X-ray technology. You’re able to drive to the nearest gas station for cheese puffs because Tesla invented spark plugs. And those are only the projects that were successful. Basically, if Tesla had been given the resources and support that Edison had, we’d probably be able to travel through time now. Yeah, did I not mention that Tesla was deep into the study of time travel? Because he was. But then some idiot would probably go back and time and mess something up so that Tesla was never born, causing a crack in time and space. Don’t worry, I know what I’m talking about. I watch Doctor Who.
And even then, that’s only the stuff we know about. Most of Tesla’s work was lost in a fire at his lab on Fifth Avenue. The fire was of “mysterious origins” (meaning: Edison probably set it). He lost more than half of his life’s work, including the conclusions he came to about his Unified Field Theory, something scientists can’t figure out to this day.
He was also BFFs with Mark Twain. And Mark Twain was delightful.
Sadly, today only hardcore nerds know who Tesla is. Most people think that guy David Bowie played in The Prestige was a made up character and that Chris Nolan stole the name from a crappy rock band, while assuming that Edison invented pretty much everything. But on the Batman Villains Scale of Badness, Edison would probably get a 2 (making him slightly more competent than Humpty Dumpty), while they’d have to up the scale to 11 for Tesla (making him just as scary as The Joker, but with better results).