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Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison: Who was the better inventor?

Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison
(Image credit: Karl Tate/Live Science)

Nikola Tesla would have celebrated his 164th birthday today (July 10).

The Serbian-American scientist was a brilliant and eccentric genius whose inventions enabled modern-day power and mass communication systems.

His nemesis and former boss, Thomas Edison, was the iconic American inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture. The two feuding geniuses waged a "War of Currents" in the 1880s over whose electrical system would power the world — Tesla's alternating-current (AC) system or Edison's rival direct-current (DC) electric power.

Amongst science nerds, few debates get more heated than the ones that compare Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. So, who was the better inventor?

"They're different inventors, but you can't really say one is greater, because American society needs some Edisons and it needs some Teslas" said W. Bernard Carlson, the author of "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age" (Princeton Press, 2013).

From their starkly different personalities to their lasting legacies, here's how the two dueling inventors stack up.

Who was the most brilliant?

Tesla had an eidetic memory, which meant he could very precisely recall images and objects. This enabled him to accurately visualize intricate 3D objects, and as a result, he could build working prototypes using few preliminary drawings.

"He really worked out his inventions in his imagination," Carlson told Live Science.

In contrast, Edison was more of a sketcher and a tinkerer.

"If you were going to [the] laboratory and watch him at work, you'd find he'd have stuff all over the bench: wires and coils and various parts of inventions," Carlson said.

In the end, however, Edison held 1,093 patents, according to the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. Tesla garnered less than 300 worldwide, according to a study published in 2006 at the Sixth International Symposium of Nikola Tesla. (Of course, Edison had scores more assistants helping him devise inventions, and also bought some of his patents.)

Who was the most forward-thinking?

Though the light bulb, the phonograph and moving pictures are touted as Edison's most important inventions, other people were already working on similar technologies, said Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, and the author of "Edison and the Rise of Innovation" (Signature Press, 2013).

"If Edison hadn't invented those things, other people would have," DeGraaf told Live Science.

In a shortsighted move, Edison dismissed Tesla's "impractical" idea of an alternating-current (AC) system of electric power transmission, instead promoting his simpler, but less efficient, direct-current (DC) system.

By contrast, Tesla's ideas were often more disruptive technologies that didn't have a built-in market demand. And his alternating-current motor and hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls — a first-of-its-kind power plant — truly electrified the world.

Tesla also spent years working on a system designed to wirelessly transmit voices, images and moving pictures — making him a futurist, and the true father of radio, telephone, cell phones and television. 

Related: Creative Genius: The World's Greatest Minds

"Our entire mass communication system is based on Tesla's system," said Marc Seifer, author of "Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla," (Citadel Press, 2001).

Unfortunately, Tesla's grand scheme failed when his financial backer, J.P. Morgan, became fed up with years of failure.

Who had the biggest impact?

Edison's enduring legacy isn't a specific patent or technology, but his invention factories, which divided the innovation process into small tasks that were carried out by legions of workers, DeGraaf said. For instance, Edison got the idea for a moving picture camera, or kinetoscope from a talk by photographer Edward Muybridge, but then left most of the experimentation and prototyping to his assistant William Dickson and others. By having multiple patents and inventions developing in parallel, Edison, in turn, ensured that his assistants had a stable financial situation to continue running experiments and fleshing out more designs.

"He invents modern innovation as we know it," DeGraaf said.

Tesla's inventions are the backbone of modern power and communication systems, but he faded into obscurity later in the 20th century, when most of his inventions were lost to history. And despite his many patents and innovations, Tesla 

was destitute when he died in 1943.

Related: Beyond Tesla: History's most overlooked scientists

Who was the best dinner party guest?

At the height of his career, Tesla was charismatic, urbane and witty. He spoke several languages and counted writers Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, and naturalist John Muir as friends, according to Seifer.

"He moved in very high circles," Seifer said.

But Tesla could also be haughty and was known to be a hygiene freak. In his later years, his obsessive tics (such as his fear of women's earrings) grew stronger, and he died penniless and alone in a hotel in New York City, Seifer said.

Edison, meanwhile, was hard of hearing and introverted, with few close friends.

Edison also had a mean streak, which he amply displayed in his vicious attacks against Tesla during the War of Currents. He also gave advice on how to build the first electric chair using direct current (DC), going into gory detail about the techniques needed to do the deed, Seifer said.

Who was the most fashionable?

Tesla was tall, slender and imposing, with a dashing moustache and an impeccable sense of style, Carlson said. His top hat and tails are even on display in a museum in Serbia.

By contrast, Edison was known to be a bit of a slob.

"We're not really interested in seeing what Edison wore, because it was pretty forgettable," Carlson said.

Edison even wore shoes two sizes too large so that he could slip into and out of them without stooping down to untie them, Carlson said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in 2014 and updated for Tesla's 164th birthday.

Tia Ghose

Tia is the assistant managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

  • sourabh343
    I inspired by Edison no doubt.
    Check here
  • sarajo
    As Ive never heard of Nikolai Tesla I would count Edison as the best
  • heyjophi
    Edison may have more patents but he was not a visionary re. AC current and he cruelly envisioned the electric chair. Tesla triumphs.
  • heyjophi
    Edison had underlings doing his grunt work and was adversarial re. Tesla
    The #of inventions is not the metric of success. The effect of your work is...
    Imagine if we had to depend on DC current for most things
  • godwardp
    heyjophi said:
    Edison had underlings doing his grunt work and was adversarial re. Tesla
    The #of inventions is not the metric of success. The effect of your work is...
    Imagine if we had to depend on DC current for most things
    We do rely on DC for most things. Virtually every device you have converts that AC to DC before using it.

    High voltage DC is also better for long distance power transmission, since there are less losses (no mutual or self inductance and capacitance, only the same I^2*R losses that AC also suffers)