Tag Archives: Edison

A Few Thoughts On Tesla Versus Edison

Last year, on this very day, I wrote about Nikola Tesla. 10th of July is always special to me as it is his birth anniversary and he remains one of my idols for profoundly changing the course of human history through brilliant inventions in electrical engineering.

A few months ago, Matthew Inman aka The Oatmeal published a comic proclaiming his love for Tesla and listing the reasons why just about every invention was invented by none other than him. While I initially liked it, it portrayed Thomas Edison as a evil schemer in the vein of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Alex Knapp from Forbes quickly wrote a response to the comic and Mr. Inman quickly followed up with a response of his own. And just when it looked like there was the chance of this debate assuming the proportions of the war of the currents, the discussion stopped. Most people I know read The Oatmeal more than they read Forbes (and tend to support Mr. Inman), I get the impression that most people still believe Tesla to be the nice genius who always had the better solutions and Edison was the evil Corporate CEO who destroyed everything Tesla stood for.

The fact is, situations are never quite so black or white. Science makes progress when the focus falls on the shades of grey in the middle. One of the key aspects of this whole debate is that neither Edison nor Tesla could have predicted how the world of electricity would be towards the end of the 20th century.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the main use of electricity was for industries and for lighting. Edison’s DC system was impractical because required power plants to be located close to where the power was utilized i.e. the generation had to be located close to the load because the longer the distance, the greater the loss of power over the wires. AC had the advantage of low losses while transmitting power over long distances which meant that generation could be located far away from loads which meant power generation could be centralized at locations where it was easier to use natural resources like coal and transmitted to cities several miles away. AC won the bout handsomely.

But times have changed. We depend less and less on Edison’s flagship invention – the incandescent light bulb. We use compact fluorescent lights and LED lights. Our loads are no longer just heavy machinery but we use computers and other devices which all work on DC. While Mr. Inman makes an important point that to get power to our sockets we still need AC, he misses an important fact (excusable because I don’t think he is an electrical engineer).

The development of power electronics has made it cheaper to transmit electricity over long distances using DC. This High Voltage DC transmission system is now in use throughout the world and is fairly mature technology. Though it has it’s challenges, above a  certain distance, it is undeniably cheaper to transmit power using DC rather than AC.

My entire Master’s thesis was based on the determining feasibility of using DC power over AC and where it is particularly advantageous to use one over the other and I can speak with some authority on this. It gets worse for Mr. Inman’s arguments because there is a paradigm shift in power generation. The centralized power plants of decades past are becoming less and less feasible with dwindling resources like natural gas and coal. The world is slowly starting to move towards decentralized power generation using renewable technologies like Solar energy and fuel cells which already produce DC power.

Without going into the technicalities, I put forth the argument that neither Tesla nor Edison was wrong. Each had his own ideals and Edison was undeniably more aggressive in defending his. Whatever his faults, to deny Edison’s  own accomplishments as an inventor is just giving in to personal bias without understanding the ground realities.

There is no denying Tesla’s genius and Edison’s “douchebaggery” but the complexities of today’s electricity system have ensured that both technologies must coexist. Arguments today about who was “better” is doing a disservice to both men because in his own way, each would have been proud of what he had accomplished in his life.

So here’s to a genius on his 156th birth anniversary. Thank you once again, Mr. Tesla.

 

 

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Visionaries

After a recent comic on The Oatmeal, everyone seems to be talking about one of my heroes Nikola Tesla. Visionaries like him are hard to come by but I am disturbed by the ire thrown at Thomas Edison.

Of course “The war of the Currents” is well documented and Nikola Tesla did win it; but dismissing Edison because he was an “enormous douchebag” is a mistake. Tesla’s genius aside, Edison himself was a prolific inventor. He is fourth on the list of individuals who hold the largest number of patents. He invented the first device that could play recorded sound! He can’t just be good at “douchebaggery”!

What is surprising is that the same people who are now shouting out about what an evil cunt-nugget Edison was and how he was just good at selling things waste no time in fawning over Steve Jobs. Like Edison, Jobs saw opportunity where others couldn’t and created a market space for products that people didn’t know they wanted. Essentially, Edison was a geekier version of Steve Jobs.

While we can go on arguing about who was greater, Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison, the fact remains that both men changed the world in their own way much like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak did decades later. While selling “Edison is a douchebag” t-shirts is taken in good humour, it is important to remind ourselves that at the end of the day, these men are visionaries without whom we would still be lighting candles at night and generally have a very poor quality of life.

 

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Happy Birthday Mr. Tesla

A few years ago, when I was tasked with creating the first annual magazine for the Electrical Engineering department in my college, one thing I knew right away was whom I wanted to dedicate the magazine to. It wasn’t Gandhi or Sardar Patel (after whom my college is named) or Abdul Kalam or my HOD. It was dedicated to one of the giants of modern science and one of my heroes, Nikola Tesla.

When one ever thinks about electrical engineering, which is very very rare for most people, the only person who is vaguely associated with the field is Thomas Alva Edison – a great inventor and scientist himself. He invented the first long-lasting incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera and many other things. But the story of Nikola Tesla is perhaps the story of electrical engineering itself.

The work of an electrical engineer seems almost mundane. It certainly isn’t glamorous, is thankless, slightly esoteric and definitely unnoticed. After all, electricity cannot be seen right? One takes for granted the fact that at the flip of a switch, the lights go on, water is heated, computers are booted and videos uploaded. While one is willing to discuss the i7 processor, the latest android OS and Google +, one does not really feel the need to discuss the movement of electrons through a wire. And one does not really need to.

For most people, the only time electricity is discussed is either when the bill is too high, or when there isn’t any electricity at all. Perhaps our unlucky cousins from the rural areas of Maharashtra appreciate the 8 hours of intermittent electricity they get a lot more than the denizens of the island city, where the power rarely goes out.

Nothing we do today would be possible without the immense contribution of this eccentric Serbian who was born on this day in 1856. Calling him a genius would probably be doing a disservice to him, especially when customer representatives at any apple store call themselves that.

When Tesla arrived in the US in 1884, he started working for Thomas Edison. Supposedly offered $50,000 if he made Edison’s DC generators more efficient, he was allegedly denied the amount with Edison telling Tesla that he did not understand “American Humor”. If this were true, one would probably not be unfair in calling Edison a dick.

What is true is that Tesla soon quit Edison’s company and started his own company and constructed the first brushless AC induction motor. To someone who does not understand the significance of this invention, this is the electrical engineering equivalent of founding Google.

Not content with this, he worked with George Westinghouse to popularize poly-phase AC systems which won the “War of the Currents” against Edison’s own DC system. Again, to put this in perspective, this is essentially the equivalent of replacing the postal system with the internet AND wireless mobile systems.

Edison did much to discredit the AC system but eventually had to cave in to higher demand and gave up his DC technology. But Tesla was beyond caring at this point. He had latched on to more revolutionary ideas. He first demonstrated the possibility of wireless power transmission way back in 1893. Scientists are still working to make this commercially viable. He demonstrated wireless radio communication a year after that and his Tesla coils helped him study x-rays when they were still known as Rontgen Rays.

Like all great men, he was unable to digest the fact that the world could not keep up with him. He established principles for radar, wrote about an ocean thermal energy system and obtained his last patent which was for a Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft. Quite simply put, he was way ahead of his time. Did I mention the fact that he was fluent in eight languages?

For a man who has given much to the world and modern science, the only memory people seem to have of Tesla is as the unit of magnetic induction. His ideas grew even more eccentric, with his criticism of Einstein’s theory of relativity, plans for a death-ray and a dynamic theory of gravity – which was never published.

He stayed as a recluse in a New York hotel for the last 10 years of his life and undoubtedly became a bit senile. A sufferer of OCD and prone to strange visions, he died alone of heart failure in 1943.

For someone who practically invented the electrical industry on his own, history has not been kind to Tesla. He is scarcely remembered by a world that owes him much. But for those who do know about him and his work, he will always be a hero and remain a continuing source of inspiration.

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