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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.




Filed under Opinion