The Genius (and Rivalry) of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla

Craig Wright – Yale University

Encore Presentation

(Includes Live Q & A!)


When Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, the lights went out. In his honor, President Herbert Hoover asked Americans everywhere to turn off their Edison light bulbs at 10 p.m. on the evening of his funeral. “Thomas Edison—Genius Inventor—Dies at 84” screamed the front-page headline in the New York Daily News. When Nikola Tesla died in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel on January 7, 1943, the lights went out for him alone. Tesla was surrounded, not by a family, but by his pet pigeons (among his eccentricities were Columbophilia and Triphilia—look at his room number). The obituary in The New York Times did not call Tesla a genius. Instead, its final paragraphs implied he was a crackpot: Tesla had conceived of a “death beam” powerful enough to annihilate an army of 1,000,000 soldiers; and he was certain of intergalactic messaging that would allow communication with Mars. The Times obituary implicitly posed this question: Was Tesla a visionary genius or a lunatic?

Edison and Tesla (Edison’s one-time employee) were arch enemies with competing visions as to how to electrically empower America. Their hostility played out in the infamous War of the Currents, which culminated in the electrocution of Topsy the circus elephant in 1903, orchestrated and filmed by Edison, but intentionally using Tesla’s controversial AC current. Radio, television, robots, electric cars, self-driving cars, solar heating, the internet, and the cellphone were on the mind of one or the other of these geniuses. Which one ultimately proved to have the more accurate and enduring vision for the world? Who is in the news today and why? Join Professor Wright to find out the answers.


Discussion Questions:


  1. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said: “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit.  A person of genius hits a target that no one else can see.” If that is true, which of the two–Edison or Tesla–more often saw and hit the target that no one else could see?  Who, ultimately, was more farseeing?
  1. Most observers would agree that Thomas Edison was principally an inventor and Nikola Tesla principally a scientist. What is the difference between an inventor and a scientist, and which, in your opinion, is more valuable to society?
  1. Edison took a practical, empirical approach to his work, while Tesla pursued more theoretical constructs.  How might the rather different sorts of education that the two men had explain their different approaches to electrical engineering?
  1. Why, if Nikola Tesla proves to have had a greater impact on Western technology than Thomas Edison–which increasingly seems to be the case–has Thomas Edison been made the hero and poster boy for the American Inventor, and not Nikola Tesla?