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Was Thomas Edison more of a business man rather than an inventor

GeekHistory explores the legacy of Thomas EdisonPeople often make remarks about Thomas Edison such as, "he was primarily a businessman." The attitude would seem to lack the understanding that being successful in business is not mutually exclusive from being a successful inventor.

Many successful inventors realize that experimentation and research takes money. That is why some inventors hold on to certain patent rights, but sell others. They keep the ones they intent to develop and sell off others to raise money to continue their research.

The light bulb was not a single invention, but an ongoing improvement of one idea over another to create a finished product. There were many versions of the light bulb before Edison’s, and there were many versions after Edison. In 1879, Edison was first to devise a lamp that would last in long-term commercial use.

It is also not unusual for inventors to purchase patents to other inventions similar to their own. Sometimes in the larger scope of a project inventors will purchase the rights to similar projects so they have ownership of all the parts to their finished product.

It takes the work of many individuals and many patents (and inventions) coming together to reach a goal. George Westinghouse believed that AC (alternating current) was a better method of power distribution than Edison’s DC (direct current). George Westinghouse was himself an inventor and innovator, as well as a visionary businessman.

In 1885 Westinghouse became interested in the inventions of European Inventors Gaulard and Gibbs and purchased the American rights to their patents for AC current transformers. In 1888 Westinghouse heard of Nikola Tesla and the Tesla Polyphase System. Westinghouse purchased Tesla's alternating current patents on the electric systems and paid Tesla to work with him until they were fully implemented. Westinghouse also had his own team of engineers, such as William Stanley Jr., adding their own inventions in combination with the others to create the finished product. In the case of Westinghouse it was Alternating Current (AC) power transmission.

While Edison was wrong about direct current (DC) becoming the preferred way to deliver electricity to our homes, Edison's ideas to bring electricity to our homes launched the modern electric utility industry. . In 1892 Thomas Edison lost control of Edison Electric, because of his stubbornness to back down on preferring DC over AC. Notorious financier J.P. Morgan arranged the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric.

If Tesla and Westinghouse had not teamed up to win the war of currents, perhaps General Electric, the off shoot of Edison Electric would have won the war of currents, and would have still moved forward on producing AC generating power plant.

The mythical idea of an inventor

Many people have a mythical picture of an inventor as a scientist who works in a lab with a vision of a finished product in his mind. The mythical inventor tinkers with things until one day, eureka, his vision becomes a reality.

This idea of the inventor reminds me of Dr. Frankenstein from the Mary Shelley horror novel. The mad scientist pieces together his monster, and one day with a flash of lightning, eureka, he has created his monster.

To address the comment that Edison was a business man rather than an inventor, Thomas Edison was an inventor in every sense of the word. He had a passion for trying to understand how things worked. He had a passion for taking existing ideas and making them better.

The Edison Papers

If you really want to learn what Edison invented, I highly recommend you explore The Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. The Edison Papers were established under a Board of Oversight which consists of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the National Park Service, the New Jersey Historical Commission, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Thomas Alva Edison Biography | Edison's Inventions | Edison's Patents

Learn more about Thomas Edison

If you are looking to learn more about Thomas Edison the Guru42 Universe and GeekHistory has a lot of information to get you started. You will find Thomas Edison mentioned in the pages listed below.

Thomas Alva Edison prolific inventor and legendary lunatic

You don't need to be a genius to know why Thomas Edison was popular

Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison and the search for the truth

The myths and legends of evil villains Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison

In search of the greatest inventors and technology innovators

Henry Ford creates ultimate history museum of Industrial Revolution

Debunking the Nikola Tesla myths by way of defending Thomas Edison

The mythical rivalry between Edison and Tesla full of misinformation

From the War of Currents to the history of electricity in homes

Thomas Edison launched the modern electric utility industry

In researching Geek History we have been asked many questions related to Thomas Edison and the War of Currents. Bookmark this page and check back from time to time as we update it with answers to frequently asked questions and additional resources on Thomas Edison.


The mythical rivalry between Edison and Tesla full of misinformation

The mythical rivalry between Edison and Tesla full of misinformationThe myth that Edison stole Tesla's ideas is rooted in Edison's legacy of creating an invention factory where Edison used his staff to develop ideas and turn them into patents. Some point to the concept of the invention factory as the reason for his success, critics say Edison took his invention factory too far, and Edison took credit for any individual creativity by his employees.

Many successful inventors realize that experimentation and research takes money. Edison's first invention was the Universal Stock Ticker in 1869. Edison used the money he earned from the stock ticker to start his "invention factory." Edison had the reputation of a hard driving businessman, but he was also passionate about creating an invention factory. Edison paid workers to conduct numerous tedious experiments so he did not have to do the boring manual tasks himself.

How many inventions and innovations made in the name of Apple or Microsoft were not the direct work of Gates or Jobs? How is Edison's invention factory any different that the large number of engineers, designers, and programmers working for Microsoft or Apple, but all we hear about is the success of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?

It's funny when someone asks, "Has Apple ever invented anything original?" the answers that say that Apple is an innovator not an inventor are widely accepted. People praise Apple for picking the right set of existing ideas and combining them in a new ways to make better products. When Thomas Edison takes existing ideas and combines them in new ways to make better products, he is called a thief.

Did Edison try to ruin Tesla's career?

The fable that is often told that Edison promised Tesla $50,000 and did not keep his promise. Take a minute and think about that story logically.

In the 1880s $50,000 would easily be the equivalent of over $1 million on modern money. (Based on numerous calculators I used $1 million would be on the low end of the calculation.) Telsa literally just got off the boat from Europe, and arrived in America. Tesla was recommended to Edison from a colleague of Edison's in Europe, but still Telsa was relatively unknown to him. Also consider the legend that Edison was a shrewd business man. Do you seriously think that Edison would have offered Tesla a $50,000 bonus for completing one project?

Tesla said how can I prove to you Mr. Edison than my ideas are worth something, Edison gave Tesla a project of something to fix. (The exact nature of project differs with each telling of the story.) The fable says that Tesla completed the project, and Edison offered Tesla a raise in pay, but not the big $50,000 bonus. Edison claimed that was a misunderstanding, it was only a joke.

Many people have raised questions as to the validity of the myth. Why would Edison, known to be a very shrewd businessman, offer $50,000 (equivalent to over $1 million dollars in modern purchasing power) to a rookie engineer.

Edison was successful before he met Tesla. It was Tesla who went to Edison in search of a change to prove his value as an inventor. Tesla thought AC (alternating current) would be the best method to deliver electricity to homes. Edison believed DC (direct current) was the best method to deliver electricity to homes. Edison thought he had all the answers, and did not value Telsa's ideas much. Feeling unappreciated by Edison, Tesla moved on.

Are Edison's inventions mostly Tesla's work?

During the time Tesla worked for Edison they were on different sides of the argument. Tesla hoped to show Edison his ideas on AC (alternating current) but Edison refused to look at them because he was pushing for DC (direct current) as the preferred method of electrical power distribution.

Another inventor and innovator, George Westinghouse, believed AC (alternating current) would be the best method to deliver electricity to homes. Westinghouse paid Tesla for some of his patents that fit into Westinghouse's system. Tesla also worked for Westinghouse in putting some of his inventions into practical use to defeat Edison in the War of Currents.

The generally accepted story states that Westinghouse paid Tesla around $60,000 for his patents for AC motors and generators, that's roughly the equivalent of $1.4 million in today's dollars. Tesla was also given a $2000 a month salary to work for Westinghouse, the equivalent of $48,000 per month today.

One condition of the Tesla and Westinghouse partnership was that Tesla received royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. As AC power slowly became more widely adopted, Westinghouse paid Tesla hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties each year. By 1890, one year before his 35th birthday, Tesla had become a millionaire.

Another part of the financial arrangement of the Tesla and Westinghouse partnership that often gets skewed when the story is told is Tesla's agreement to terminate the ongoing royalties on the power being generated. Westinghouse was having some cash flow issues and he asked Tesla if he could suspend payments for a while. As the story goes Tesla was grateful for the opportunities that Westinghouse had given him, and tore up the contract for the ongoing royalties.

Tesla did not simply walk away from the contract and get nothing in return. According to the book "Tesla: Man Out of Time" by Margaret Cheney, the Westinghouse Company's annual report of 1897 states that Tesla was paid $216,600 for outright purchase of his patents. The relative value of $216,000.00 from 1897 in current purchasing power is over $6 million dollars.

When Tesla walked away from his partnership with Westinghouse, he had built up a nice nest egg.

How much truth is there to the Tesla versus Edison rivalry?

The battle for the method to deliver electricity to our homes is often hyped as the "War of Currents" between Tesla and Edison. It was actually a battle between Edison Electric and Westinghouse Electric. Edison got a bit crazy during the War of Currents, but his craziness was directed at Westinghouse, more so than Tesla. In backing the electric chair as a method of putting someone to death, Edison was happy to call the process of killing someone using electricity as being "Westinghoused."

In order for a rivalry to exist, there is typically two different sides that are competing against each other. The only time that Tesla and Edison were directly competing against each other was when Tesla was working for Westinghouse in the 1890s. After the War of Currents Tesla and Edison went their separate ways.

Edison lost control of his own company during the War of Currents, and Edison Electric merged with Thomson-Houston to become General Electric. During the early part of the 20th century Thomas Edison was one of the most celebrated celebrities and kept company with fellow famous geeks such as Henry Ford, the auto innovator, and Harvey Firestone, one of the first global makers of automobile tires. Edison continued to stay active and popular in the public view until his death in 1931.

After the War of Currents Tesla went off on his own experimenting with his theories of wireless electricity. Tesla's last big project to impress the world was Wardenclyffe Tower. The project was abandoned in 1906, and Tesla had a breakdown and began to withdraw from the world. During the last few decades of his life Tesla turned his legacy from that of an accomplished inventor, to a wild a crazy mad scientist. Nikola Tesla lived until 1943. The last years of his life he was more or less a loner, occasionally stirring up things by offering to sell his death beam to foreign countries.

Learn more, the truth is out there:

Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison and the search for the truth

George Westinghouse used Tesla power to defeat Edison in Currents War