It may make for a good story to paint Edison and Tesla as bitter enemies, but looking through books, newspapers, and other research it seems more that the two very different men considered themselves rivals more than enemies. They cooperate a few times despite their differences and seemed to respect each other more as time went on. With that in mind, Tesla took time to criticize Edison in a Times article the day after he died, so “friends” certainly doesn’t seem like the right word.
Were Edison and Tesla Really Enemies?
Many historians (specifically those who write about Edison and Tesla) agree that the love/hate relationship between Tesla and Edison, while rooted in truth, has been misrepresented in modern times (perhaps to dramatize their famous “Bet” story or the “Current Wars” stories). Several events serve to prove that the two were rivals, rather than sworn enemies. For example, Tesla called attention to Edison who was attending one of his lectures and called for a standing ovation for Edison. Also, Edison provided Tesla with work over the years and even a lab when there were fires at Tesla’s laboratory. See Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius (Amazon) by Marc Seifer (Citadel Press Book).
Edison vs. Tesla. Edison the businessman v. Tesla the mad scientist. A quick introduction.
“They’re different inventors, but you can’t really say one is greater, because American society needs some Edisons and it needs some Teslas” – W. Bernard Carlson, the author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Amazon) (Princeton Press, 2013).
TIP: What better place to learn about Edison and Tesla than energy.gov? Lots of interesting Edison and Tesla facts.Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison – American Genius Series (2015). The Edison / Tesla rivalry, here we see a portrayal of the rivalry of the inventors.
Understanding Edison and Tesla
The simplest analogy is that Edison is like Steve Jobs, Tesla is like Steve Wozniak, and the backer of both J.P. Morgan is like venture capitalists who financed Apple.
Tesla is a great lone-genius mad-scientist inventor. Edison is a great marketer and businessman with a passion for inventing who headed “the first industrial research laboratory.” Morgan was the great financier of American industrialization with a passion for progress and capitalism.
When the men worked together, great advances were made, but sometimes Tesla went off on wild tangential journeys while Edison and Morgan got side-tracked by the bottom line. Tesla would bite off more than he could chew and run out of money. Edison himself thought the Tesla’s ideas were “splendid” but “utterly impractical” after hiring him. Edison would find great inventors, buy up their patents, improve their inventions with his team, and then mass-market them with the help of Morgan and the Vanderbilt’s.
Tesla and Edison competed, but they hardly ever operated in the same space outside their famous “War of Currents.” Tesla was on the metaphysical edge of science, and Edison was trying to build the next great company (for instance, General Electric). Edison lost his financiers money on Direct Current (DC) when it lost out to Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC). Tesla lost a fortune trying to build his Morgan-backed wireless energy project, although some claim the project was purposefully sabotaged by “the energy barons.” See the video below.Tesla’s Wireless Free Energy sabotaged by the energy barons!.
The two great men’s competition over AC vs. DC was predated by Tesla working in Edison’s labs and the men butting heads in the workplace. In one famous story, “Tesla insisted that he could increase the efficiency of Edison’s prototypical dynamos, and eventually wore down Edison enough to let him try. Edison, Tesla later claimed, even promised him $50,000 if he succeeded. Tesla worked around the clock for several months and made a great deal of progress. When he demanded his reward, Edison claimed the offer was a joke, saying, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.” Edison offered a $10/week raise, instead. Ever prideful, Tesla quit, and spent the next few months picking up odd jobs across New York City.” See this great mentalfloss.com article for short Tesla / Edison stories like this one.“My Inventions” – a short movie about Nikola Tesla.
Tesla also sold his AC patents to Edison’s rival George Westinghouse for one million dollars, that while a good chunk of money, pales in comparison to the bankrolls of Morgan, Edison, and the Vanderbilt’s.
Incidents like the above certainly caused tension between the two, but over time, Edison and Tesla seemed to focus more on the importance of each other’s inventions rather than old wounds. It seems that Edison may have admired his rival’s inventive genius. 
With that in mind, Edison was more the type to market his genius than to promote others. In 1908 long after the Current Wars, Edison said to the son of AC transformer inventor William Stanley, Jr. “Tell your father I was wrong.” That is about as close as Edison got to admitting he admired Tesla. Likewise, we can sum up Tesla’s views on Edison in much the same way:
Drunk History vol. 6 w/ John C. Reilly & Crispin Glover. A fact-filled story, but obviously done from a comical angle. Nikola Tesla’s Biography and Life New Full Documentary 2016. A biography focused on Tesla. Documentary | Thomas Edison – The Wizard of Menlo Park. A biography focused on Edison.
“If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.” — Tesla to the New York Times, October 19, 1931 (the day after Edison died)
TIP: Neither Edison or Tesla is around today to ask. All we have are books, newspapers, and documentaries. If you have any good resources or insight, consider commenting below.
- How much truth is there in the Edison vs. Tesla debate?
- Debunking the Tesla Myth
- Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius (Amazon) by Marc Seifer (Citadel Press Book)
- 8 Things You Didn’t Know About Nikola Tesla
- AC/DC: The Tesla–Edison Feud
- War of Currents
- Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison: Who Was the Better Inventor?