In Oct 1882, electric street lamps were lighting portions of downtown Manhattan. By that time Edison Electric Company had 1,500 lamps in operation.
Gas lighting, candles and kerosene lanterns lit households. Incandescent light bulbs had been invented. Yet, virtually no one had the light bulbs.
There was a problem. Direct current (DC) is not easily converted to higher or lower voltages. Thus it was hard to transmit electricity over long distances with DC. Thomas Edison, knee deep in the endowment bias, had every reason to overlook DC’s flaws and exploit what he could.
That same year, walking in a Budapest park as the sun was setting, the solution of an alternating current (AC) motor, 26-year old Nikola Tesla wrote, “came like a flash of lightning… A thousand secrets of nature I would have given for that one which I had wrested from her at all odds and at the peril of my existence.”
Tesla rightly believed that AC could efficiently transmit electricity over long distances. Tesla’s future employer Thomas Edison, while amazed with the young man’s abilities, stood against AC’s development.
The showdown between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison is one of the best examples of an inborn genius facing an intelligent fanatic. The story also highlights many biases and flaws we all need to watch out for. Ultimately, it is a reminder that figuring out how to overcome one’s mistakes and weaknesses is how the great become great.
Working With His Idol
After working his way up Continental Edison Company in Paris, Tesla made his way to the United States to work at Edison Machine Works. There he worked on installations and improving generators. By this time Nikola Tesla had a working prototype of an AC motor.
Nikola Tesla idolized Thomas Edison and said meeting the man “thrilled me to the marrow.” Edison couldn’t see the use of an AC motor in a DC electric world. He was already wedded to the DC technology and told Tesla not to waste his time. Tesla would immediately quit working with Edison and set out on his own.
Tesla eventually licensed his AC motor patent to George Westinghouse. In the agreement, Westinghouse gave Tesla 150 shares of stock, $60,000 and a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower generated by his AC motors.
Westinghouse would nearly go bankrupt during The War of Currents with Thomas Edison. It didn’t help there was extreme competition along with huge capital costs. To help Westinghouse survive, Tesla ripped up the contract instead of renegotiating.
Nikola Tesla’s AC motor would become standard in transmitting electricity. Edison’s DC technology would lose. But the biggest loser of all was Nikola Tesla himself. Tesla could have made billions of dollars if he hadn’t ripped up his royalty contract with Westinghouse. It is estimated that Tesla could have become the first billionaire and histories’ wealthiest individual, far surpassing John D. Rockefeller.
Quirks and Flaws
Tesla couldn’t overcome his poor business habits and quirks. He had an intense focus on the number three. He feared germs and practiced very strict hygiene, all of which likely hampered socializing and the development of business relationships. He also exhibited unusual phobias, such as an aversion to pearls, which led him to refuse to speak to any woman wearing them.
Instead Nikola Tesla died virtually penniless. Later in his life, he had to work at various electrical repair jobs. And when Tesla died in 1943, at the age of 87, he was bankrupt and living alone in a New York hotel surrounded by pigeons.
Thomas Edison had a business mind. He could get past his flaws and leverage the talents of other people. Edison had multiple business enterprises and died in 1931 with a net worth of $12 million (~$180 million in today’s dollars).
What really separated the two men?
One distinction that I make in our Online Course [Chapter 10] is the difference between the mind of a genius and an intelligent fanatic.
In-born total recall is a defining trait of genius. Some geniuses have an eidetic memory to store and recount unlimited numbers of sounds, objects and images as if they right next to them. Some others might have an inborn mnemonic capacity through this condition called Synesthesia.
Storing and recounting information effortlessly is rare.
Intelligent fanatics, on the other hand, work very hard to build up their mental library and skill to the level of a genius.
Most of us aren’t geniuses. Don’t worry, though. The dogged intelligent fanatic often can overcome the obstacles geniuses cannot.
Nikola Tesla’s mind was unusual. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, was an intelligent fanatic who worked, worked, worked and got some amazing insights.
"He [Tesla] memorized all of Faust. His memory was photographic and unassailable. He would see something once, he would hear something once, and it never left him."
Now where does this sound familiar?
Derek Paravicini, Tony DeBlois, Bob Milne and Mozart all had the same ability: they possessed the ability to hear a song once and play it back at a future date, without practice. Below Derek Paravicini demonstrates:
Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie Rain Man, read 12,000 books and could recall nearly every detail from each book. Below, Fran, Kim’s father, recounts a test done on Kim’s ability to retain what he read.
From memory Steven Whiltshire draws accurate and detailed panoramas of cities after short helicopter rides. Below is a full timelapse of his drawing of Singapore.
Thomas Edison, on the other hand, did not have an eidetic memory. Edison, told by his teachers he was too stupid to learn, only had a few months of formal education. He didn’t know the theories and mathematics that Tesla quickly picked up, retained and clearly saw in his mind. Yet, Edison’s dogged tinkering and ability to leverage others allowed him to create >3x more patents than Tesla.
“When I get an idea, I do not rush into actual work. I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements, and operate the device in my mind.” – Nikola Tesla
“I could visualize images and motors. The images I saw were to me perfectly real and tangible.” – Nikola Tesla
By the time it came for Tesla to build his creations, they came almost fully formed.
Remember, above, Tesla described the solution of an AC motor “came like a flash of lightning.”
Charles Kettering was similar. Kettering was founder of Delco, head of research at General Motors and the holder of 186 patents. William Cryst said of Kettering:
“He’d see the whole thing in his head. He could write down a complete parts list for it in a jiffy, without thinking. He’d draw the thing out for you, making motions in the air.”
Freeman Dyson once said of Richard Feynman:
“Most people in physics write down an equation and then find the solutions, but that wasn’t the way Feynman did it. Feynman would just write down the solutions without ever writing the equations. It seemed like a sort of magic because he thought in terms of pictures instead of equations. He had these little pictures in his head and he scribbled little pictures on paper and nobody understood what they meant.”
John Hench described Walt Disney’s similar ability:
“Walt was a genuine mystic. Ideas came to him in whole packages. His imagination was so powerful that he could go to an imaginary place and describe it in detail. He ‘visited’ Disneyland long before it was built”.
As for Thomas Edison, he used less of his head and more of his hands.
Bernard Carlson, professor of science and history at the University of Virginia, said, “If you were going to (the) laboratory and watch him at work, you’d find he’d have stuff all over the bench: wires and coils and various parts of inventions.” It took Edison more than 1,000 attempts to create the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb.
Tesla, and the examples above, were endowed with otherworldly minds. Each worked hard. However, many of the examples above were unable to overcome their mistakes and weaknesses. Beware When Studying Greatness.
Intelligent fanatics like Thomas Edison have flaws too, but these “grinders” tend to figure out how to overcome personal obstacles, bad habits and quirks.
Be like Thomas Edison. Work, work, work on overcoming your mistakes and weaknesses, and you’ll accomplish some amazing things.
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