“It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.” – Mark Twain
The Oatmeal is a fantastic comic that I recommend that you make a habit of reading. However, even the greatest can go astray, and I’m pained to admit that The Oatmeal has done so regarding someone I regard very highly, and that’s Nikola Tesla. Alas, The Oatmeal has fallen prey to Tesla idolatry, confusing his genius for godhood and of course, setting up the now all-too-common ‘Edison as Tesla’s arch-villain’ narrative.
There are quite a few errors and misconceptions about both Tesla and Edison in this comic. But they’re errors that I’ve seen before and they are often repeated, so it’s worth the time, I think, to address some of the big ones.
Tesla Didn’t Invent Alternating Current And He Wasn’t A Major Power In The War Of The Currents
Let’s start with the first thing the comic says: “In a time when the majority of the world was still lit by candle power, an electrical system known as alternating current and to this day is what powers every home on the planet. Who do we have to thank for this invention that ushered humanity into a second industrial revolution? Nikola Tesla.”
This is just wrong. Alternating current was developed in principle by Michael Faraday and in practice by Hippolyte Pixii in the early 19th century. Practical devices employing AC in the medical world were developed before Tesla was even born. Contemporaries of Tesla working for George Westinghouse developed practical methods of distributing AC power from power plants before Tesla came to work for Westinghouse. Tesla himself actually studied the use of AC in college – he had an electrical engineering degree.