If it were a popularity contest, Thomas Edison would win by a landslide versus Nikola Tesla. We can point to the simple fact that, from an early age, Americans are taught that Thomas Edison is one of the greatest American inventors who ever lived; therefore, most at least know his name.
Nikola Tesla, on the other hand, is a name few have even heard. That's despite the fact that Tesla invented or developed the idea for x-rays, remote controls, radio, the electric motor, and many other things before anyone else.
One of the major reasons why Edison is lauded and Tesla is unknown comes down not to idea generation, but to the ability to turn those ideas and inventions into cold, hard cash. It's a difference that has been rather unfortunately scored by the fact that Nikola Tesla died a relatively poor man, while Thomas Edison died a multimillionaire.
Tesla vs. Edison: Tesla won the first battle
If Nikola Tesla is known at all, it's because he one-upped his former boss, Thomas Edison, early on in his career, as he perfected the system that would become the backbone of our electric power transmission systems. This was after Edison hired Tesla to work for him in 1884, and soon thereafter, tasked Tesla with completely redesigning direct current generators to make them more efficient.
Edison even threw out the carrot that, "there's $50,000 in it for you -- if you can do it," which was a lot of money in those days. When Tesla fulfilled the task and asked Edison for the money, Edison instead said, "Tesla (who was born in what's now Croatia), you don't understand American humor," and only offered him a $10 a week raise on Tesla's $18 a week salary. Tesla refused the offer and immediately resigned.
He then ventured out on his own, eventually teaming up with George Westinghouse, and together they pushed the alternating current, or AC, design that Tesla was working on to be the electrical distribution system of choice. In doing so, he would be going up against his old boss Thomas Edison, who was pushing a rival direct current, or DC, system. In what has been dubbed the battle of currents, Tesla and Westinghouse prevailed, as AC was found to be a better system because it was lower in cost than DC power for the transmission of energy from power plants into homes.
Tesla vs. Edison: Edison won the war
Despite losing the battle of the currents, Thomas Edison has been credited with many important inventions, including perfecting the invention of the light bulb, as well as developing the phonograph and the motion picture. In fact, Thomas Edison's name is on 1,093 U.S. patents, while Tesla has just more than 300 patents to his name. However, that's somewhat due to the fact that Edison created the first industrial research laboratory whereby he was able to channel the work of others to create new inventions.
By creating a patent factory, of sorts, Edison was able to capture royalties, as well as notoriety, enabling him to became a very wealthy man. It was estimated that, at the time of his death in 1931, Edison was worth more than $12 million, which today would be more than $170 million after adjusting for inflation.
Nikola Tesla, on the other hand, wasn't the businessman that Edison was, as he didn't turn his inventions into winning business or income streams. When he died in 1943, he was basically flat broke. Part of that can be blamed on some of his failed experiments, such as those from his lab in Colorado Springs, which was eventually torn down and the contents sold to satisfy a debt. Meanwhile, he was engaged in a bitter battle with financier J.P. Morgan over the funding of the Wardenclyffe Tower facility, which was to be a wireless telegraphy station.
Unfortunately, after 17 years, it never became operational, and the tower was demolished for scraps, and later the property was foreclosed upon to satisfy Tesla's debts. These commercial failures didn't leave much in his bank account, and likely hurt his overall reputation.
The big difference between the two boiled down to the fact that Edison turned his inventions into commercial successes, while many of Tesla's ideas were either commercialized by others, or mere concepts that were never commercialized. Edison is revered as a great inventor and businessman, while Tesla has, in many cases, been compared to more of the mad scientist type.
There's a takeaway for investors in all of this, too. Great ideas don't always make great investments. For an idea to truly be revolutionary, it must deliver commercial success; otherwise, its creators won't be able to continue creating. They, like Tesla, will likely eventually run out of money and be remembered -- if they're remembered at all -- for the promised potential, and not satisfying success..
Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.