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Tesla vs. Edison Debate Ignites at SxSW

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by Matthew Van Dusen

Paleofuture blogger Matt Novak’s South by Southwest March 11 talk on the Edison versus Tesla debate and myth of the lone inventor went electric when web comic artist Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, whose Tesla comic spurred the debate, showed up to defend his work.

“The goal with my comic wasn’t to write nonfiction, it was more to paint a portrait of Tesla’s character and why I admire that and why I admire geeks in general,”* Inman said when he emerged from the audience to ask a question at the end of the session. 

Novak had taken issue with Inman’s viral comic “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived” comic, saying that it fed the “Great Man Theory of History” and the myth of the lone inventor.

“I appreciate your comic in the sense that it did give a higher profile to a great inventor,” Novak told Inman during their exceedingly polite discussion, in which both men were complimentary of each other’s work. “I just want us to step back and look at innovation in a more holistic way.”

Novak took on the myths that underpin the Tesla vs. Edison debate – that Tesla’s work on alternating current was largely from his own inspiration, that he died penniless after being cut out of millions by Edison – and dismantled them. The source of many of these ideas about Tesla, Novak said, came from a hagiography written soon after Tesla’s death by a writer named Joseph J. O’Neill, that likened him to “a god.”

“The question is not: Who was a better inventor, Edison or Tesla?” Novak said. “The question is: Why do we still frame the debate in this way?” [Txchnologist is sponsored by General Electric, which is the company of Edison, though we love Tesla, too.]

Inman replied that he was bewildered when his comic took off and he didn’t expect it to be treated as though it was a Wikipedia article.

“I absolutely speak in hyperbole and there are things in my comic that are just wrong,” Inman said, adding that he had failed to cite Joseph Swan as an inventor of the lightbulb.

Novak replied, “I take these things a little too seriously, and I get that.” But he said that when it affects the national discourse, there is a need to pull back. Tesla’s recognition of the importance of this technology was extremely important. He was not the sole inventor of these technologies.

He listed multiple other examples in his talk. For example, he asked, who invented the Internet? He gave about 20 possible candidates but suggested that, depending on the next 100 years, it’s possible that people will believe the answer is Mark Zuckerberg.

Similarly, he took on the development of driverless cars. DARPA had driverless car programs that ran throughout the 1980s but Google is increasingly getting the sole credit for these innovations. Ditto for Steve Jobs and tablets.

“The lone inventor myth is really good at selling T-shirts but it’s a poor understanding of history,” Novak said.

*This quote was corrected.

Top Image: Georgios Kollidas / Shutterstock.com

Matthew Van Dusen, Txchnologist’s editor-in-chief, was a reporter for ten years at newspapers in Wyoming, Indiana and New Jersey, where he covered health care, the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and government corruption. He is the former co-editor of Green Energy Reporter but is not Dutch. He tweets @matthewvandusen.

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    Don’t forget: Tesla invented Atomic Robo, too.
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