Nikola Tesla, the genius inventor in the shadow of Thomas Edison

If you go out today and ask people who "invented" electricity, most of the people who answer—there will be many who don't—will tell you Thomas Edison. Nothing could be further from the truth, the true father of electricity as we know it today was the Serbian-born engineer Nikola Tesla, a genius of the 19th and early 20th centuries who also laid the foundations for the creation of the radio, a invention that is usually attributed to the Italian Marconi.

Tesla's wonders go even further. Born in 1856 in Smiljan (present-day Croatia), this master of mechanics, electricity, mathematics and design went on to register more than 700 patents, many of which are authentic prodigies that have been decisive for technological progress: he invented the control remote, carried out studies on X-rays and their applications in medicine, created the first low-consumption lamps, laid down the theoretical principles of radar, made innovative designs for automobile speedometers… Thanks to all his work, he was a pioneer in robotics, in the development of vertical takeoff aircraft and in wireless transmission of electricity.

And despite all these amazing achievements, his credit is often credited to others and his name remains largely unknown to the general public. In order to rediscover the figure of Tesla, the Fundación Telefónica has organized the exhibition Nikola Tesla: Yours is the Future, a complete journey through the life and work of the character that can be seen in Madrid until next February 15. "Tesla's inventions are at the base of our technological civilization. Without its alternating current generation and distribution system we would not be able to plug anything into the network, without its electric motor we would not have washing machines or many other devices that surround us," he explains enthusiastically. Miguel Ángel Delgado, curator of the exhibition and author of the book Tesla and the conspiracy of light.

The war of the currents

The best known case is that of his confrontation with Thomas Edison, with whom he began working in 1884. Edison, who had an empirical work method based on trial and error, never had a good relationship with Tesla, much more scientific and thoughtful in his way of working. The rivalry did not take long to emerge and gave rise to what is popularly known as the war of currents, a great dispute to prove the discovery and patent of electricity. Edison defended the direct current system while Tesla defended the alternating current system. The former did not hesitate to play dirty and toured the United States electrocuting animals (from dogs and cats to an elephant) to demonstrate the risks inherent in his rival's proposal. Despite this smear campaign, alternating current ended up being imposed and today it is used in all homes.

Although Tesla won this battle, the prolific inventor did not get the recognition that the far more savvy public relations entrepreneur did. "Edison only thought of inventions that he could commercialize. If it couldn't be turned into something profitable, he abandoned it. Tesla was almost the opposite, he talked about revolutionizing the world, but he didn't show anything that could attract investors," says the commissioner. . "Tesla was sometimes his worst enemy: he gave away patents to Westinghouse, he gave 51% of present and future patents to JP Morgan when the latter only asked for 50%… It is obvious that he lacked an entrepreneurial instinct that would have helped," he adds. There were many more factors that contributed to the forgetfulness of the inventor: his last great project—the world system for the transmission of electrical energy without cables—failed, "and losers are not usually well remembered"; he left no company behind to keep his name alive—Edison left General Electric; He had no disciples —Edison had Henry Ford, who devoted a lot of effort, money, and enthusiasm to keeping the memory of his mentor alive—, he had no heirs… "Furthermore, in recent decades, his mental problems got worse and Tesla he ended up becoming a caricature of himself, that of the typical mad scientist", says Delgado, who comments that his detractors do so much damage to the figure of the inventor as "the most fanatical Teslians who defend even his most surreal eccentricities". The genius, who was celibate so as not to cloud his thinking, had many hobbies and obsessions that grew more over the years: he was fixated on the number 3, he adored pigeons (he himself admits that one of them was converted during a time in the most important part of his life), he hated jewelry, he couldn't stand human hair, he didn't allow physical contact… All these eccentricities didn't help to improve the image of a man who was doomed to remain in the shadow of others smarter. Ironically, one of the few awards that Tesla received in his lifetime was the Edison Medal.

Access to the best


on Energy and Environment
Go to resources