It was the Fair That Changed America. And it was the chance for Tesla and Westinghouse to show the world the power of their AC system. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition made Tesla a household name and changed his life forever.
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Westinghouse makes an 11th-hour bid to electrify the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with Tesla’s AC system and GE will do anything to torpedo the deal. Welcome to Thunderdome: two bids enter, one bid leaves…
Edison and Westinghouse battle over lightbulbs and high finance as we return to the trenches of the War of the Currents, and see how the war whittled itself down from fifteen combatants to just two…
Tesla’s trip to the Continent would take an emotional and physical toll that he couldn’t have imagined. But he nevertheless returned from Europe with the big idea that would dominate the rest of his career.
Tesla the Showman knocks ’em dead at the AIEE with a lecture for the ages and a breathtaking demonstration of high frequency AC. It was his ticket to fame and celebrity.
Fresh from his return from Europe, Tesla goes on an inventing spree and dabbles in high-frequency currents. But when George Westinghouse comes calling and pleads poverty, Tesla makes a fateful and costly mistake…
The War of the Currents enters its most ghoulish and macabre phase: when the combatants were willing to play with a man’s life. William Kemmler became the first person put to death by deliberate electrocution. Viewer discretion is very much advised.
When New York became the first state to execute people using the electric chair, Edison and his DC supporters would do anything to ensure it was alternating current that powered “Old Sparky”…
War is hell, even when it’s the War of the Currents. Harold Brown’s campaign against AC turns deadly, as he conducts gruesome electrical experiments on stray dogs, and helps set the stage for New York’s first electric chair…
The episode you’ve all been waiting for! Tesla arrives in New York City and takes a job with Thomas Edison. See the seeds of a life-long rivalry sown because of a broken million-dollar promise. It’s Tesla vs. Edison: Round 1–let’s get ready to rummmble!
Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times
EPISODE 7 – Tesla vs Edison: Round 1 (1884)
Last time, we joined Tesla in Paris and around Europe, as he worked as a trusted troubleshooter for the SE Edison Company, installing and maintaining DC electrical systems in the great cities of the Old World.
This week, we’ll follow Tesla to the New World and to New York City, where he will finally meet Edison in person and work for a time for his company in the United States. 1884 is a momentous year for Tesla, and it will take up the whole episode today, not least of all because we’ll see how the seeds of a life-long rivalry were sown between Tesla and Edison due, in part, to a broken promise…
I thought long and hard about the title for today's episode: my first thought was to call it 'The Wizard of Menlo Park'--one of Thomas Edison's nicknames. But then I thought: “Ooo—you know what's better? Call it 'Off to See the Wizard.” Pretty good, right? ...But then I tghought: “Nah--who am I kidding? Give the people what they want?” So, like I said last week: welcome to Tesla vs Edison: Round 1!
In January 1884, the British organization The Fabian Society is founded in London, dedicated to gradual social change along socialist lines.
Also in England, February sees the publication of “A New English Dictionary on historical principles, part 1,” edited by James A. H. Murray. This provides the basis for what will become The Oxford English Dictionary.
On May 1st, the eight-hour workday is proclaimed by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the United States.
Also in May, Angelo Moriondo of Turin is granted a patent for the espresso machine.
In June, the "Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway" opens at Coney Island. It is the first roller coaster in the United States.
The Dow Jones Transportation Average was created on July 3. Consisting originally of nine railroads, as well as Western Union and Pacific Mail, it is the oldest stock index still in use—being even older than its better-known relative, the Dow Jones Industrial Average. That young whipper-snapper was only put together in 1896.
August saw the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty laid on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor.
In September, Karl Koller announces the invention of local anesthesia at a medical congress in Heidelberg, Germany.
On October 22, the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C. fixes the Greenwich meridian as the world's prime meridian—that is, the meridian whose longitude is designated as 0°. Together, a prime meridian and its antimeridian (the 180th meridian in a 360°-system) form a great circle dividing the Earth into two hemispheres, which is where we get the Eastern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere.
And that’s your fun fact of the day!
However, despite the decision of this conference, France abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris meridian for several decades. Vive la difference.
Porfirio Díaz, a Mexican general and politician, returned to office as President of Mexico. All told, he served seven terms in office: first 1876 to 1880, and again from 1884 all the way until 1911. That’s three and a half decades in power. Take that McKenzie King!
The Washington Monument was completed in December in Washington, D.C., becoming the tallest structure in the world. Taller than the dome of St. Peters in Rome, taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Washington Monument retained the title for only five years, however, until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.
And also in December, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published. But for copyright reasons, it was published first in London, not the United States.
Born in 1884 were:
Sophie Tucker, "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Though born in Russia, she would become one of the most popular entertainers in America during the first half of the 20th century
Also Bradbury Robinson, who is most notable in history for throwing the first forward pass in American football in 1906.
A number of important figures in World War II were born in 1884:
Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese naval commander (d. 1943)
Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States (d. 1972)
Eleanor Roosevelt, American politician, diplomat, activist, and First Lady of the United States (d. 1962)
and Tojo Hideki, Prime Minister of Japan (d. 1948)
Notable deaths include:
Gregor Mendel, noted Czech geneticist and monk
Famed Scottish-American detective and spy master, Allan Pinkerton, who founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. During the American Civil War, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service for two years, thwarting an assassination attempt against Abraham Lincoln. After the war, Pinkerton pursued train robbers on behalf of the railroad companies, but failed to capture Jesse James. After Pinkerton died, his company became notorious for strike breaking and other activities against organized labor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where is the Fabian Society when you need it, huh?
And in an absolutely awful coincidence, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his first wife Alice, and his mother Martha on the same day—on Valentine’s Day.
Mid way through the year, on June 6, 1884 Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City aboard the ship the City of Richmond. As was the case with many immigrants, the customs officer had trouble understanding the new arrival and recorded Tesla’s birthplace as Sweden and not Smiljan. Years later Tesla recalled that process of formally entering the United States consisted of a clerk barking at him, “Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!”
If you want to know what the scene looked like, watch Godfather Part II where young Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island…and is promptly rechristened Vito Corleone, when the custom’s officer reads his birth place as his last name. It was just like that…except that in later years, Tesla would put fewer horse heads in people’s beds.
In some ways, even if you’ve never been to New York City, you have a sense that you know it.
Because if you’ve consumed any American media at all—from Hollywood movies, to TV shows like Law & Order, to Spider-man comic books—you’ve absorbed New York by proxy a thousand times over. It is a character in so many stories, just as it is in the story of Nikola Tesla.
But what I want you to do now is try and cast your mind back to the very different New York City that Tesla arrived in: New York City with no skyscrapers. New York City before the automobile. The city that never sleeps lit after dark by the hiss of gaslight, not the hum of electricity. No brilliant neon signs in Times Square (because Tesla hadn’t yet invented neon lights!) No beeping car horns or screeching tires. Instead, the clatter of horse hooves, the rattle of handsome cab wheels. Tenement buildings packed to bursting with wave after wave of recent arrivals, immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Greece… When Tesla’s ship pulled into New York harbour, the Brooklyn Bridge was only partly built, and it was a still-under-construction Statue of Liberty that greeted him.
Tesla’s was…less than impressed.
A fairly cosmopolitan fellow by this point in his life, having lived in some of the great European cities like Prague, Budapest, and Paris, Tesla found New York City dirty, crude, and vulgar.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “What I had left was beautiful, artistic, and fascinating in every way; what I saw here was machined, rough, and unattractive. A burly policeman was twirling his stick which looked to me as big as a log. I approached him politely, with the request to direct me [to an address]. ‘Six blocks down, then to the left,’ he said, with murder in his eyes. ‘Is this America?’ I asked myself in painful surprise. ‘It is a century behind Europe in civilization.’”
New York City was also a city just beginning to grapple with the possibilities of electricity. To see pictures of this era is to see giant masts along the sidewalks, strung with a massive tangle of telegraph wires and electric power cables. They were an impenetrable nest of wires, and it’s a wonder there weren’t more fires.
New, electrically powered trolleys added to the congestion of already teeming streets. When the trolleys actually managed to run (breakdowns in their dynamos were common), they frightened the passengers as much as they did the pedestrians. Electricity itself was still so little known and so misunderstood that the editor of one newspaper warned that anyone reckless enough to ride a trolleys would be stricken with palsy and shouldn’t expect anyone’s sympathy because of their foolish decision.
Brooklynites quickly gained the nickname “Trolley Dodgers” for their reckless abandon at crossing streets too close to the oncoming trolleys. In fact, the nickname became so linked with the borough that in 1895 the local professional baseball team officially changed its name to the Brooklyn Troller Dodgers, and later shortened it simply to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And that’s a bonus fun fact for today!
So this was the unfamiliar world Tesla stepped into in quest of his dream of alternating current. Deferring his planned meeting with Edison one day to look up an old friend, Tesla happened to pass by “a small machine shop in which the foreman was trying to repair an electric machine…He had just given up the task as hopeless.”
Now, Tesla himself over the years told two versions of what happened next: in one, he agrees to fix the machine “without a thought for compensation.” In the second, Tesla revealed that “it was a machine I had helped design, but I did not tell them that. I asked…‘what would you give me if I fix it?’ ‘Twenty dollars’ was the reply. I took off my coat and went to work, [and]…had it running perfectly in an hour.” The story is a minor one, yes, but it’s important because, depending on which version you believe, two different Teslas emerge: one motivated by money and one not. As we’ll see over upcoming podcasts, both Teslas exist within the same man at the same time. However, it would be incorrect to say (as some Tesla fans, and even some Tesla biographers do) that Tesla was never interested in money or on capitalizing on his inventions.
Whatever his hesitation about the city, Tesla was looking forward to meeting the great Edison and securing a job. He made his way to Edison’s new laboratory, a former ironworks at Goerck Street, which was only a few blocks from the central lighting station Edison was constructing at Pearl Street.
“I was thrilled to the marrow by meeting Edison,” Tesla said. And why wouldn’t he be?
Now, there is evidence to suggest that Edison and Tesla had already met once, in Paris during a little-known trip Edison took to inspect his European operations.
Edison himself would later recount their first meeting:
“I remember the first time I saw him. We were doing some experimenting in a little place outside Paris, and one day a long, lanky lad came in and said he wanted a job. We put him to work thinking he would soon tire of his new occupation for we were putting in 20-24 hours a day, then, but he stuck right to it and after things eased up one of my men said to him: “Well, Tesla, you’ve worked pretty hard, now I’m going to take you into Paris and give you a splendid supper.” So he took him to the most expensive cafe in Paris—a place where they broil an extra thick steak between two thin steaks. Tesla stowed away one of those big fellows without any trouble and my man said to him: “Anything else, my boy? I’m standing treat.” “Well, if you don’t mind, sir,” said my apprentice, “I’ll try another steak.” After he left me he went into other lines and has accomplished quite a little.”
Quite a little, indeed.
For his part, Tesla’s accounts of this meeting vary pretty dramatically depending on his mood and the audience. In his autobiography, for instance, he writes: ‘the meeting with Edison was a memorable event in my life. I was amazed at this wonderful man who, without early advantages and scientific training, had accomplished so much. I had studied a dozen languages, delved in literature and art, and had spent my best years in libraries…and felt that most of my life had been squandered.”
However, years later at Edison’s death in 1931, Tesla’s recollection of the man was a bitter one.
“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene... [I]f he had not married later a woman of exceptional intelligence, who made it the one object of her life to preserve him, he would have died many years ago from consequences of sheer neglect….If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search…His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense…the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle.”
It’s unclear just how well Tesla and Edison got to know each other during this time. Remember that Tesla was, at this point, a nobody. He was one of around 20 or so junior engineers at the firm. While Marc Seifer insists that Tesla, Edison and some higher ups from the Edison companies would often dine together and play billiards, W. Bernard Carlson suggests that during the six months or so that Tesla worked for Edison, the two men only crossed paths a handful of times.
At the best of times, Edison was difficult to get to know. He was a strong personality, and Tesla no doubt would have found him brash and abrasive.
There was Edison's bizarre sense of humour, for instance.
Editor and engineer Thomas Commerford Martin (a friend of Tesla) once wrote that Edison, unable to find Tesla’s obscure birthplace in Croatia on a map—and perhaps thinking it was close enough to Transylvania—asked him whether he had ever eaten human flesh. Tesla, naturally, was horrified.
And that was the least of it.
Thomas Alva Edison was a deeply complex character.
Already graying at age thirty-two, perpetually dressed in hand-sewn gingham smocks provided by his wife, Edison was an ungainly, swinging, stooping, shuffling figure. He was ornery, ingenious, determined, but also stubborn, unyielding, and surprisingly short-sighted at times. At the height of his powers he was not only a cut-throat business man, but the single most important inventor on the planet.
I know that in the mythology of the Tesla story, Edison is cast in the role of villain, but don’t sell Edison’s genius short: he (and his team) were responsible for the telephone transmitter (microphone), an electrical pen, a musical telephone, and the duplex telegraph, which enabled a telegraph to send four messages in two directions simultaneously.
Perhaps his most original work was the talking machine: the phonograph. Now, this is where I first really encountered Edison, as I mentioned in an earlier episode that my work in grad school focused on the history of the early recording industry. Recorded sound is so ubiquitous these days that we don’t even think about it or notice it (except, maybe, when for some reason the sound won’t work on the YouTube clip we’re trying to stream). But consider the world BEFORE recorded sound: no recorded music; no audio record of famous speeches; no way to save for posterity the voices of the living, or to recall the voices of the dead. Something once heard—a song, a joke, a laugh—was gone forever.
For this invention, Edison became known—rightly— as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” after the location of his famous lab.
Perhaps even more profound than the phonograph, though, Edison’s best-known and most lasting contribution to civilization was the practical incandescent light bulb. Ask anyone what Edison is known for and just about everyone will say “he invented the lightbulb.”
Edison was a showman, inviting the public to his laboratory and amazing them with machines that sang and reproduced the sound of birds, artificial lamps that illuminated the darkness, and mechanical devices of all kinds that would make one’s work and life easier.
But he also had a cruel streak, particularly with animals of various kinds. He had a small electric grid lining the edges of the floor of his factory that helped keep the place free of cockroaches. He also delighted in using his electric “rat paralyzer” which, as he himself said, “electri-fried” creatures larger than a cockroach. Later, during the War of the Currents, he would deliberately and gruesomely electrocute cats, dogs, and even (in a particularly horrifying display) a full-grown African elephant, all to try and demonstrate the lethal danger of alternating current. To play up this danger, Edison was a driving force behind the development of the electric chair, advocating strongly that not only should it use AC power, but that the act of being electrocuted to death should be called “getting Westinghoused”—after his chief rival (and Tesla AC system proponent in the War of the Currents), George Westinghouse.
Edison even occasionally wired up the washbasin at his lab, to zap his employees and keep them on their toes.
Sounds like a delightful boss.
Edison was by turns a trickster, a teller of tales, and a con artist.
And now Tesla was working for him. He began his employment at the Edison Machine Works on 8 June, 1884 with a monthly salary of $75 (about $1700 a month in today’s US dollars). He would work there for only six months.
So, if Tesla only worked for Edison for half a year, and if he only met the man a few times, how much should we make of the rivalry between Edison and Tesla? I’ll probably at some point do a special separate episode on this, or we’ll get into it a bit when we talk about the War of the Currents, but for right now (as with so much about Tesla) let’s assume it’s all been a bit overblown.
The two weren’t friends, that’s plain to see. For a time they were employer-employee, colleagues, and later were rivals. And particularly on Tesla’s part, despite the ultimate victory of the AC system he helped design over Edison’s DC system, there was still lingering resentment and bitterness from the hard-nosed tactics employed by Edison during the War of the Currents. But I’m not sure that a lot of the personal animus people these days ascribe to the two is realistic.
They did travel in some of the same circles, and would encounter one another socially from time to time over the years. But no gauntlets were thrown down, no pistols at ten paces, nothing like that.
In fact, when Tesla started to become well-known, Edison sent Tesla an autographed picture of himself. Tesla appreciated the gesture and cherished this token from Edison. And later, when Tesla appeared before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers to promote his wireless scheme, Edison put in a rare public appearance to hear what he had to say. To show his appreciation, Tesla got the assembled crowd to give Edison a standing ovation.
A standing ovation? Not exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys…
I think W. Bernard Carlson is correct here: the reason so much has been made of this so-called rivalry is the need many people have for historical figures to be cast as rather simple black-and-white, or good-vs-evil opposites. Carlson points out that one such pair of archetypes is "the money grubbing businessman (i.e.: Edison) versus the dreamy visionary artist (i.e.: Tesla).”
Edison was always the better businessman, so naturally he has to play the role of the bad guy. It is, as Carlson argues, a reflection of the battle in the popular mind between commerce and art. Commerce bad; art good.
But the reality of invention and innovation is that art and commerce have to work together. Research needs funding from somewhere and the invention needs to be manufactured, integrated into a larger commercial system, and marketed and sold to consumers.
So we’ll leave it there for now (and we’ll probably revisit it later) but for now, back to the events on the ground at the Edison Machine Works:
Given Edison’s predisposition to hate AC, and with Tesla’s actual amount of interaction with Edison in question, it’s not surprising that Nikola wasn’t able to convince Edison of the value of his AC inventions.
Instead, he was put to work redesigning the existing Edison DC equipment. According to Tesla, “the Manager had promised me $50,000 on completion of this task.” Now, that’s the equivalent of $1.2 million US dollars in today’s currency—enough for Tesla to set up his own shop. It was the big break he’d been longing for. Needless to say, he jumped at the opportunity, “experiment[ing] day and night, holidays not excepted,” by his own account. He claimed to routinely work from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 in the morning the next day.
He redesigned Edison’s Mary-Ann dynamos, replacing their long magnets with more efficient short-core designs. Tesla claimed that this change tripled the dynamo’s output.
He moved between the Pearl Street power station and the nearby Edison Machine Works, installing or fixing indoor incandescent lamps and outdoor arc lights, reassembling many of Edison’s DC generators, and designing a couple of dozen different types of machines that quickly replaced those used by Edison. At the same time, he worked on patents on arc lamps, regulators, dynamos, and commutators for the DC system.
Employed some weeks with the Edison company, there was one incident which Tesla felt at last gained him the confidence of Edison.
The Edison company had installed two DC dynamos in the S.S. Oregon, at that time the record holder as fastest transatlantic passenger ship and, supposedly, the first boat ever to have electric lighting. I haven’t been able to verify that 100%, but if it wasn’t the first it must surely have been among the first.
Both of the Oregon’s dynamos decided to fail at the same time one day while in port, and the ship’s departure from New York was delayed. The ship had been built around these dynamos, so replacement was impossible. Tesla, ever the troubleshooter during his work in Europe, grabbed his tools. “The dynamos were in bad condition,” he reports in his autobiography, “having several short-circuits and breaks.” Working through the night, and with some assistance from the crew, Tesla was able to repair both generators.
As he returned to the Edison offices at 5 a.m. the next morning, Tesla came upon Edison, Batchelor, and a few others who were just leaving after their own late-night shifts. According to Tesla, Edison said, “Here is our Parisian running around at night.” But when Tesla told Edison that, rather than carousing, he had just finished repairing the dynamos on the Oregon, Edison walked away in silence…until he thought he was out of earshot of Tesla, at which point Edison turned to Batchelor and said, “Batchellor [sic], this is a damn good man.”
Having sorted out the redesign of Edison’s dynamos, Tesla was next tasked with developing an arc-lighting system.
Arc-lighting (which is still used today in certain applications) was first developed in 1808 by Sir Humphry Davy, who created artificial illumination by running an electric current across a small gap between two carbon rods. This simple device evolved into the arc lamp, which by the 1860s was being used in English lighthouses, and was publically displayed in the United States during the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, celebrating the county’s centennial. By the 1870s, a number of inventors were racing to develop a way to enclose the arc lamp within glass, so as to make it safer and more attractive to market as a household lighting system.
In the mid-1880s, the Edison organization decided that it, too, needed an arc-lighting system in order to compete with its major competitors, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company (co-founded by Elihu Thomson, who we mentioned last week was one of Tesla’s predecessors in experimenting with A/C power), as well as the Brush Electric Light Company, and the United States Electric Lighting Company. These rivals started out manufacturing and installing arc lighting, and they expanded into incandescent lighting systems.
Edison did it the other way: he had developed an incandescent system first, one which worked great for lighting the interiors of homes and offices, but which wasn’t very good for exterior or street lighting. As towns and cities set up new central stations for providing electric lighting to both streets and homes, the Edison company lost contracts to Thomson-Houston or Brush Electric since these firms could install both arc and incandescent lights.
Edison sketched out a design for an arc lamp and filed a patent for it in June 1884. It was these rough outlines that Tesla was handed, and then left to his own devices to work out the details of how the full electrical system would actually operate.
Tesla did, indeed, develop an arc-lighting system for Edison—all the while thinking he would be handsomely rewarded at the end. But once he handed in the plans, the whole system was shelved. While it’s unclear whether Tesla ever received an explanation as to why, W. Bernard Carlson does a good job of breaking down the likely reasons:
The first was a business decision: the Thomas A. Edison Construction Department, which oversaw the building of power stations routinely lost money through bad co-financing arrangements with municipalities and local utility companies. Consequently, by early 1885 Edison decided to get out of the power station building business. His organization struck a deal with the American Electric Manufacturing Company (AEM), who wanted to expand their arc-light installation business to include incandescent lighting. From then on, when AEM saw an opportunity to install an incandescent lighting system it would sell the local utility an Edison system; and when the Edison organization wanted to install an arc-lighting system, it would use the system owned by AEM.
The existence of Tesla’s arc system might have been a useful bargaining chip to help Edison secure favourable terms from AEM, but once the deal was inked the Edison organization no longer had any need for the arc system developed by Tesla.
The second reason highlighted by Carlson was technical: other engineers in the Edison company had developed an incandescent lighting alternative to the arc-light. It was called the “municipal system,” and could be used for street lighting since it used larger incandescent lamps that operated at higher voltage.
At this point, Tesla approached another engineer at Menlo Park, Harry Livor, for his advice on how to obtain a raise from his modest salary of eighteen dollars per week to a more lucrative twenty-five dollars.
Livor, in addition to his work for the Edison organization, was a small-time entrepreneur in machine-works manufacturing who had once boasted to Tesla of an agreement he’d struck with Edison and Batchelor to form a company capitalized at $10,000 for the manufacture of shafting. Edison and Batchelor provided the machinery and money, Livor, the tools and services.
Clearly then, this was the man to make a raise happen for Tesla. And why wouldn’t he deserve a raise, if as Tesla claimed in his autobiography, his working hours “For nine months…were 10:30 A.M. till 5 A.M. the next day.”
Except, Tesla was only employed by Edison for about six months.
I suppose if you’re keeping those kinds of hours, the days and weeks and months must blend together…
In any event, Livor approached Batchelor on Tesla’s behalf about the raise.
“No,” was the answer from Batchelor. “The woods are full of men like [Tesla],” he said. “I can get any number of them I want for $18 a week.”
Sounds like a lot of bosses I’ve had…
This also, I think, tends to further disprove the idea that Tesla had a glowing letter of recommendation from Batchelor when he arrived in America. Surely, if Tesla was one of two great men that Batchelor knew (the other, of course, being Edison) surely he could cough up an extra $7 a week.
And then there’s the matter of the $50,000 bonus for redesigning equipment.
Remember that? The bonus worth $1.2 million in today’s dollars?
Well, Tesla hadn’t forgotten. And at some point, after seeming to waffle about it for a while, he worked up the courage to ask for the payment in light of all the work he’d done.
Needless to say, all he got was another ‘no.’
Tesla lays all this squarely at the feet of Thomas Edison, who he says “merely laughed” when asked for the pay out. “You are still a Parisian,” Tesla quotes Edison as saying. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”
Now, the idea that somebody would have legitimately promised that kind of bonus to anyone in the company, let alone an untested new employee, is a bit far-fetched unless it was said in jest. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that if the joke was made that Tesla, who was literally fresh off the boat, might have believed it was a promise made in good faith. While fluent in English, idiom or irony or humour can be very difficult to pick up on in any second language.
It was also Edison’s habit to make “expensive if indefinite promises of rewards as a way of getting the men to work for low wages.” Edison, who also liked to pretend he was more hard of hearing than he actually was when it suited him, was known to enjoy putting on his college-educated employees as a way of making himself feel superior (never having had the kind of formal education they did). One story is told of Edison convincing the chemist Martin Rosanoff that his first lightbulb filament was made out of Limburger cheese. And it strikes me that in all of Tesla’s accounts of his time working for Edison, he always quotes Edison as describing him as “our Parisian.” Was there more than a whiff of insecurity, or jealousy, or feelings of inadequacy on the part of Edison for his lack of worldliness, and lack of formal education?
Either way, Tesla wasn’t getting his wheelbarrow full of cash. Deeply hurt, he resigned in disgust. As his last notebook entry while working for Edison, dated for the period from December 7th 1884 to January 4th 1885, Tesla scrawled in large letters: “Good by [sic] to the Edison Machine Works!”
And on the very next page of the journal, Tesla began making notes for his own company.
Next time, as Tesla decides to strike out on his own, we’re going to take a brief step back from the man himself to have a closer look at the world he was entering. This is America in the Gilded Age, and it was the era in which Tesla would do his greatest work and gain his greatest wealth and fame. So we’ll take a whirlwind tour of the 30 year period known as the Gilded Age and get a sense of the times, both in America broadly and in New York City specifically, since the city features so prominently in Tesla’s life and work.
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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.