Press and Pop Culture

Defending Edison from Tesla

“There is an unbelieveable amount of misinformation and misunderstanding out there, especially by those who are sort of Tesla advocates,” said Paul Israel, who wrote a biography of Edison and is the editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University. “And part of the problem is that even if you provide them with evidence to the contrary, if it doesn’t agree with what they already know, what they know is right and everything else is wrong.”

While I agree with Paul Israel’s comments, I wonder if he sees the irony in a Thomas Edison advocate accusing Tesla advocates believing “what they know is right and everything else is wrong.” A bit later in Brian Amaral’s Was Thomas Edison a Hack?, Israel claims that Edison “also basically invented the modern process of research and development.” Clearly, Israel is not a neutral voice in this debate.

To be fair, Amaral also cites scholars who are not trying to defend Edison, though they are often no less hyperbolic in their praise:

Edison was the one guy who could basically invent a better bulb, and figure out how to develop the companies and the distribution system you would need to get that product out there and in everyday life,” Carlson says.

Efforts to rehabilitate Tesla at Edison’s expense or to defend Edison, implicitly at Tesla’s expense, reveal how vested we are in particular historical people. So much so that we are comfortable in distorting the historical record to serve our purposes:

Inman – the Oatmeal, as it were – acknowledges some of the Forbes’ articles criticisms, but defends the overall thesis.
“I’m a comedian and I speak in hyperbole,” wrote Inman, who did not respond to requests for an interview. “If you sharpshoot my work you will find that I exaggerate for the sake of comedy.”

That’s the problem with worshipping heroes—whether for comedic purposes or to ensure a functioning democracy, as Roger Highfield justifies his hero worship—the exaggeration, myth-making, and distortion for the sake of some cause becomes morally acceptable.

Whether fabricated by comedians or journalists or scientists or historians or whomever, heroes distort the past with unfortunate consequences for the present.