3. Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla
rivalries edison tesla

Hell hath no fury like a mentor scorned. In 1884 world-renowned inventor Thomas Edison welcomed a brilliant young Serbian engineer named Nikola Tesla into his New York office. Tesla had been working on direct current (DC) electricity in Edison's Paris division for a few years. Edison's DC apparatus reigned supreme at the time. But Tesla had conceived of a new method using alternating current (AC), which, unlike DC, could transmit significant amounts of power over long distances. According to Tesla, Edison dismissed his ideas as a waste of time, not to mention dangerous given the high voltage involved.

Tesla designed several products for Edison, expecting to receive a promised $50,000 bonus for his efforts (about $1 million today). But when Tesla asked for his reward in the spring of 1885, Edison told him it had been a joke all along. Tesla quit.

He struck out on his own, securing patents and catching the interest of Pittsburgh industrial titan George Westinghouse. Westinghouse had been quietly developing power stations using AC. Learning of Tesla's technology, he acquired his patents, putting the business might of the Westinghouse corporation behind the inventor. And the war came.

When he heard that Westinghouse was moving into the electricity business, Edison ridiculed him. But it wasn't long before Edison was holding shocking public demonstrations to discredit AC power. To make his point, he electrocuted dogs, cows, horses, even an elephant. He then put his name behind an effort to use AC to power the first electric chair. The execution -- which took place in Auburn, N.Y., in August 1890, lasted eight minutes and required two attempts -- was a grisly affair. Westinghouse responded dryly, "They could have done it better with an axe."

Ultimately Tesla's AC technology won the war, but the inventors' rivalry morphed into one of the greatest corporate battles in American history. A mega-merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston in 1892 created GE (GE, Fortune 500), which went toe-to-toe with Westinghouse. Long after Edison and Tesla died, their feud carried on until, in the 1980s, GE chose the right CEO (Jack Welch), while Westinghouse chose four successive wrong ones. By the late 1990s, GE was the most valuable company on earth. The original Westinghouse was no more; the current company with that name is less than one-tenth GE's size.

Winner: Nikola Tesla

--Scott Olster


- Last updated March 21 2013 05:44 PM ET
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