If you've ever wondered why famed engineer and entrepreneur Elon Musk named his electric vehicle company after Nikola Tesla and not Thomas Edison, the short answer is this: Tesla undeniably beat Edison in the battle over electricity.
We may not have an iconic object to symbolize Tesla's role in introducing electricity to our world the way we have the lightbulb for Edison - which, incidentally, he really just sold more than invented - but it is Tesla we can thank for the electrical system that powers virtually all of the devices we use in our day-to-day lives. Back in the late 1880s, this sparked a huge fight between Tesla and Edison, in which Edison was a complete jerk to Tesla, to put it nicely (more on that in this hilarious and educational comic from The Oatmeal).
Edison did introduce his own system for transmitting electrical currents, known as direct current or DC, but it was highly inefficient. It required there to be a power plant every square mile, which is incredibly impractical. Tesla, on the other hand, developed the system known as alternating current, or AC, that we still use today because it allows us to transmit electricity over vast distances.
This victory is certainly Tesla's main claim to fame, but despite the fact that he is tragically still far less famous than Edison, it is by no means his only claim. His list of 300 or so patents is a cornucopia of revolutionary ideas. Among his inventions are radio, neon lighting, and cryogenic engineering. His work was also critical to the development of X-ray technology and transistors.
Tesla did spend some of his 86 completely celibate years developing some pretty whacked-out inventions as well as his revolutionary ones. Most notably, he earned himself a reputation as a mad scientist when he attempted to develop a death ray device with the power to destroy 10,000 planes as far as 250 miles away. Tesla himself was a pacifist and often wrote of his strong desire to "abolish war," but his work on the death ray was, understandably, received with ridicule and fear.
It's easy to get caught up in Tesla's eccentricities. In addition to his death ray and life of celibacy, he notoriously had a bizarrely intense love for pigeons. But above all, Tesla was a truly revolutionary inventor whose incredible mind and immense drive is still serving us today.
Photo: Thierry Ehrmann | Flickr