The Terrible Thing Edison Did To Slander Nikola Tesla

The War of the Currents (1880s) between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla has become one of nerddom's most widely-discussed rivalries. It's easy to draw the typical mock-ups of each character: 

In one corner we have the slender, proto-hipster, futurist Tesla, a charismatic but misunderstood genius with eidetic memory who was terrible at business, was plagued by tics such as fear of women's earrings (this is true, per Live Science), and who died penniless and unable to save the world through the creation of free, nigh-limitless, worldwide energy. And in the other corner we have the slobby, flab-jowled, evil capitalist Edison, a pragmatic tinkerer and world-changer who, among other things, "invented the light bulb," and propagated his direct-current (DC) method of electric power, and who was also so lazy that he wore shoes twice their correct size, as to never have to bend down to tie them (this is also true).

Of course, reality is far more nuanced than this, and time (and popular media) has blurred the details of these men's lives and relationship. We can't forget George Westinghouse, for example, who may have been the real winner of the War of the Currents. Westinghouse hired Tesla and licensed his alternate-current (AC) motor. As a result, he won the contract for the 1893 World's Fair over General Electric (Edison's conglomerate), and also built the world's first hydroelectric dam at Niagara Falls using the same technology, as described by History.

The spark of animosity

The events leading up to the World's Fair, however, reveal that Tesla and Edison's hero-villain paradigm has some basis in truth. 

Croatian-born Tesla, who studied math and physics at the University of Prague, came up with the idea for his AC motor while doodling in the sand, according to History. After getting a job at the Continental Edison Company in Paris (yes, the same Edison), he moved to the US in 1884 and worked for Edison directly. Edison, impressed, promised Tesla $50,000 for an improved design for his DC dynamos. Tesla complied, passed his solution along, and Edison promptly cheated him, saying, "Tesla, you don't understand our American humor." Understandably, Tesla quit. He started his own company, Tesla Electric Light Company, and over a couple of years was granted over 30 patents (compare this to the industrialist Edison, who had over 1,000). This was when Westinghouse hired Tesla, and the two went head-to-head against Edison to propagate their AC power-generation method.

This is when things get truly, savagely messed up. In order to discredit Tesla and Westinghouse, Edison staged demonstrations where he used AC power to electrocute things, to portray AC's supposed volatility. He started with a dog, which he "Westinghoused" (the phrase he coined) in front of an audience. He then moved on to horses, cattle, an elephant named Topsy, and even brokered the world's first electrocution of a death row inmate, William Kemmler, as described by the Washington Post.