I am David J. Kent, Author of Books on Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Abraham Lincoln. AMA

Science Traveler
Jan 23, 2018

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant but eccentric scientist. Thomas Edison was a chief rival and talented inventor in his own right. Abraham Lincoln saved America. Each is fascinating in their own way, and I've written highly illustrated biographies on all of them.Ask Me Anything about all three. Was Tesl really a genius? Did Edison steal all the inventions he got credit for? How on Earth did an poorly educated country lawyer save America?

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Between Edison and Tesla, who do you think was the better inventor? Also, what other inventors you can think of that have done great things, but are not as known or get credit for what they've done? Thank you in advance, love your AMA!

Jan 23, 9:34PM EST0

I actually talked about this in a blog post I wrote a while back, which you can read at: http://www.davidjkent-writer.com/2015/11/09/edison-vs-tesla-two-very-different-men-of-invention/.  The bottom line is that I couldn't give a definitive answer on who was the better inventor. Edison certainly had more success in a wider range of areas, but he also ran an "invention factory" where he hired plenty of very skilled artisans and inventors to work on various projects concurrently. So when someone came up with a promising idea Edison made sure it got the attention it deserved and then immediately set to commercializing it to bring in funds for even more inventing. Does that make him a great inventor or just a great manager of inventors? In contrast, Tesla was a loner. He preferred to work by himself with only an assistant or two, which meant he was limited with how much he could do at once. But while Edison (and his crew) tinkered and guessed at how to make things incrementally better, sometimes accidentally coming up with something new, Tesla sat and thought about the theory behind what he wanted to do and focused on making huge changes from the existing infrastructure. Edison had tons of little failures; Tesla had only a few, but really big, failures (the biggest being an inability to solve the wireless power concept he was working on at Wardenclyffe before his funding gave out). Google's Larry Page idolized Tesla after reading "My Inventions" when he 12 years old, but he grew to appreciate Edison's ability to commercialize products to keep the money flowing into continuing research. After writing about both Edison and Tesla, I found I admired both of them for different reasons (such as described above and in the blog post I mention).

Jan 23, 9:57PM EST0

When it comes to Tesla, there are lots of conspiracy theories. What are some that stand out in your opinion, and why?

Jan 23, 9:05PM EST0

Great question. In my book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricty, I have a chapter called "Beyond the Grave - Conspiracies Abound" that is about several of the conspiracy theories surrounding Tesla. Some of them seem plausible at first glance. For example, many believe the federal government stole Tesla's papers describing a "death ray" and other inventions. The government did suspiciously swoop in and grab Tesla's papers right after his death, in part because Tesla himself had spread rumors to keep himself relevant and in part because it was wartime (WWII) and the government was rather paranoid about the Germans getting that death ray if it did exist. It didn't, but even though the papers were later turned over to the Tesla family and returned to Belgrade, the conspiracy is more interesting than the reality. Other conspiracies aren't even in the realm of believability, such as Telsa being murdered by the Nazis (he wasn't), he talked with aliens (he didn't), a shared Nobel Prize between Edison and Tesla was ripped away because they disliked each other (there was no Prize planned for either one of them, and their relationship was more amicable than usually thought), and today's HAARP program is really Tesla's ubiquitous "death ray" (it isn't). Tesla was an interesting character in real life, with personality quirks that lent themselves to creating mystery around him. He also had a friend who wrote science fiction that based some of it on Tesla's real inventions or ideas, so I suppose it's no surprise that our modern minds get creative when they think of him.

Jan 23, 9:20PM EST0

What are your thoughts on Topsy's stunt?

Jan 23, 8:41PM EST0

Topsy is a difficult subject as it often is mischaracterized and yet remains very disturbing. The incident is often presented as part of Edison's campaign to discredit Tesla and Westinghouse's AC system, but it really occurred after that was effectively settled. Edison wasn't really involved in the Topsy incident either, but employees of Edison's motion picture company filmed the event. Topsy had killed humans, most likely because of years of abuse, and the circus decided to put her to death. They tried several methods including electrocution before she finally succumbed. There were plenty of other press there as well, but because the Edison company had a film of it that still exists, it has brought a lot of bad memories up ever since. The lost point on all of this was that Topsy and all elephants (and other animals) were on the receiving end of much abuse to keep them docile enough for circus life. That was especially true back then. 

Jan 23, 8:52PM EST0

If you were commissioned to write about Trump, would you? And how would you go about it?

Jan 23, 8:29PM EST0

Tough question. He would not be someone I would normally find interesting and substantive enough to write about, but I suppose I would have to consider it if the publisher was offering me a couple of million dollars in advance (which hardly seems likely). Any such book would be a challenge to write given how much is already known about him and the slate of tell-all books that have already started to hit the market. Since he's a living person and all my previous books have been about people long passed away, the approach would have to be different. My basic strategy for all my books so far has been to make the subject accessible to the public. I want people to learn a lot about the person while enjoying the reading, so the reader gets a lot of information without feeling like it was a lot of effort.

Jan 23, 8:41PM EST0

Elon Musk borrowed Tesla's name for his company. Do you think it does justice to Tesla, the man?

Jan 23, 8:22PM EST0

Good question. The company name was definitely intended to be an homage to Nikola Tesla, whose importance in developing a workable AC-based electricty system had been largely forgotten. I think Tesla (Nikola) would have approved of Tesla (Motors). Nikola Tesla sought to make a big change to the existing way of doing things (Thomas Edison was already building a DC-based electricity grid in NYC), and that is what Tesla Motors has tried to do. They have their electric cars, but let everyone use the technology without any patent infringement because they wanted to change the entire infrastructure. The company also has batteries and solar roof tiles, all to make big changes to how we do things. I think Nikola would be happy.

Jan 23, 8:33PM EST1
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Are you a full time author or a scientist?

Jan 23, 12:00PM EST1

I'm currently a full time author. I had been a full time scientist for all my career until a few years ago when I decided to pursue professional writing. I still keep my hand in science, both in writing and professional affiliations, but I'm also spending more time with my second love - history, in particular, that of Abraham Lincoln. I'm a past president of several scientific organizations and current vice president of the Lincoln Group of DC. I also write blogs on science traveling and science communication. So I definitely keep myself busy in both fields.

Jan 23, 12:42PM EST0

Great!

Jan 24, 7:52AM EST0

I want to read them all. Can you send me some PDF sample to daniel@iristech.co

Also any tips on how to promote my book online? :)

Jan 22, 7:15PM EST0

Samples should be downloadable on Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites for the various books, including my two e-books on Amazon.

Jan 22, 8:57PM EST0

Thanks :)

Jan 23, 8:20PM EST0

I've often wondered, what started your interest in Lincoln, Edison and Telsa?

Jan 7, 6:10PM EST1

I've been interested in Lincoln all my life. I remember reading Sandburg's "Lincoln" and "The Day Lincoln Was Shot" when I was still very young. So I've always read a lot about him and collected books. Tesla and Edison relate to my professional scientific career. I got the chance to write about Tesla first and found him fascinating, both for his inventive mind and his quirky personality and hard luck life. Edison was a counterpoint to Tesla, who worked for Edison for a short time before becoming a rival. My goal with the two books was to show how the two men had some dramatic similarities (e.g., both workaholics who didn't sleep much) but overall were two very different men of invention. Tesla was a soloist shooting for big changes and letting others commercialize; Edison a bandleader shooting for incremental changes and commercializing as soon as possible so he had funds to continue research. All three men made a huge difference to society in their own way, and each paved the way to the future in their own ways.

Jan 7, 7:16PM EST0
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Whom are you going to write about next?

Dec 21, 3:50PM EST1

I'm currently working on another book about Lincoln's interest in science, plus a travel memoir about Argentina. In January I'll be proposing a compendium book in which I'll be Editor-in-Chief. And I already know which book I'll write when those are done.  :)

Dec 21, 3:53PM EST0

Who was the most passionate one among the three?

Dec 20, 1:17AM EST1

Interesting question, and it would depend on how you define passionate (e.g., Tesla was unmarried while Edison had two wives and six kids). Tesla was someone who was passionately involved in his work and, except for a relatively short period in which he was toast of the town, generally stayed away from social interaction. He enthusiastically tried to change the world in big swoops, not always successfully. But then Edison also threw himself into his work while also being social. And Lincoln was definitely passionate about making the U.S. a better place, where people could be given an equal opportunity to better their condition. I think all three men - and all people who are remembered for changing the world - exhibit passion for their chosen endeavors. Since we all face adversity, those who succeed are those who keep a focus on their goals and keep moving forward. That takes having a passion for what you do.

Dec 20, 9:00AM EST0

How many books have you published since?

Dec 18, 2:01PM EST1

I've had three books published through a traditional New York publisher - Lincoln, Tesla, and Edison. I've also published two e-books directly on Amazon. One looks at Tesla's interest in renewable energy, the other at the surprising connections between Lincoln and Tesla. I'm currently working on another book looking at a specific interest of Lincoln's plus a travel memoir in my science traveler series. So I'm keeping busy.

Dec 19, 8:03PM EST0

Do you belong to a group of authors who share the same interest as yours?

Dec 17, 8:49PM EST1

In a way, yes. I belong to an Abraham Lincoln book group in which we meet monthly to discuss a particular book about Lincoln. Everyone is interested in Lincoln but comes from varied backgrounds so can provide different insights into the readings. I'm also a VP for the Lincoln Group of DC. We generally have a monthly meeting where authors speak to us about their books. I also keep in touch with other authors and researchers in the field. It's not a formal thing but it helps to have experts you can call on occasionally.

Dec 17, 9:28PM EST0

Do you agree that Edison was a victim of the media during his time?

Dec 17, 8:26AM EST1

Probably everyone of substance was a victim of the media in some way. Edison used the media to his advantage, often bringing them in to help publicize his new inventions even before they were marketable (what today we would call "creating a buzz"). He also used the media as part of his attempt to discredit AC power that was outcompeting his DC power. But he did receive poor media coverage as well, in some cases promoted by his rivals. As we still see today, many celebrities (in the broad sense of the term) have a love/hate relationship with the media, commonly attacking them when they do what the celebrity doesn't like but also using them to help promote their celebrity and/or products. Tesla and Lincoln also had good and bad interactions with the media. It's probably something that all public figures have to deal with.

Last edited @ Dec 17, 7:15PM EST.
Dec 17, 9:47AM EST0

What do Tesla, Edison, and Lincoln have in common?

Dec 17, 3:56AM EST1

Good question. I would say two things. All were in their own ways self-educated. Tesla did receive formal schooling and even some engineering college (though never completed it) but really learned much of what he knew by self-study. Edison lacked formal education; he was home-schooling from his mother after his first grade teacher said he was "addled" (aka, distracted). He learned by reading and tinkering. And of course Abraham Lincoln is the quintessential self-made man, with less than a year of formal schooling and yet taught himself language, logic, and law, all of which led to him becoming probably our nation's greatest president.

Dec 17, 7:07AM EST0

What is the most significant contribution of Nikola Tesla?

Dec 17, 3:50AM EST1

I would have to say alternative current (AC). Edison was already building commercial direct current (DC) power plants in New York City when Tesla developed the dynamos and engines that made AC current viable as an electricity distribution system. It changed the way we provide electricity and is the basis of today's electricity grid. He had other innovations as well, including the first wireless robotics, but they mostly either weren't commercialized or needed further development by others (e.g., Marconi with radio).

Dec 17, 6:59AM EST0

What made you interested in the life of these three people?

Dec 17, 3:06AM EST1

Each of the three has contributed to the world in their own way. Tesla was a visionary who sought to change the world in big steps. Edison was a tinkerer who sought to change the world in small increments, some of which resulted in big changes. Lincoln was a self-made man who saved America during its most trying challenge. I thought that each taught us lessons we can apply to our lives. I also thought that they each had stories that much of the general public didn't know, and the format of the books helps reach people that might not pick up the standard types of biography books.

Dec 17, 6:55AM EST0

Why did you specifically choose the three among all others?

Dec 16, 9:12PM EST1

The timing was good for a book about Tesla. A non-profit organization was in the process of buying his old Wardenclyffe laboratory property to turn it into a science center and museum. There was also an off-Broadway play about Tesla (which I was privileged to advise, it sold out its entire run). Once Tesla was such a success (8 printings so far, multiple foreign language translations) the obvious next step was to do Thomas Edison, Tesla's sometimes rival and fellow inventor. For Abraham Lincoln, this was a dream come true as I've been a Lincoln fan and independent researcher and collector all my life. In fact, I'm currently working on another Lincoln book that will focus on one aspect of his life. That should be my main focus in 2018.

Dec 16, 9:24PM EST0

Other than biographies, what else do you write?

Dec 16, 8:53PM EST1

I'm glad you asked. I'm working on a travel memoir in which I lace history and science into my own road trip adventures in the wilds of Patagonia, Argentina. In addition to the drama of a divorce, a broken leg, and the longest stretch of gravel road I've ever seen, there is some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine. This will be the first book in a series of science traveling books.

Dec 16, 9:01PM EST0

How did Nikola Tesla inspire your daily life?

Dec 16, 4:08PM EST1

Tesla was a grand thinker who wanted to change the world with big ideas. They didn't always work out, but he shot for the moon. It's a good reminder that if we set our sights too high we might not always reach our goals, but it's better than aiming too low and achieving mediocrity. There is risk in being a visionary, but if you reach that one big glorious goal, it's worth it. For me, it reminds me to keep moving forward, always keeping my eye on the grand vision of the future.

Dec 16, 4:35PM EST0

Was it true that Tesla and Edison were supposed to share a Nobel Prize?

Dec 16, 2:09PM EST1

Unfortunately, no. There was a rumor that developed after the fact, but the Nobel Prize committee has said they never planned to give a Prize to either man. If they had, they most certainly wouldn't have recinded the idea based on some supposed rivalry between Tesla and Edison. Other than during the period of the "War of the Currents," which Tesla/Westinhouse won, Tesla and Edison were on generally friendly terms. Again, other than the AC/DC competition, the two men rarely worked on competing projects. Edison tinkered with light bulbs and telephones and phonographs and movie cameras and iron ore milling and even a source of domestic rubber. Meanwhile, Tesla was busy with robotics, wireless power, and unfortuntely, struggling to get funding to develop many of his ideas. Both contributed greatly to mankind, but they weren't supposed to share a Nobel Prize. Perhaps ironically, Tesla won the "Edison Medal" from the IEEE.

Dec 16, 4:32PM EST0
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