Edison vs. Tesla: two approaches to problem solving

Two heroes in the pantheon of inventors are Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Of their many contrasts (ethics being among them) an often overlooked one is their divergent approaches for how to solve problems. The book Empire of Light is a fantastic telling of the entire story of American electricity, and Edison and Tesla’s initial partnership and later rivalry, but it also touches on the attitudes about invention.

Edison is famous for his affirmations of hard work as a key ingredient in invention:

  • “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration”
  • “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work”

It’s good advice. Finding the idea for something is rarely the hardest part in bringing it into the world. Instead, it’s the willingness to work on the long list of little issues that must be solved to bring an idea to fruition (or the marketplace). In problem solving lingo, this kind of approach is called brute-force. You apply great energy to try out many alternatives, cheaply and quickly if you can.

Tesla had a different approach. His intuitive understanding of the principles of science allowed him to think about problems in ways Edison either could not, or did not want to. Tesla wrote:

  • “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once… to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.”

With the rise in popularity of Tesla as a mythic hero, and Steve Jobs as a latter day Edison, it’s easy to want to take sides. But when it comes to problem solving, both of them were right. There is rarely one mother of invention – there are always many possible ones.

The best approach to problem solving is synthetic: to use the synthesis of both ways of thinking to serve you. You should be willing to apply brute-force, but also be willing to do thinking in advance to make solving a problem easier.

Decades ago, in my computer science classes, there was a clear divide among my programmer peers. When given a new assignment,  some would jump right in to writing code. I’d call them little Edisons. Others would put the keyboard away, and think for a while on paper. They’d sketch things out, and perhaps ask a question or two online. These were the little Teslas.

Which one do you tend to be more like in how you approach problems?


19 Responses to “Edison vs. Tesla: two approaches to problem solving”

  1. Jack Dempsey

    More and more a Tesla. Also depends on the type of problem–sometimes knowing what questions to ask, what aspects to consider, is quickly solved or at least started for you by jumping right in and touching the problem directly. Just don’t stay there indefinitely and lose perspective.

  2. Phil Simon

    Good post, Scott. I tend to be an Edison. I jump right in and start playing with ideas. I should develop the Tesla side of myself, though.

  3. Lata

    Tesla came after Edision – studied his methodology and then found out his defects. this is the crux – Edison was the pioneer. u learnt from him, his methods and improved upon it. thinking genetically had improved by the the time Tesla had evolved !!

    1. odawg

      Actually they came in about the same time.

  4. Otto

    My process is to drink beer for a day or two, until my brain codes the solution for me. Then I type it in. works for me.

    1. ASD

      Are you swimming in bear? :)

      1. Stephanie

        How does one swim in a bear? Without being eaten and “swimming in his insides?”

  5. Emmanuel García

    My favorite method is via inspiration, however you get it: either by brute force or however you get your creative juices going. Listening to the right type of music, going for a walk or even better a good run, swimming, long drives, are all methods that can put me in a very creative state.

  6. Helen Wu

    Thanks for the writing. Here is what I think.
    When I feel the need to clarify the problem (simplify/decompose) I am Tesla, whereas I am trying to find a solution, I am Edison.

  7. Ahmed

    Excellent post Scott.
    Can we as well copmare Agile(Adison) vs Waterfall(Tesla)?
    Or it is only aplicable when there is a human factor like software applications?



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