Zeke Corder

Zeke Corder is the author of Zeke’s Corner, a regular column in the Kuna Melba News.

Who is the greatest inventor of the 20th Century? According to the books we studied in school, without a doubt, Thomas Edison.

Is that the truth? It must be, because he holds more patents for invention than anyone, and not just in the U.S., but in many foreign countries.

Thomas Edison may have invented nothing at all.

From the very beginning Edison was an entrepreneur. He began his career with an assistant, someone who almost certainly did the bulk of the testing and refinement for the light bulb; someone who may have even come up with the original idea.

Edison patented the invention. He began selling his inventions immediately.

As most entrepreneurs, he had a privileged upbringing, and many influential friends. Finding buyers for the inventions was often a foregone conclusion.

As Edison began bringing in money, he built a state-of-the-art laboratory in the basement of his spacious home. He then began scouring the colleges for stand-out students; many accepted employment. Henry Ford worked in his lab for a time.

It turned out geniuses from American sources wanted a decent salary and/or a piece of the royalties from the inventions. Edison wanted riches and fame.

Edison traveled to Europe looking for cheaper help. He began recruiting these people to his labs. As they were citizens of other countries, they could only travel to America through sponsored work visas.

Many jumped at the chance to come work for Edison! They were forced to sign a contract conveying all inventions and patents to Edison himself.

He made these scientists and engineers generous promises. Once in his lab, he worked them 12-18 hours a day, seven days a week with very, very little pay.

The promise was, when they invent something that brings in money they would share in the profits. Among these inventors from abroad was a Serbian named Nicola Tesla.

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Edison held the visa status over immigrants in his employ. If they do not produce, they would be deported.

Nicola was extremely valuable. He produced many of the inventions for which Edison claimed fame and profit. Edison promised him a huge bonus if he could complete a specific invention. When Tesla completed it, of course Edison laughed him off and told him he simply did not understand business in America.

Tesla eventually left Edison’s employ by designing and building the hydro-electric dam at Niagara Falls for George Westinghouse. Westinghouse paid him enough money to build a lab.

Swan Falls Dam south of Kuna was one of the first experimental dams Tesla designed and Westinghouse built.

Radio was one of his inventions. Marconi used his patents to build the first radio transmitter and held the title for the invention for many years. However, when the courts reviewed the patents, Tesla was named the inventor many, many years later.

He invented X-ray and proposed radar.

Tesla came up with the idea for cell phones.

His greatest effort was to provide free electrical power to the world. He made great progress in that attempt, but J.P. Morgan and others were making too much money from electrification to allow that to be developed so they stopped his diligent efforts.

Never did Nicola strive for money. His aim was to build things to help others, and only to sell enough ideas to fund his efforts.

He died penniless and broken in an apartment in New York and has largely been relegated to an ignominious past. He did not pursue riches and that made him a non-entity in American history.

Edison took credit and profit for everything invented in his laboratories and though he had very intelligent and creative people creating for him, he took the money, the fame, and the credit as a great inventor and has become one of the most famous Americans of the 20th Century. Capitalism pays in many ways.


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