The Oatmeal isn’t God and Alex Knapp isn’t the Devil
Some further tweets and hundreds of thousands of page views later here we are. Freddie calls the Oatmeal’s response shitty, Oatmeal acolytes call the Knapp piece refuted, and oh, by the way, this all centers around Tesla, Edison, and one of the Internet’s favorite past times: reverse idolatry. You thought who you worshipped was worth worshipping, but really this other person is much, much better, and oh aren’t we kind of cool because we’ve got Tesla tattoos on our bellies and the rest of you hillbillies are still talking about Edison and light bulbs. You know how these things go.
And so I was inspired to enter into the fray like any good blogger and post some dribble that’s of little consequence and offers even less in the way of additional nuance. Yes, I’ll tell you up front: there is nothing unusually insightful to follow. The paragraphs below are neither pregnant with discerning analysis nor especially clever or entertainingly caustic. Instead, this post is platonically ideal in its ambition, which is, namely, to amuse myself, and perhaps two or three other people.
In the next several hundred words I will, for my own benefit, attempt to adjudicate the disagreement between the ever gracious Knapp and the ever hilarious Oatmeal guy (I really hope it’s a guy, otherwise I apologize). See, I feel that I am uniquely qualified to do so because I know absolutely nothing about Tesla or is contemporaries. I didn’t know who Tesla was before I watched Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. What I know of Edison comes from a 10th grade Cinema teacher who told us that he was responsible for the formation of Hollywood (because he chased would be movie makers away from the East Coast). Also, my apartment mate’s middle name is Edison. And so was his father’s. And so was his grandfather’s. True story.
As a result, I will attempt to judge the merit of Knapp’s critique and Oatmeal’s rebuttal purely on the basis of how well they engage with one another, and whether the one could charitably be interpreted as possibly correct. Alas, matters of fact will be left to the pros, and the commenters, and all manner of unsourced Internet research, so I think we can all comfortably agree that the eventual “truth” of the matter is in good hands.
Alex Knapp writes, “This is just wrong. Alternating current was developed in principle by Michael Faraday and in practice by Hippolyte Pixii in the early 19th century. Practical devices employing AC in the medical world were developed before Tesla was even born.”
In response, Mr. Oatmeal cries foul, claiming that Knapp is simply arguing semantics (a common reframe that can often be restated as: you don’t understand the point I was making). Mr. Oatmeal doesn’t think that Tesla discovered or invented AC. Instead, what Mr. Oatmeal is claiming is that Tesla was the one who made AC “practical enough to light up the world.” Unfortunately most of the world is actually lit up by the Sun, something neither Tesla nor anyone else is responsible for. But I take his point. Shame on you Knapp, for woefully distorting The Oatmeal’s claims.
Next, Knapp writes, “George Westinghouse was the man who won the War of the Currents in the United States, and in Europe, AC won the wars almost before they started.” Mr. Oatmeal say, “Wrong” and goes on to explain about royalties and Tesla tearing up contracts and how this shows he was the nicest investor ever. Why else, Mr. Oatmeal asks, would Westinghouse have offered Tesla $2.5 on each horsepower sold if it wasn’t because Tesla was the real genius?
I can’t say. But negative claims are always a bit specious. Perhaps Tesla was extorting Westinghouse, only to realize this would be more trouble than it was worth, leading him to shred the agreement. Unlikely? Yes, but no more of a guess than Oatmeal’s. Plus, I’ve never much trusted claims supported on reasoning that extrapolates from money. After all, the bankers couldn’t have known they were selling crappy securities, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it, right? As the noxious sequel infested film industry tells us, “Money never sleeps.” Which means you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to not be fooled by money. Which means, huh? Exactly.
Next, “Keep that in mind and consider this: could it be that Edison wasn’t “a douchebag” in the Oatmeal’s words? Is it possible – just possible – that Edison honestly believed that AC was dangerous and honestly did not think it should be used?”
“Bullshit” declares The Oatmeal. I mean didn’t you know that Edison electrocuted cats? Clearly that makes him a giant D. So goes Mr. Oatmeal’s well reasoned response. Then again, we do all kinds of experiments on animals, for all kinds of scientific purposes. And even if one believes they are wrong, it isn’t clear to me that animal cruelty would have been considered so cruel over a hundred years ago. So while Edison might be a D by today’s standards, it’s unfair to extrapolate from our current code of ethics that he would have been a D in every other aspect of his life. Clearly, he didn’t know electrocuting cats at the time was a D move. Most people probably didn’t.
Just like most people at one point were stupid enough not to realize slavery was a D move (I apologize here for potentially appearing to trivialize in an attempt to be funny). But just because people thought slavery was fine didn’t mean they were suddenly going around trying to be assholes to everyone else they could find. All of which is to say that killing cats in the 19th century does not a D make. As a result, killing cats is not evidence that Edison’s moral compass was unusually misdirected.
Then Knapp writes, “Edison’s signature invention is the light bulb. Of course, Edison didn’t actually invent the incandescent bulb, something that the Oatmeal comic is quick to point out when it says “Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, he improved upon the ideas of 22 other men who pioneered the light bulb before him.”
To which Mr. Oatmeal responds that he pointed this out because %99 of the people he’s met don’t know this. Clearly that’s because none of them have enough money to go to good schools like the other %1, but I digress. Because The Oatmeal rushes on to agree with Knapp’s next point that all scientific and technological progress is a form of innovation. Each thing iterates on what was created and conceived of prior.
Plus, Mr. Oatmeal has already clarified that Tesla is awesome because of how he refined AC for practical use, not because he invented it. So really, Tesla is actually a lot like Edison, at least seemingly so, for now, but I’m sure The Oatmeal will set things straight soon enough.
Knapp jumps on this opening, “Secondly, the comic doesn’t appreciate why Edison was able to sell light bulbs. He was able to sell them because through a lot of work by both himself and the scientists and engineers who worked for him, he was able to develop a light bulb that was practical.”
The Oatmeal rejects this on the grounds that Edison did not do any of this work himself, but instead hired hundreds of other people to do it for him. Without having presented any actual evidence to support his claim that Tesla was a workhorse, and Edison simply lived off the fruits of other people’s labors, it’s probably best to ignore this declaration. Especially since The Oatmeal next explains why he truly reviles Edison: he was a businessman and not a geek. What the exact difference is remains unclear. But my best guess currently is that a geek is someone who works hard, is brilliant at what they do, and yet tragically overlooked and ignored. The resultis that envy grows with each generation that comes after until a group of self-indentified geeks retroactively appropriate an interesting but less known historical figure, slap their label across his legacy, and thumb their noses in trans-centennial solidarity with their adoptive forbearers at the same profiteers that grief unrivaled geniuses today.
But back to the supposed humanity of our villain, Edison. Knapp continues, “Oh, and just one more note on the Naval Consulting Board. Unlike Tesla, who pitched ‘death rays’ and other weapons to countries in his later years, Edison’s condition to working on the board was that it would work to develop defensive technology only. That was true for his entire existence. Edison once remarked that, ‘I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill.’”
However, Mr. Oatmeal explains, Tesla didn’t want to kill people with death rays, only use them as mutual deterrents. If this is true, it only serves to weaken Telsa’s standing as an awesome genius. What kind of genius doesn’t realize that weapons of mass destruction won’t only be used as deterrents? Actually, quite a number probably. Perhaps there’s a difference in actively pitching the nuclear bomb to the government though, and having the government come to you with all of the pressures come to bear in such circumstances (including the fact that someone else might make the bomb first).
None of which though, has anything to do with Knapp’s main point. Mr. Oatmeal, notes that Edison did invent weapons to kill like, for instance, the electric chair. I’ll reference my earlier point about electrocuting cats here. We still have the death penalty in this country. If Edison is a monster for funding the invention of the electric chair (Oatmeal is maintaining that Edison doesn’t invent things right?) then surely there are many more monsters currently living among us that we should be worrying about, rather than a bit of old history. In other words, killing cats and criminals at the turn of the century does not an evil man make. And since Oatmeal provides no evidence that Tesla was against the execution of criminals, this seems a moot point.
The meta exchange goes on of course, but I’ve already written much more than anyone, even myself, would like to read. And there’s not much else to look at. Mr. Oatmeal continues to take potshots at Knapp’s piece, taking issue with specific sentences, but never the thrust of the post. There’s a lot more talk of cats (based on his comics I think Oatmeal probably has a thing for cats) and how evil Edison’s treatment of them makes him (what about all of the people killing animals for meat at the time, as well as today? By this standard we are all villains. Was Tesla a vegetarian I wonder).
Oatmeal also reiterates how he wrote the comic because no one knows much about Tesla, and Edison gets all of the credit. This insinuates that the comic was meant, in part, to be educational. In which case, Oatmeal’s defense that he’s only doing comedy, and often trades in hyperbole and inaccuracies, and that these things don’t matter and hey, go read Wikipedia if you want the hard facts (HA!) is as disengenous as Jon Stewart claiming just to be in it for the laughs when attacked by someone on Fox News before then rolling a two minute tape of rebuttal footage.
Most interesting of all, The Oatmeal stands by his earlier statement that Tesla is an unsung hero and one of the greatest geeks who ever lived. I can’t help but think that it’s not a coincidence that both of these qualities are mentioned together. Would I be venturing too far afield if I proposed that Tesla’s geekdom is intimately tied to his unsung-ness? Knapp successfully shows that Edison, while not the caricature most often taught in grade school, was also not the villain many Teslaphiles have recently proclaimed him to be. What’s telling is that a grey area here is not allowed. There must be a villain. How else could there be a victim? And without the victimhood, Tesla is just another brilliant mind floating between the folds of history, rather than a lightning rod for channeling contemporary resentment and sublimating it into a cultish badge self-reaffirmation.