Is Tesla CEO Elon Musk the Thomas Edison of the 21st century?

On the face of it, the similarities between Elon Musk and Thomas Edison are not hard to see: Each is an American engineer turned entrepreneur with a long list of inventions, electrical and otherwise, to his credit. Both men have captured the popular imagination, and are deservedly revered for their contributions to society. Looking a little deeper, we find some uncanny parallels between the lives of these two, as Peter Mears writes in a recent installment of the Biz Vinci* blog.


Above: Thomas Edison and Elon Musk (Twitter: @KestelootGianni)

Musk and Edison had different backgrounds - the former was born in South Africa, and the latter was born in Ohio and grew up in Michigan. However, both seem to have had difficult childhoods. Edison was a sickly child, and had lifelong hearing problems stemming from an early bout of scarlet fever (a cruel irony for a man who would later make great advancements in sound recording). Mears tells us that Musk was severely bullied as a child. Musk told biographer Ashlee Vance that his father had a domineering streak, and discouraged the young man’s interest in computers.


Above: Musk's Tesla went on to become a disruptor in the auto sector (Tumblr image: Jeff Ludes)

Both entrepreneurs got started making money very early in life, and each had a great capacity for self-learning. When Elon was about 12, he created a computer game called Blastar, sold it to a computer magazine for around $500, and invested the money in a pharmaceutical stock, which he later sold for a healthy profit. Edison, who was home-schooled by his mother, sold newspapers as a child and later published his own paper, called the Grand Trunk Herald. He went on to found the corporate giant General Electric, and no less than 14 other companies. He eventually amassed a fortune of over $12 million, equivalent to billions in today’s dollars.


Above: Edison founded corporate giant General Electric (Flickr: Rick Donaldson)

After Musk found his way to the entrepreneur-friendly US, “where great things are possible,” he created Zip2, an online city guide that he sold to major newspapers, a forerunner of indispensable modern resources like Google Maps and Yelp. His next act was to revolutionize online payments with PayPal. He sold his share to eBay in 2002, and took home around $180 million from the deal. His next move could have been “retiring and buying an island somewhere and sipping mai-tais, but that was not of interest to me at all.” Instead, he went on to found Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, with the unabashed goal of changing the world for the good of mankind. Today his net worth is estimated at over $11 billion.


Above: Companies Elon Musk is behind (Image: Fin24)

Both Edison and Musk have made their marks in many different fields. The many devices that Edison invented or commercialized include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and practical electric light bulbs. He was a major influence on the development of our ubiquitous electrical grid. He was also a pioneer in the application of mass production and large-scale teamwork to invention, creating one of the first research labs. Incidentally, he also built batteries for electric cars.


Above: Thomas Edison with one of his many inventions, the Phonograph (Source: Spark Museum)

Elon Musk is also a polymath who has made his mark in many fields - the internet, finance, space, solar power, energy storage (Powerwall), manufacturing (the Gigafactory), and mass transportation (Hyperloop). He’s even acted in movies. And of course he is in the process of reinventing the automotive industry, with all the implications for our car-dominated society that that portends. “Elon is a paragon of enthusiasm, good humor and curiosity - a Renaissance man in an era that needs them,” said director Jon Favreau, who told Time that he used Musk as his model for the superhero Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark.


Above: Elon Musk is often compared to the 'Ironman' superhero (Image: Fin24)

And we do need visionary superheroes. In a time when our leaders are telling us that we can’t afford to invest in grand projects, that we need to withdraw behind walls and try to slow down the pace of change, it is men of action like Musk who offer us hope for a future in which we can use technology to build a better world. “Elon thinks bigger than just about anyone else I’ve ever met,” former PayPal COO David Sacks told the LA Times in 2003. “He sets lofty goals and sets out to achieve them with great speed.”


Above: Elon Musk in his office (Image: TG Daily)

Of course, there are also important differences between these two visionaries. Musk may not be a serial inventor, like Edison, but he has an intuitive understanding of the big picture. His technical brilliance is beyond question, but without his financial and marketing talents, he could never have built the strong companies that are making electric cars, solar panels and rockets into real products that people want to buy. This gift for turning big dreams into everyday reality is what assures the very rare Edison or Musk a place in history.


Above: Elon Musk discusses role models leading off with Thomas Edison (Source: The Henry Ford)

Ironically, Musk reveres Edison even more than he does Edison’s rival Nikola Tesla, as he explained in an interview for The Henry Ford’s Visionaries on Innovation series in 2008: “I think Edison was certainly a role model, probably one of the biggest role models. The car company is called Tesla... because we use an AC induction motor, which is an architecture that Tesla developed. And the guy probably deserves a little more play than he gets in current society. But on balance, I’m a bigger fan of Edison than Tesla because Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world, whereas Tesla didn’t really do that.”


*Source: Biz Vinci