The Open Source of Tesla
Recently I finished a fictionalization of Nikola Tesla’s life written by Samantha Hunt, and on a seemingly unrelated note, I tried to explain to my business-savvy dad how a business can make money and still contribute source code back to the world at large. I began thinking about the ways Tesla worked within an essentially open source framework.
His successes and failures are relative; while he died broke and lonely, his work laid the foundation for much of our current thinking about electricity and just about anything having to do with waves. As an inventor, a thinker, and a contributing member of the scientific community he was wildly successful. He was a firm believer in gender equality, a vegetarian, and a developer of powerful weapons. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of his success were some of his ideas which later resulted in the decline of Tesla’s reputation. These ideas were grand, difficult to prove or explain, and even more difficult to monetize.
Irregardless of his definition of success, Tesla lived and worked in a world where people made discoveries about the natural forces that surrounded them at an unprecedented pace. Inventions harnessed the powers of these forces, and patents secured future income from these inventions. Tesla was only good at part of this equation. He was relatively fastidious about securing patents, but lost the part about negotiating the future incomes from these patents.
Where does this fit into the open source business model? It’s easy to get into a pity party for Tesla, complaining about greedy robber barons who stole his ideas and made huge fortunes while he toiled away in a mostly self-funded laboratory. And it’s not easy to really grasp the meaning of “open source business model.”
So what is an open source business model? How can a company give away its products for free and still make money? The answer to this question is nuanced and almost completely dependent on the individual company. For many businesses, income is based on providing a service, creating something, and customizing open source platforms for a client. For other businesses, in the words of Dirk Riehle, “Using a commercial open source approach, firms can get to market faster with a superior product at lower cost than possible for traditional competitors.”
Tesla’s self funded lab and obsession with new discoveries fall in the latter category. His operation was nimble and forward-looking, while companies like The Edison Company were stogy. Once they invested huge amounts of resources in something like direct current electricity, they were stuck, and went to great lengths to stay stuck. At one point during the development of the Niagra Falls generators, Tesla claimed that he could transmit the electric generated there without the tremendous amounts of copper, trees, and other resources that would have to be committed to the project, but the contracts were signed and this lighter, less resource-intensive implementation wouldn’t, and can’t be possible.
Some of the modern comparable situations are obvious: Unix to Apple, Google to Microsoft, and Microsoft’s sponsorship of BarCamps and open source code sprints make fascinating parallels to the early days of electricity. It seems that in the days of more democratized communication, the nimble and forward-looking may have their day.
Some further reading:
I’ve personally read and can strongly recommend the biography Wizard: The Life and Times of Nicola Tesla by Marc Seifer, an incredibly thorough look at all aspects of Tesla’s life; business, social, family and even some Freudian analysis, and also recommend the PBS documentary Tesla: Master of Lightning.