The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived?

Zombal (Carefully) Wades Into the Debate

Tesla in his lab

Nikola Tesla in his Colorado Springs lab in 1899.

We on the Zombal team couldn't help noticing the buzz around a very funny, insightful and controversial comic on the Oatmeal website with the following title: Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived. In fact, if you google "the greatest geek who ever lived", the very first result that comes up is a link to this Oatmeal/Tesla piece. It made us think about whether or not Tesla was indeed the greatest, and who the challengers might be for this ... honor. (We stuck in the ellipses out of awareness that calling someone a geek may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective.) Also, fictional geeks are excluded from consideration.

So, how do you define a geek? And what makes one great? Unfortunately, there is no standard definition of the term that we could find. To complicate matters, ‘nerd' and ‘geek' are often used interchangeably, and pieces like this from the Daily Infographic make it clear that there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. (It seems geeks have a certain hip factor that nerds lack.) Here's a description of a geek from the Oatmeal comic, which is the best one we've come across so far:

"Geeks stay up all night disassembling the world so that they can put it back together with new features. They tinker and fix things that aren't broken. Geeks abandon the world around them because they're busy soldering together a new one. They obsess and, in many cases, they suffer."

We have some qualms about the last part. Who doesn't suffer at some point? And why should suffering be associated with geekdom? However, we'll run with this excellent, but imperfect definition, excluding the last bit. As for what makes someone great, we'll define it as someone whose ideas, inventions or innovations transformed the world in ways that are generally regarded as for the better. And as you'll soon read, there are valid arguments to be made both for and against all of them.

With that in mind, we think Serbian-American super-genius Nikola Tesla (yes, the guy the electric car company and 80s hard rock band are named after) is indeed a worthy contender for the title of greatest geek. The Oatmeal piece and this Master of Lightning website as well as countless other sites showcase his world-changing accomplishments, including his contributions to the development of the modern power systems and wireless devices we rely on today, among other incredible intellectual feats. If you've forgotten, and most people do, he was an obsessive, celibate, octolingual inventor and visionary with a photographic mind who sadly died alone, insane and broke. He was the quintessential mad scientist, and definitely one of the great scientific minds of all time. But, was he the greatest geek of all time? Possibly.

Interestingly, the current version of the comic now excludes the vicious takedown of Thomas Edison, who once employed Telsa until they became bitter rivals over whether the world should run on AC or DC power. Many Tesla devotees often paint Edison as a calculating businessman who built his empire by exploiting the genius of others. Forbes magazine writer Alex Knapp counters this and other assumptions in his less funny, but equally enlightening piece on the Forbes magazine website. Yes, most people incorrectly believe that Edison invented the light bulb, but Knapp counters he made light bulbs and many other inventions practical. And who needs a unreliable light bulb, phonograph or movie camera?

The Oatmeal posted a response to Knapp's criticism, which just proves how contentious the Edison versus Tesla debate is to this day. So, between these two obsessive, suffering tinkerers, who do we think was the greatest inventor? Before we answer that question, it seems fair to consider some of the other past and recent great geeks who have transformed our world.

Not surprisingly, if you ask most people who the greatest geek who ever lived was, many will probably say Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom achieved mind-boggling success. And if you look at their accomplishments within the context of the last couple few decades only, there are valid arguments to be made for every one of them. In fact, GeekOSystem does a nice job of ranking web geeks. Though, one Forbes writer even casts doubts on whether Zuckerberg is even a geek at all, and instead is a guy who just likes taking on big challenges.

However, it's impossible to predict how much influence the amazing innovations developed by these men will have on future generations. Bill gates transformed the way we interact with computers. Steve Jobs transformed the way we interact with computerized devices. The Google founders transformed the way we use and access information. Mark Zuckerberg, love him or hate him, transformed the way hundreds of millions of us interact with each other. Will their innovations endure? Time will tell.

And all of these recent wizards of technology owe a debt of gratitude to not only Tesla and Edison, but countless others, including Alan Turing, an extraordinarily gifted 20th century mathematical genius and WWII codebreaker (on the good side). If Tesla's and Edison's work ushered in the modern age, Turing's breakthroughs in algorithms gave birth to the computing age. His Turing test is still the standard for determining whether or not computers can think, even though it was first proposed back in 1950. This Computer World article nicely sums up his legacy: How Alan Turing set the rules for computing.

Tragically, he was prosecuted for his sexual orientation and suffered greatly for it. His early death at the age of 41 cut short his groundbreaking work, and no computer as yet has been able to pass his famous test. However, if artificial intelligence becomes a reality, humanity will be changed in ways that only scientists, futurists and science fiction authors can only speculate. If you like the idea of having your own personal robot, this TED talk is right up your alley: Cynthia Breazeal: The rise of personal robots.

What about Einstein or Stephen Hawking, you ask? Although idolized by geeks everywhere, we think of them more as a great scientists and theorists. And, since we mentioned Edison, why not his contemporary George Westinghouse? He was also a prolific inventor and champion of the AC power system. Or what about so many others for that matter?

We hope you see the conundrum. Everyone has a favorite. And unfortunately, the most recent geeks get the most publicity. So who was the greatest? We at Zombal have decided to take a resolutely neutral stance. We're also aware of that some of our readers may not believe in the myth of the lonely inventor, so we've included a link to this article from the Atlantic Monthly titled Forget Edison: This is How History's Greatest Inventions Really Happened.

Maybe a more appropriate question is "Who is your favorite geek, and why?" If some living or dead inspires you to accomplish great things, we applaud you. We think the more scientists and inventors there are the better, except for the evil ones. And guess what? Breaking news from CNN: science is cool again. As if we ever had any doubts.

Help Support the Tesla Museum

Matther Inman, the author of the Oatmeal comic is leading a campaign to raise money for a Tesla Museum. So far, over $600,000 has been raised. If you'd like to contribute, more details can be found here.

Posted By at 13:22