The Mad Scientist, the Businessman, the Salesman and the Geek – Part 1

It has been said that the geeks shall inherit the earth (See: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins).

Now, we’ve always been the first to say that the easiest route to success is to have an innovative idea – ideally one aimed at the right market. However, we’ve also been quick to point out that you also need a solid base of business acumen to help that idea stand out. Since writing the Catalyst Centre blogs we’ve had the pleasure of researching some of the greatest science and technology innovators, entrepreneurs and visionaries of the past and present.

This week, we decided to select four of our favourite innovators to find out about the people behind the ideas. Across the centuries, do you simply need to be a geek to the core, or are other character traits just as important to make someone stand out, to help them succeed?

First we take a look at icons of the past, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. We’ve trawled through websites reading some of the most fascinating blogs, interviews and biographies that we could find, and based on what we’ve read, here’s our take on the men behind the inventions.

The Mad Scientist 

Nikola Tesla almost single-handedly developed the technology that harnessed electricity for household use. A scientific genius and a prolific polymath who spoke a multitude of languages, he invented fluorescent lights, FM radio, spark plugs and the remote control. He made groundbreaking discoveries in various fields including robotics and physics and, at the time of his death, had 700 patents to his name.

With the genius came complexities. Tesla was both eccentric and profoundly insane making many people wonder how he managed to pull off some of the things he did. He had many phobias and compulsions – from hating round objects to being obsessed with the number three. He had several nervous breakdowns, lived with and spoke to pigeons and was said to have received messages from Mars.

Tesla epitomised the term ‘Mad Scientist’ a reputation that hindered his quest to secure funding for many of his ideas. Stories have been told of him working on some crazy experiments that generally resulted in an explosion or injury of some kind! Once he observed an assistant’s hand severely burnt by X-rays in his lab. He also claimed once that he nearly caused an earthquake in New York whilst discovering the resonant frequency of the earth!

However, Tesla’s peculiarities did not have an impact on his socialising and he was said to be a charming and well-spoken man, humble and utterly devoted to his dreams of discovery. Unfortunately in the end this was also his downfall, because his commitment to research and lack of business acumen prevented him from capitalising on his ideas.

The Businessman 

From the nutty to the more business savvy we can’t talk about Tesla without mentioning Thomas Edison. Edison is most famously known for inventing the lightbulb. However, he was also an extremely smart businessman who identified early on that, although it is exciting and cool to invent, if people didn’t want it, you had nothing. That doesn’t mean he was any less an inventor: he had 1093 patents in his life and was very determined, persistent and always optimistic that his ideas would succeed.

What Edison lacked in eccentricity he made up for in astuteness. He was an avid networker and clever enough to surround himself with some of the best minds of his time; people he knew could make things happen and who could help him on the path to success. Edison was very focused and hands-on, testing all of his ideas fully. By concentrating on his customers’ needs instead of fuelling his own entertainment, he made sure he had products that he could take to market.

Edison had a strong work ethic and was known to work night and day to turn his ideas into reality. He was a smart businessman and this gave him the edge over his peers, but his quest to defeat his opponents gained him enemies too as he went too far with his often extensive and cruel efforts to prove his own invention’s superiority over another. Despite Edison’s games he saw monumental change during his lifetime and by the time he died, entire cities were lit by electricity just as they are today, so, every time you turn on the light, remember that it was this business savvy inventor that made it happen.

In Friday’s blog we turn to two more visionaries who continue to shape our world today.