The Current Wars

Thomas Edison

AC/DC-  It’s not just a band.  It was the culmination of the struggle between two geniuses.  In the late 19th century, electricity was the hot new technology.  Thomas Edison had begun work with this field and in the 1870’s invented the first practical light bulb.  Arc lamps were used in cities on larger scales, but were not suitable for a business or a home.  Edison’s light bulb filled that niche.  To power all these new electric light bulbs, Edison created the investor-owned Edison Illuminating Company.  One problem.  These all used direct current or DC, which had a major drawback of a very short transmission range.  Customers had to be less than a mile from the power plan to get electricity.

Edison had a brilliant employee- Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla.  He worked with Edison to improve the DC generators, but also worked on his ideas about alternating current, or AC, on the side.  Edison completely discounted Tesla’s ideas as impractical and put himself firmly on the DC train.  He was convinced that since DC maintained current at a lower voltage it was much safer than AC, which could change directions and voltages by using a transformer.  It didn’t hurt that most of Edison’s patents were on machines using DC, and the switch to AC would cost him significant money.  The two made a bet that Tesla could improve the efficiency of Edison’s dynamos.  If Tesla succeeded, he claimed Edison promised him $50,000, a goodly sum of money both then and now.  Tesla worked twenty four-seven for months, and finally presented his ideas to Edison.  However, Edison claimed the offer was a joke saying “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”  This did not go over well with Tesla, who quit on the spot.  The rivalry was born.

Nicola Tesla

Tesla, despite his genius, had to take whatever job he could get after quitting Edison’s company.  After a few years of digging ditches, he finally had enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company in 1884.  In the next three years, Tesla researched and eventually filed for seven US patents in the field of AC motors and power transmission.  These patents included the plans for AC generators, wires, transformers, lights and a 100 horsepower AC motor.  Seeing the practicality of AC, George Westinghouse approached Tesla for a deal.  Westinghouse was an inventor in his own right, having developed the air brake.  Westinghouse also had a history of feuding with Edison, which made he and Tesla natural allies.  He bought all of Tesla’s patents for $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock in the Westinghouse corporation.  This was the equivalent of about a million dollars in today’s money.  Tesla took the deal and immediately built himself a new laboratory.  What he didn’t realize was he got short changed.  Those patents were priceless as Westinghouse set out to revolutionize the business of electricity.  The current wars were in full swing.

George Westinghouse Photo Credit- Joseph G. Gessford – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

As cities across America began to build power stations, the fight between Edison and Westinghouse was on.  Edison was convinced AC would kill people and was determined to make the public see it too.  He embarked on a full scale propaganda campaign, which included euthanizing stray dogs with AC current during lectures before an audience.  Westinghouse wrote,

“I remember Tom [Edison] telling them that direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice. Imagine that! Why they even had a professor named Harold Brown who went around talking to audiences… and electrocuting dogs and old horses right on stage, to show how dangerous alternating current was.”

Professor Brown also had a hand in replacing the form of capital punishment from hanging to the “electrical chair”.  Edison was sure to let everyone know the electric chairs were “’alternating machines,’ manufactured principally in this country by Geo. Westinghouse”.  He also quipped that criminals should be used as linesmen because the AC lines were so dangerous.  The first prisoner executed by electric chair was William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn State Prison.  The execution was described as “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”  The entire process became known as “Westinghousing”.  It eventually came out that Brown was on Edison’s payroll, but the damage had been done.  Deaths of linemen in 1889 kicked off the “electric Wire Panic”, and Westinghouse was blamed.  Newspapers who had condemned Brown for double dealing, quoted him in stories as an expert on how dangerous AC was.

Despite this bad press, the Westinghouse Corporation was awarded the honor of illuminating the Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair over the newly founded General Electric Company, which had taken over Edison’s company.  They won because the price of copper was soaring and DC power stations need more heavy copper lines than AC.  On May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland pushed a button and a hundred thousand electric lights illuminated all the buildings on the fairgrounds.  The Fair was a triumph of Tesla’s AC system, and the Westinghouse Corporation was awarded the contract to construct generators for a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls.  In 1896, the plant was completed and the AC generators were delivering power to Buffalo, New York twenty-six miles away.  A feat that would have been impossible for the DC generators.

By this time, Edison had left his electric company for other pursuits.  With his dogmatic prejudice against AC gone, General Electric began researching AC based equipment.  Edison publicly bragged on how well his stock was doing, but was privately bitter about it.  From that point on, 80 percent of the electrical devices in the US were made to use AC.