Tesla and Edison: The War of the Currents Continues

As described previously, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla fought what has come to be known as the “war of the currents.” Tesla had developed his complete alternating current induction motor and all the associated transformers, then hooked up with George Westinghouse to compete against Edison’s already established direct current system.

Tesla vs Edison

Edison did not give in easily. He began a public relations campaign to discredit alternating current as too dangerous for public use. He had a point. Alternating current could be raised to incredibly high voltages, whereas direct current was held at relatively low voltages. Edison published pamphlets ominously titled A Warning from the Edison Electric Light Company suggesting alternating current was not safe. He also (falsely) suggested to suppliers and utilities that Westinghouse was in violation of Edison’s patents, and thus it would be unwise to rely on the soon-to-be-departed technology. Engineering societies debated the merits, although sometimes the charges and countercharges seemed more personal than professional, with combatants “fighting tooth and nail” for the future.

The battle between AC and DC also got bloody. While relatively rare, accidents sometimes occurred on the network of naked electrical wires strung on poles set alongside city streets. One particularly gruesome scene occurred when John Feeks, an electrical repairman sent up to remove dead wires, accidentally found a live one and fell into a nest of wires, where he “dangled for more than forty-five minutes.” Streaks of light flashed from his body as spectators gasped in horror below. Reporters raced from the scene to get quotes from Edison on the dangers of alternating current, which he duly provided without knowing whether the wires were AC or his own DC.

Edison also actively lobbied for use of the electric chair to replace the usual means of execution, an overdose of morphine or hanging. He felt the chair would be more humane because it would provide a quicker, cleaner kill. More important, it would use alternating current, further bolstering Edison’s claim that alternating current was too dangerous for humanity. Some members of the committee set up to evaluate the methods were skeptical until Edison sent a letter of support. “I certainly had no doubt after hearing his statement,” one committee member said, and the recommendation was implemented. Unfortunately for Edison, and for the poor axe murderer William Kemmler on which it was first used, the execution did not go smoothly. After supposedly being electrocuted to death, Kemmler suddenly let out a loud cry of pain, to which the attendants responded by turning the power up to full for two minutes, long enough for “the stench of burning flesh” to fill the room.

Edison also allowed electrical engineer Harold Pitney Brown to use his laboratory for a series of experiments. Brown paid neighborhood boys to collect stray dogs, which he then electrocuted in Edison’s lab using Westinghouse’s alternating current. He then wrote letters to the press exclaiming the dangers of that “damnable” alternating current. To denigrate his main competitor completely, Edison called the electrocutions “getting Westinghoused.”

Two huge events were major factors in deciding the war of the currents. More on that in the next installment.

[This is part II of a three part series on Tesla vs Edison in the War of the Currents, all adapted from my book Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World. Also check out my earlier book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. Both are available in Barnes and Noble stores nationwide. See links below. Part I of the series can be read here. Here is Part III.]

Meanwhile, check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release in summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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7 thoughts on “Tesla and Edison: The War of the Currents Continues

  1. Pingback: Tesla and Edison: The War of the Currents | Science Traveler

  2. We can’t talk about the war of the currents without my automatic associative logic bringing me (through various steps) to an extremely off-color joke from the silly movie “Top Secret!” regarding the distinctions between the higher voltage AC in Europe vs. the US. I won’t repeat it (it wouldn’t be the same spoken and really is off-color) but I laughed like a maniac when I first saw it and snickered repeatedly for weeks whenever I remembered it.

    Speaking of botched electrical executions reminded me of Albert Fish who had similar issues in the good ol’ electric chair. Albert Fish was one sick bastard, tried for several murders including one where he killed and ate an eight year old girl and then wrote her parents describing the deed. He tried to get off on insanity, but failed. When asked, one of the jurors noted, “Yeah, he’s crazy, but we though he deserved to die,” or something similar [not an exact quote]. Among is sado-masochistic fetishes, he had had his own children stick needles in him, several of which never came back out. My understanding is that messed with the electric conduction path and they had to use several tries to take him out.

    It occurs to me that my research subjects are not as much fun as yours.

    • I do enjoy getting to know my research subjects. Of course, I already know a lot about my next subject. My first Lincoln book comes out this summer and I’m working on my next Lincoln book. So much fun.

  3. One (potential) problem with AC is that everyone has to agree on the frequency. Japan first used European-modeled 50-Hertz in the north, but later constructed an American-modeled 60-Hertz system in the south. This causes a choke-point in the middle of the country, where frequency-conversion can only take place through three facilities. Caused a big problem after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake resulted in the shutdown of nuclear power stations in the north. Since then, increasing the capacity of the conversion facilities has been among Japan’s major ongoing infrastructural projects.

    Shikoku (south central island region) is also connected to Honshu’s (main island region) 60-Hertz system through two transmission lines, one of which is ironically a submarine DC connection. Apparently, this reduces power loss due to line-capacitance over long distances. Pretty easy to imagine what Edison would have to say about all of this.

  4. Thanks for this fascinating information. I had no idea Japan is split into two systems. Must be a real pain for travelers. I know that when I moved to Europe I had to leave behind all my electronic equipment (TVs, radios, stereo, plug-in clocks) because it wouldn’t work there.

    I really have to get back to Japan. But first, need to book my Seoul and Beijing tickets.

    • Most modern electronics now use “switching regulators” that can efficiently drop pretty much any commercial voltage at any frequency to a usable DC voltage. Main problem is getting things to fit into the myriad sockets. Alas, getting a pair of Russian-made tube amplifiers to work in the US was bit more involved.

      Seoul and Beijing both sound interesting. Heading back next week for some solo business, including a side trip to Shanghai for a few days. Maybe manage to see some cherry blossoms before I return. Hanami in the park…🌸🌸🌸

      • It is nice to plug in the laptop and shaver without worrying about setting off smoke alarms. And yes, finding the right plug morphology can be a challenge.

        Enjoy your trip. Shanghai was wet the entire time I was there so hopefully you’ll get better weather. I too am looking forward to cherry blossoms; our peak here in DC is expected early this year. Very early, in fact, possibly next week. I’ve already seen the trees in my neighborhood flower out already, and the crocuses, daffodils, etc are already fully out of their spring beds.

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