Tesla and Edison: The War is Lost

We’ve previously looked at Tesla and Edison fighting the War of the Currents (Part I and Part II). Now we come to the final round in the battle.

Tesla vs Edison cartoon

Two events were major factors in deciding the war of the currents. In 1893 there was a competition to determine who would get the contract to light up the World’s Columbian Exposition. Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, the six-month-long exposition was to showcase new technology from all over the world. Both the General Electric Company and the Westinghouse Electric Company (powered by Tesla’s alternating current technology) were among the competitors. Edison’s direct current was pitted against Westinghouse’s alternating current. Bidding was brutal as Edison and Westinghouse viciously undercut each other in an attempt to land the plum contract. Other competitors were quickly eliminated, and Westinghouse ultimately won. Tesla’s polyphase alternating current system lit up the fair.

The result was spectacular. Nicknamed the “White City” because of the white stucco buildings surrounding the central pool, the name also could have referred to the brilliant aura created by 92,000 outdoor incandescent lamps that lit the grounds for six months. Including all the interior lamps, the fair required 250,000 modified Sawyer-Mann “stopper lamps,” a competing bulb Westinghouse raced to produce because Edison refused to allow use of his patented long-life bulbs. Edison was not shut out completely, however, as he was able to display several of his own inventions in the showcase electrical building, including the dominating “Edison Tower of Light.”

Because of the success of alternating current at the Chicago World’s Fair, the team of Westinghouse and Tesla also beat out Edison for the next major contract at Niagara Falls. The Niagara River flows north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, dropping up to 188 feet over some of the most spectacular falls in North America. Engineers had made only limited use of the power of the falling water until the newly formed Cataract Construction Company (led by former Edison Electric Board member Edward Dean Adams) chose to base its new electrical power plant on a dozen Tesla patents. Tesla’s polyphase generator system beat out Edison’s direct current, but Edison won the contract to string electrical wires from Niagara to Buffalo, nearly twenty miles away.

These setbacks effectively removed Edison from the electric power generation business, a process that had already begun back in 1892, when competition and J. P. Morgan’s maneuverings forced Edison to merge his Edison General Electric Company with the Thomson-Houston Company to form the new General Electric. While somewhat bitter at how he had been treated, Edison turned to other pursuits, including iron ore milling and the development of motion picture projectors. Edison was about to become a movie mogul, albeit a reluctant one. Tesla also turned to other pursuits, including Wardenclyffe.

[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. And here is Part II.

David J. Kent is the author of 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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.

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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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Tesla and Edison: The War of the Currents

Thomas Edison engaged in three battles in his quest to electrify New York City. First he fought the gas industry, then arc lighting, and then his most famous battle against the polyphase alternating current system of Nikola Tesla.

Tesla vs Edison War of the Currents

Tesla was a Serbian engineer who had bounced around Austria, the current Czech and Slovak Republics, and Hungary before taking a job working for Continental Edison in Paris. While in Budapest he had envisioned a way to solve one of the biggest problems with direct current, the sparking commutator. Like Edison, Tesla also labored eighteen to twenty hours a day, a habit that occasionally sent him into a serious bout of exhaustion. After one such incident he was walking through a downtown park reciting the epic poem Faust by Johann Goethe when suddenly he stopped:

“The idea came to me like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams…The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear.”

Tesla envisioned the rotating magnetic field that would become his alternating current motor, which solves the problem that had kept alternating current from replacing direct current as a power source. It would be many more years before Tesla would have a chance to build his motor. (He created his prototype while fixing Edison’s direct current dynamos in Strasbourg—the ones that nearly killed Emperor Wilhelm.)

By the time the unknown Tesla arrived in New York in 1884, Edison was already famous and well on his way to establishing a monopoly on providing electricity to New York and other cities. During the year that Tesla worked for Edison, in which he revamped and improved direct current dynamos, he tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to convince Edison that it would be better to use alternating current using his unproven rotating magnetic field induction motor. But Edison had already ruled out alternating current as viable power source, and he was permanently invested in the massive infrastructure he had already created for direct current. Tesla grew fed up, and eventually quit.

Tesla vs Edison

Meanwhile, Edison’s direct current empire continued to expand to other cities and states, although not without competition. In 1882, George Westinghouse—famous for his invention of the air brake for railroad cars—bought out Philip Diehl’s competing induction lamp patent rights, which forced Edison to lower the licensing rate for using his patents, thus reducing the price of electric lamps (and Edison’s profit). Other direct current companies, like Thomson-Houston, also pressured Edison to keep his rates reasonable. The ubiquitous patent lawsuits kept everyone busy trying to protect their own businesses.

Edison was clearly the leader in this field, but that was about to change. Westinghouse formed his own electric company in 1886, and by 1888 Tesla finally had developed his complete alternating current induction motor and all the associated transformers. This revolutionized the industry. Westinghouse purchased the rights to Tesla’s patents and hired him to incorporate them into his own systems. The war of the currents was officially on.

Eventually, Tesla would go on to win that battle. More on that in a future post.

[This is part I 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 II of the series can be read here. Here is Part III.]

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 July 31, 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.

Follow me by subscribing by email on the home page. Share with your friends using the buttons below.

 

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