Better Know Your Electricity History Series, Part Two: The War of Currents

By Vernon Trollinger, March 30, 2015, News

Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse.  Images courtesy Wikipedia

Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse.
Images courtesy Wikipedia

When Thomas Edison’s successful, long-lasting incandescent light bulb first lit streets in 1879, it took 50 years for electrical service to enter only a fraction of American homes. By 1920, only 35% of American homes had electricity. Why did one of the hottest technological upgrades to the human toolkit take a lifetime to switch on?

Shockingly enough, the tale is wired up with money, competing innovations, highly charged public opinion campaigns, and the botched electrocution of an axe murder. It became known as “The War of Currents”.

When we finished part one on this series, we left famed inventor Thomas Edison, inventor of Direct Current (DC), about to the face the wealthy George Westinghouse and electricity invention visionary, Nikola Tesla, and their Alternating Current (AC) in a struggle for which current system would eventually run every eletrical grid in the entire world.

Westinghouse alternating electricity dynamos that provided the lighting for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Westinghouse alternating electricity dynamos that provided the lighting for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the mid 1880s, Thomas Edison’s Illuminating Company supplied Manhatten (and most New York City) with DC electricity. DC has one phase; one wire is always positive and the other is always negative. That’s great for homes, businesses and industries using electric motors within the immediate vicinity of the power plant. But the further away you got from the plant, the less electricity you got. Even though the plant was redlining its generators to drive the line voltage that everyone on the grid used, at two miles away, you got nothing due to too much electrical resistance from the wire itself (known as “line loss”).

AC electricity alternates polarity every 60 seconds (herz) allowing higher voltages to transmit more power over greater distances with less power loss. AC could deliver the power much more effectively by stepping up voltages for transmisison and then stepping them back for safe, domestic use. Tesla also designed and built AC motors to work with the current. BUT AC current doesn’t work in DC motors. In cities with power grids, there were all those DC motors (as well as Edison’s DC meters), all of which were patented by Edison and connected to an electric grid owned by Edison’s company. In 1888, Tesla’s AC current system couldn’t get anywhere unless it had some financial muscle. That’s where George Westinghouse came in. He bought Tesla’s patents for $60,000 and also agreed to pay royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. AC was ready to take on DC.

The conflict between Westinghouse and Edison couldn’t have been more drawn more starkly. Westinghouse said AC could deliver more eletricity further and to more homes more reliably. Edison argued that AC’s high voltages were dangerous to the public, saying “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.” Edison (and his supporters) railed almost ceaslessly aganst AC in newspapers, journals, and in public appearance. More than once, Edison demonstrated the danger of AC power by routinely electrocuting dogs and horses in front of reporters. When New York State announced it was looking for a more human means of executing death penalty prisoners, Edison lobbied to pass the state’s electrocution statute. He thought that by demonstrating AC’s lethality, the public would shun its use in their homes.

But when New York used an electric chair to execute the axe-murderer, William Kemmlerin August, 1890, the affair went horribly wrong. Newpapers published lurid descriptions of the ghastly, botched execution and the barbarity of ordeal. Westinghouse famously commented, ”They would have done better using an axe.” It was a clear victory for Westinghouse and AC current though not a complete defeat for Edison.

World's Columbian Exposition-Grand Basin, Chicago, 1893 lit by Tesla & Westinghouse.Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Archives. Goodyear Archival Collection

World’s Columbian Exposition-Grand Basin, Chicago, 1893 lit by Tesla & Westinghouse.
Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Archives.
Goodyear Archival Collection

The electrical industry was expanding wildly and starved for capital. By November that year, Edison’s safety objections had begun fading from the public eye as the Baring Crisis bank panic of 1890 tightened credit. Edison and Westinghouse soon found themselves scrambling for funds to save their companies. Westinghosue restructured his business but Edison wound up being out-maneuvered by financiers who merged his Edison General Electric Company with Thomson-Houston — a company that used AC current. From then on, with his name was dropped from the company, Edison served merely as a board member and science advisor. The current issue was largely irrelevant since both Westinghouse and General Electric worked with high voltage AC systems. The only question left was which company could deliver an inexpensive and reliable system.

The answer came in 1893 when Westinghouse’s company outbid General Electric to win the contract to power the Chicago World’s Fair. Tesla engineered an 11,000 kW polyphase generation and distribution system that relied on 12 generators. It performed flawlessly. Of the 27 million people who attended the fair, including President Grover Cleveland, none were electrocuted. From then on, the standard electrical system in US households became 110- 120 volts, AC, at about 60 herz.

The War of Currents was over.

(No elephants were harmed during the War of Currents. Topsy was killed in 1903 long after the current issue was settled. Topsy’s owners determined she had become too dangerous and intended to make her death a public spectacle. An Edison motion picture crew recorded the 74 second incident but Edison himself was not present.)

Stay Tuned for Better Know Your Electricity History Series, Part Three: Rural Electrification Act

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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