Introducing the Better Know Your Electricity History Series: Part One – Contentious Inventors

By Vernon Trollinger, February 17, 2015, Events & Fun, News

Introducing the Better Know Your Electricity History Series: Part One - Contentious InventorsAmid all the wind turbines and electronic gadgets surrounding us now, we often forget that electrical service is only about 85 years old. In spite of Thomas Edison’s invention of a long-lasting (and marketable) incandescent light bulb in 1879, it took nearly 50 years to bring electrical service to the majority of urban and suburban areas of America.

Crazy as it sounds, the hottest technological upgrade to humankind’s toolkit since the taming of fire, the invention of the wheel, and harnessing of steam lagged for decades before taking off. Only 90 years ago – just 1920 – only 35% of American homes had electricity. The rate was much lower for rural homes — less than 5%.

Nowadays, technology appears to stampede over our heads. New phones, tablets, TVs, even toasters almost threaten to trample us in the dust of innovation if we fail to keep up. Exactly why did it take electrification soooooo very long to get off the drawing board and into everyone’s homes?

Contentious Inventors

To understand the basics of how that all happened, we have to start with the three men behind the electrical system hidden in your home’s humble wall socket: Thomas A. Edison (The Wizard of Menlo Park), Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse.

Thomas A. Edison

Introducing the Better Know Your Electricity History Series: Part One - Contentious Inventors

Born on February 11, 1847, he was thought by his elementary school teacher to have a head too large for a seven year old. The educator expressed his view that the boy’s hyper-inquisitiveness indicated an “addled” brain. Angered, his mother pulled young Edison from public school and taught him at home. An episode of scarlet fever left him with considerable hearing problems. In his old age, he would lose about 80% of his hearing.

At fourteen, Edison persuaded his parents to let him get work selling newspapers and snacks on the local railroad. He soon began turning out his own newspaper. When he saved a stationmaster’s child from being run over by a boxcar, Edison was given the chance to learn how to become a telegraph operator.

At age 21, he struck out to the East coast and landed a job in Boston with Western Union. Tirelessly inquisitive, he invented the electric vote-recording machine and later improved on designs of the duplex telegraph (enabling telegraph signals to be sent in two directions at the same time) to build the quadruplex telegraph, a basic multiplexer that would eventually give rise to the teletype, telephone networks, and computer networking. Edison sold the rights to Western Union in 1874 for $10,000 and used the profits to set up the world’s first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, NJ.

Even though the incandescent electric lamp had been in existence for decades, bulbs lacked a high enough vacuum inside to prevent the filament from burning out too soon. This made them too expensive to mass-produce, which meant they were too expensive for consumers.

Edision methodically experimented and ultimately succeeded with a carbonized bamboo filament that burned over 1200 hours. He publically demonstrated his technology on December 31, 1879, by lighting up a street in Menlo Park. Even though patent lawsuits dogged Edison for years after, the affordable household light bulb spelled the end of the gaslight age.

But Edison knew that the big money wasn’t in just selling light bulbs. The year before, in 1878, Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City, declaring, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” By 1880, he had formed the Edison Illuminating Company and was supplying 59 customers with 110 volts of direct current (DC) electricity in lower Manhattan. It became the model for generating, distributing, and billing for electrical power for homes and businesses.

Nikola Tesla


Born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia, Tesla attended Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria in 1875 to study mathematics and physics, but his intellect was positively attracted to electricity. Arguments with faculty and a gambling problem forced him out of college and into work at the Budapest Telephone Exchange where he would eventually rise to be Chief Electrician.

In 1882, Tesla landed a position with the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France. Even though the company adopted his plans for improved dynamos, he never received any bonus and instead was shipped off to Strasbourg to repair a railroad powerplant built by the Edison Company. While there, he privately developed the first alternating current (AC) induction motor. In time, it would revolutionize the world.

In 1884, Charles Batchelor, head of French Edison, had been recalled to manage the Edison Machine Works in New York. He brought Tesla with him to improve the dynamos, repair motor commutators, and install lighting. Tesla was asked to redesign the company’s existing direct current (DC) equipment and believed (as he would later say) that he was promised $50,000 to do the job.

At completion, Tesla handed the bill to his boss, Thomas Edison. Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” and offered him a $10 increase to his salary. Tesla resigned, having only spent 6 months with the company.

Tesla’s efforts to launch his own company foundered. He spent the winter of 1886 to 1887 doing odd jobs. At one point, he dug ditches for $2 a day. By spring, he had found new financial backers to help him launch the Tesla Electric Company where he set up his own laboratory in Manhattan. There Tesla developed new types of motors and generators and filed for seven patents covering polyphase AC motors, generators, and power transmission.

At the time, the Edison Illuminating Company had been supplying Manhattan (and much of New York City) with DC electricity. DC has one phase – one wire is always positive and the other is always negative. While it effectively delivered electricity to the profusion of inexpensive DC motors used by businesses and railroads throughout the city, the low voltage didn’t supply electricity much further than 2 miles.

Tesla’s AC electricity alternates polarity every 60 seconds (hertz), allowing higher voltages to transmit more power over greater distances with less power loss due to wire resistance. An AC system can also deliver the power much more effectively and even steps down voltage for safe, domestic use. BUT AC current doesn’t work in DC motors — and there were all those DC motors (as well as Edison’s DC meters) all over the city that could only run on Edison’s DC electricity. Plus, Edison owned the grid.

So, while Tesla had a system that provided an improved way to increase electrical distribution, unless he persuaded companies using DC motors to switch to AC motors and power, he was shut out of competition.

Inventor and Entrepreneur

Introducing the Better Know Your Electricity History Series: Part One - Contentious Inventors

Businessmen pose on a giant Westinghouse electrical generator in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1918.

Pittsburgh inventor George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York, in 1846. Westinghouse had already made a fortune by inventing the railroad air-brake at age 22 back in 1869. He had also invented safety valves for residential natural gas lines.

Tesla’s system excited him because it offered a cost-efficient way to scale up electric power distribution. Because AC current needed to be stepped up to be transmitted and stepped down at the consumer end, Westinghouse invested in developing transformer technology.

The first Westinghouse AC system was set up in 1886 at Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A hydroelectric dynamo generated 500 volts of AC which was then stepped up with a transformer to 3,000 volts for transmission and then stepped it down to 100 volts for lights.

Westinghouse’s company installed 30 more AC-lighting systems within a year, developed an AC metering apparatus (the same analog electric meter used even today), and in 1888, bought Tesla’s patents for $60,000 plus royalties. In 1889, Westinghouse named his company, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Thus, the stage was set for an inevitable power play of shocking proportions — Edison’s DC current against the Westinghouse and Tesla’s AC current. The outcome of what would become known as The War of Currents would transform the lives of all Americans.

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

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