Glenn has been doing a lot of research lately on the 1800s, and he has become particularly fascinated by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison and George Westinghouse (who used Tesla’s technology) became locked in a heated “Battle of the Currents” in the late 19th century, which pitted Edison’s direct current (DC) power distribution against Tesla and Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC).
While the science of electricity might not seem all that pertinent, Glenn explained the significance of Edison and Westinghouse’s battle for superiority on radio this morning.
In the early years of electricity distribution, Edison’s direct current became the gold standard in the United States. The majority of Europe, on the other hand, used alternating current technology, and Tesla patented motors using this distribution technique in the U.S. Westinghouse Electric company licensed these patents for use, recognizing its inherent superiority to the DC system that was currently in use.
Edison was well aware that his product was inferior to the AC motor Tesla developed. He had all of his money tied up in DC technology, and yet it became clear that DC was not the future. To oversimplify the matter, DC distribution basically required you to have a power plant in very close proximity to the item that required power (i.e. light bulb). Furthermore, the power emitted in DC distribution was extremely low. DC power was remarkably safe but completely unworkable.
Editor’s Note: Neither Glenn nor the staff are all that expert on the subject of electricity and electrical distribution, so please bear with us.
It became clear that Edison would soon be out of work if he didn’t find a way to make his product relevant, and it is here that this story becomes particularly interesting. Until Tesla, no one had come up with an AC distribution system in the U.S. that was viable. But Westinghouse Electric now had the technology to transmit power from the dams in Niagara all the way to New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Edison recognized Tesla’s success and knew his business was obsolete.
“So what does Edison do,” Glenn asked. “Edison knows this is the end of his company… So he writes a pamphlet – a warning from the Edison Electric Light Company.”
This was no longer a “Battle of the Currents.” This was a battle for power.
“Think of this in terms of power,” Glenn continued. “This is an argument about power. What does [Edison] do? First, he says Westinghouse is just greedy… There’s argument number one. Argument number two: anything that Westinghouse has, he stole. And some of the things he takes and changes a few things and slaps his name. He’s rich and powerful. He’s a thief.”
“He’s taking things that don’t belong to him? Does any of this sound familiar,” Glenn asked. “Think of it in respect to guns. Think about what’s happening right now, and why it’s being done.”
Edison started by demonizing Westinghouse’s wealth (even though he too was wealthy). Then he accused Westinghouse of being a thief – he deserves no credit for the work he has done. Edison, considered an expert, came out and said that there is no way there will ever be a way to improve the DC system. He admitted that it was imperfect, but clarified that there would be no safe way to make AC distribution workable. He dug up stories on the horrors of the alternating current – someone dying after stepping on a wet wire or children being electrocuted for touching a down wire. Edison, who opposed capital punishment, went so far as to develop the first ever electric chair using the system of alternating current in order to promote the idea that AC was deadlier than DC.
“This had nothing to do with humanity and everything to do with power,” Glenn said. “When you watch the President today, understand that you may not be talking about electricity, but what you are talking about is power – a man’s willingness to do anything for unstopped no holds barred power. That’s it.”