We all know Thomas Edison as the man who invented the light bulb and the phonograph. That’s the first inventor-invention pair I’ve ever learnt. And then we have Nikola Tesla, the young scientist from Serbia who migrated to America and designed the modern alternating current electricity transmission system. But do we know the ‘war’ that happened between the two big electrical companies of the USA of the time-The War of the Currents?
In the late 1880s, Edison Electric Light Company of Thomas Edison and the Westinghouse Electric Company of George Westinghouse, started to duel against each over what type of transmission technique should be used in the supply of electricity. Edison developed the DC or direct current, which went on to be the standard until the rise of AC or alternating current started with experiments done by Tesla.
Direct current is a constant current that doesn’t change with time. It is the current that batteries supply. It is not very easy to use at higher voltages and for long distance transmissions without heavy losses. Also, stepping the voltage levels up and down according to the application is not easy.
This wasn’t the case with AC. Alternating current reverses its direction with a certain frequency. In India currently, we use AC that changes direction 50 times in one second. In the US, it is 60 times per second. Most of the power coming to our houses from distribution companies is in the form of AC. It can be readily converted into lower or higher voltages with the help of transformers. This helps in reducing losses during long distance transmissions.
This great battle in the field of science soon turned into a commercial one involving mudslinging by Edison. Edison started a negative campaign against his rival Westinghouse Electric Company which deals in AC, saying alternating currents are as unnecessary as they are dangerous. He publicly demonstrated the dangers of alternating current by electrocuting animals. He endorsed and secretly financed the alternating current electric chair developed by an electrical engineer Harold Brown for executing criminals. The first test was conducted at the Auburn State Prison, New York in 1890.
But with the rise in the number of alternating current users, attributed mainly to its low cost, in 1892, Edison Electric, ending its opposition to alternating current, merged with Thomson-Houston company, forming Edison’s General Electric. This establishment now controlled about three quarters of the electrical business in the US.
In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago was organised to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. Claimed to be the world’s first fair to be lighted by electricity, the organization called for tenders. While Edison bid for around a million euros, Westinghouse Electric Company did it for half a million and bagged the tender. The company also won the bid to generate electricity from the Niagara falls.
The demonstration of Westinghouse Electric’s alternating current system and Nikola Tesla’s two-phase induction motors and generators to power the system successfully marked the end of the war of the currents.
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