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The Current War

Edison and Tesla Fight Over How to Power the World

The Columbian Exposition would be the final battle between the Currents.


By: Ben S.

Thomas Alva Edison developed the incandescent bulb and DC

  It would be the final showdown. After months of battle through propaganda and demonstrations, the victor of the war would be determined through one event: the Columbian Exposition. On one side of the duel stood Westinghouse and Tesla, armed with the novel and superior alternating current system. One the other side stood Thomas Alva Edison and the General Electric Company, trying desperately to retain direct current as the dominant current system. The duel would be simple: who would power the Chicago World's Fair? But how did this intense and extreme rivalry begin?
  In 1879 Thomas Alva Edison publicly displayed his famous incandescent bulb. After this invention, Edison needed some means of powering his bulb that could be distributed over a large distance. To solve this problem, in 1887, Edison invented the system of direct current, in which electricity flows in one, constant direction. Because of his already acquired fame from numerous other inventions, America readily received his electric system, and soon DC was powering entire buildings.
  However the difficulties of DC were soon discovered. Because, in DC, electricity only flowed in only one direction, the flowing electric current frequently melted the copper wires through which it flowed, causing transmission of DC over long distances to be hazardous and nearly impossible. Also, because of the unwavering frequency of the DC, the signal generated initially had to be boosted multiple times while it traveled over a distance. In addition, this unwavering current caused transformers to be unusable in changing the current. Edison's solution was to simply use more, large, bulky copper wires to power cities such as New York. But this solution caused these cities to take on the appearance of a large spider web rather than a novel, industrialized city. Many people knew about these problems, but without a solution, they had no choice but to live with the consequences. But a solution was soon to come to the suffering city dwellers.

An example of Edison's DC motor


  At the age of 28 Nikola Tesla immigrated to New York, where electricity had already been present for about 23 years. Upon arriving in New York, he was shocked to find long stretches of sagging wires and exposed wiring strung all across New York, a result of Edison's DC system. He sought work in Edison's laboratory to attempt to improve upon Edison's DC system. He already had a design idea for an alternating current motor, but Edison knew and cared little about alternating current. However Edison decided to hire Tesla, offering him a healthy reward if he could improve upon his electric system, believing it an impossible task.

Nikola Tesla invented AC.

 The two men soon found that they had little in common: Tesla was a visionary who thought through problems and solutions before acting, while Edison's motto was:

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

  Soon the differences between these two men lead to conflict. When Tesla announced to Edison that his work had been completed, Edison was astonished. Upon asking for payment Edison quickly explained that the reward he offered was no more than an American joke. The infuriated Tesla immediately resigned.
  Just as Tesla fell down on his luck people began to hear about the young, unusually talented immigrant. Investors soon began to offer him funding to proceed with his work on arc lightning. Then a man named A. K. Brown offered him funding on the development of the alternating current motor. Quickly, Tesla built all of the components of an alternating current system. Regarding his motors, Tesla said:

“The motors I built here were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced pictures as they appeared in my vision and their operation was always as I expected.”

One of Tesla's early AC motors


  A man named George Westinghouse noticed the young foreigner's invention and saw it's potential for success. He went to Tesla's lab and quickly made a deal with him to purchase the alternating current system. With his newfound wealth Tesla decided to build a laboratory for himself.
  Despite the superiority of Tesla's motor, Edison's DC system still dominated the market. Edison knew, however, that Tesla's motor had significant advantages, and with George Westinghouse's purchasing of the system, it became a powerful competitor to his own. Edison wasted little time to launch a major propaganda war against Tesla's AC system. Edison advocated against AC, comparing it to DC by saying:

 “Direct current is like a river flowing peacefully to sea, while alternating current is like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice.”

 In addition, a murderer was about to be executed in the first electric chair. Professor Brown, an advocate of DC, had illegally purchased an AC generator for use in this chair, to prove the extreme danger associated with AC. The spectacle was described as:

 “An awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”

Tesla recriminated, saying that AC was perfectly safe, as long as proper precautions were taken.
  This fierce propaganda war would soon come to an end, however. The Columbian Exposition was soon to be held in Chicago, and the search was on for some method of powering the fair. On one side stood Edison with his large, obtrusive DC system. One the other stood Tesla and Westinghouse, with the novel, more manageable AC system. Edison asked for $1 million to power the all-electric fair. A demonstration of the setup resulted in a dark, heavy, hazardous spider-web of copper wire. Westinghouse offered to power the fair at half the price and without the spider-web, an easy accomplishment for AC. AC had won the battle.|
  But AC had not yet won the war. Both systems set up a display at the exposition. At the fair, Tesla unleashed the beauty and power of AC through an amazing spectacle of man made lightning. Sparks flew everywhere as large bolts of lightning jumped and exploded between wires. To demonstrate safety of this system, he used himself as a conductor to light an incandescent tube, and walked away unharmed. AC was the power of the future. As for Edison's demonstration? All the lights of the “white city” dimmed, as Edison flipped the switch and lit his incandescent bulb. Tesla and AC had won. Yet for some odd reason we today worship Thomas Alva Edison as a god of electricity, and we give no credit to the genius immigrant who gave us today’s source of power for our own incandescent bulbs.