The war of the currents was a series of events surrounding the introduction of direct current electricity (DC) Thomas Edison invention –based Edison Electric Light Company and the alternating current (AC) Nikola Tesla invention –based Westinghouse Electric Company. It included commercial competition, a debate over electrical safety, and a nasty media propaganda campaign led by Edison.
This historical event helped inspire the band name AC/DC.
Thomas Edison was an American inventor and businessman, who has been described as America’s greatest inventor, and most people would argue that Nikola Tesla was the greatest inventor that the world has ever known.
We were taught that Edison had invented the light bulb, but the truth is that he had purchased the patent from Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans in 1880 and then he hired a team to help him perfect the patent that he made a fortune on. He did however invent the electric chair and apparently had a fetish for electrocuting living animals and people.
It all started in 1882 when Thomas Edison invented the DC or direct current electrical power system. Eventually he hired a young Serbian genius man named Nikola Tesla to help him improve his electrical device. While working for Edison, Tesla discovered how to make his own electrical power system and began building an alternating current system that used a transformer to step up voltage for long-distance transmission and then stepped it back down for indoor lighting, a more efficient and less expensive system that directly competed to the Edison DC electricity system.
In brief: AC electricity can travel much further distances than direct current DC. Without AC electricity we would need massive nuclear power-plants in every city throughout the world.
In 1888 George Westinghouse bought the patent for Tesla’s AC generator. As many other electric companies joined in and the use of AC spread rapidly, Edison’s company made claims that alternating current was hazardous and inferior to the patented direct current system. Tesla’s AC generators were spreading across the country faster than the DC electricity alternative. Edison began publicly questioning the safety of the Tesla-created system, stating, “Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size.”
This would be the beginning of what is now referred to as the “War of the Currents,” which would end in determining the way people still get their power to this day.
Thomas Edison’s shocking history of electrocuting dogs, horses and people
He was so dedicated to discrediting Tesla, that to win that battle, Edison began giving kids who lived around his New Jersey lab 25 cents for every stray dog they brought him for his public demonstrations of electrocuting these beautiful creatures to electricity from AC dynamos. Making sure to clarify he was using AC, Edison would go about electrocuting calves, horses and even an elephant. The animals’ deaths were slow and very disturbing to watch from the crowd. Tesla had no interest in a rivalry, let alone zapping innocent animals. Following Edison’s gruesome animal executions, he put together a demonstration of his new invention used to put people to death, called “the electric chair”.
Ultimately the lower cost of AC power distribution prevailed. By 1890 over a dozen electric companies had merged down to three; Edison (now Edison General Electric), Thomson-Houston, and Westinghouse.
In 1893, Tesla’s AC transmission system had been proven superior over the existing DC transmission system. Westinghouse won the bid to supply electrical power for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Nikola Tesla had officially won the war of the currents.
Eventually Thomas Edison left the electric power business and the company he founded was beginning to add AC technology to its system.
Due to an increase in his popularity following the success of the World Columbian Exposition, Tesla started becoming famous in the social circles of the power elite. Everything was going Tesla’s way, until the early morning of March 13, 1895, when the South Fifth Avenue building that housed Tesla’s lab caught fire.
It started in the basement of the building and was so intense Tesla’s 4th floor lab burned and collapsed into the second floor. The fire not only set back Tesla’s ongoing projects, it destroyed a collection of early notes and research material, models, and demonstration pieces, including many that had been exhibited at the 1893 Worlds Colombian Exposition.
Another man too at the time had a dream, a dream to control and monopolize all the available assets, electricity, railroads, steel works and communications, to only allow the person who could afford to pay him for the use of these assets, to maximize his gain at the expense of the common man. This man who had this dream, held major stake in all of Thomas Edison’s companies and was fuming at the loss that Tesla had caused him by winning the bid for the lighting of the World Columbian Exposition. Tesla winning the contract for the Niagara Falls power plant had further added insult to injury of this man. The man was now livid with rage. The man was, John Pierpont Morgan or J. P. Morgan himself.
J.P. Morgan was an American financier, banker, and art collector who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation. At the height of Morgan’s career during the early 1900s, he and his partners had financial investments in many large corporations and had significant influence over the nation’s high finance and Congress members. Morgan’s total wealth was about $41.5 billion at that time. That is about $2.6 trillion as per today’s standards. This was the clout J.P. Morgan had and hence everyone feared him; everyone but Nikola Tesla.
J.P. Morgan wanted Tesla to sell all his patents and his businesses to him, so that he could maximize his gains further. Tesla realized that consolidation of the patents in the hand of such a wealthy tycoon would mean that its benefits would never reach the common man and hence Nikola Tesla refused. Morgan was not a man to let go of an insult. With his refusal to sell his patents Tesla had now snubbed Morgan thrice.
Tesla was habituated to working late in his lab. Once immersed in work he used to forget time and even skipped his food. One night he was similarly busy working in his lab when an impulse made him leave the lab for dinner. As he dined, there came a knock on the door. A messenger had arrived with the news that there had been an explosion in the building housing Tesla’s laboratory and everything had been destroyed. Tesla ran through the street to where all his dreams, his visions, his work, his patents, his memories were housed but in vain. The fire brigade was dousing the flames, and nothing remained. The greatest monument to the technological advancement of mankind had been wiped off within no time. The totality of his technological achievements was burned into vapor. All that remained was Nikola Tesla himself.
Was it Tesla’s refusal to grant his patents to Morgan that resulted in the blaze? Was this the fallout of War of Currents that Edison had badly lost to Tesla? Was it any other adversary of Tesla who did it? Or was it just another accident? No conclusive evidence to the end exists and time will keep its secrets.
Here is a little fun fact:
By now, most of us have heard of the Tesla car company that is owned by Mr. SpaceX himself, Elon Musk. Naturally one would think he must be a big Nikola Tesla fan in order to name his automobile company after him, but you might be surprised to hear who Elon Musk really admires as an inventor. Elon Musk admits to naming his car company after Nikola Tesla because the Tesla car runs on an AC induction motor.
Surprisingly, Musk says in an interview that he is a bigger fan of Thomas Edison rather than Nikola Tesla. Quote: “On balance, I’m a bigger fan of Edison then Tesla, because Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world, where as Tesla didn’t really do that. That’s a very interesting answer coming from Musk considering that Edison bought most of his patents and stopped at nothing to discredit Nikola Tesla’s alternating current system, such as electrocuting animals in public to prove his point.
One thing we do know for certain, is that Nikola Tesla is one of the brightest inventive minds that ever lived. With over 700 patents of his own inventions and arguably 80 percent of the technology used in the world today can be credited to Nikola Tesla. All of our lives are better in some way, thanks to this man.
Tesla was a lonely man who did his own research independently outside mainstream science. He came across to the normal world as a complete eccentric. Tesla saw that there was a division from the poor to the wealthy society. He was determined to make electrical power equally available to all people on Earth as a gift.