So, what exactly changed on May 1, 1893?
Lighting up Chicago
Westinghouse had managed to win the bid to illuminate the Chicago World’s Fair, the first all-electric fair in history. The previous year, financier JP Morgan had facilitated the merger of Thomas Edison’s various companies into the General Electric Corporation. GE also bid on the World’s Fair, but lost out because of the high cost of laying copper wire to accommodate DC power transmission.
27-million people witnessed President Grover Cleveland push a button bringing the fair to life and from that point forward, 80% of all electrical devices sold used AC power.
And New York…
Later that year, Westinghouse was awarded the contract to harness the power of Niagara Falls and when the plant came online in 1896, even the remaining Edison systems were forced to convert to AC power.
But the War of Currents cost everyone involved. JP Morgan, hoping to wrest full control of all hydroelectric power, manipulated the stock market to try and force Westinghouse to sell Tesla’s patents. Tesla saved Westinghouse, grateful for his patron, and asserted his own nobility over profits by tearing up his contract. Westinghouse would survive, but Tesla would forever after be in debt and mostly forgotten…
Despite his remarkable achievements in electrical power, including radical experiments designed to transmit unlimited power wirelessly through the air to consumers – for free – Tesla is generally only remembered as the inventor of the Tesla Coil, which you probably recall best from those old Frankenstein movies. The Tesla Coil builds up lots of high voltage electricity quickly and efficiently and is also a powerful radio transmitter.
While Edison is memorialized for his inventions and quotes, Tesla is all but forgotten by the average person, even though many of the theories he proposed inspired the work of physicists like Einstein, Hawking and Heisenberg (the scientist, not Walter White’s alter ego). He also had breakthroughs in radio, radar, x-rays, solar energy, and even robotics. His technological advances were years ahead of his time, even today.
To be fair, Edison wasn’t completely wrong. DC power is still used very prevalently today – especially in computers. That thick brick in your laptop, printer and desktop cable? It’s constantly converting AC to DC to protect your sensitive electronics from the “raging waves” of alternating current.
Who knew electricity had such a “shocking” history?
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