The year was 1887…
It was a battle royale – Jefferson vs Adams, the North vs the South, Hulk Hogan vs Randy Macho Man Savage, Jobs vs Wozniak, Trump vs Clinton… AC vs DC.
And when the dust settled, the guy who won really lost and the guy who lost became the champion that everyone remembers.
Back in the day before anti-trust laws forced the breakup of the remaining empire, the source of electricity – the power company – was known by one name… Edison. The name still lingers at Con-Ed in New York, SoCal Edison in California, and smaller units scattered all across the United States. But the power that comes into your house wasn’t the famous inventor’s idea.
In 1882, Nikola Tesla left his phone company job in his native Serbia and headed to Paris where he found employment with the Continental Edison Company. There, he so impressed his superiors that they recommended his transfer to the United States, noting that his genius rivaled that of their founder.
Tesla was excited to meet one of his heroes, a man who had accomplished so much with so little training. But this hope quickly died. The very genius that should have brought them together, because of their mutually high opinions of themselves, in fact created a rift almost immediately.
Self-taught Edison preferred to do tedious trial and error experimentation – hence his famous quote about finding 10,000 ways that didn’t work – while Tesla was a trained engineer and creative dreamer who preferred to come up with theories before testing them practically. Which drove them both somewhat crazy.
Tesla lasted less than a year working with his former hero.
While Edison is famous these days for his quotes on productivity – “Genius is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration,” Tesla believed that mindset was Edison’s biggest stumbling block:
If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search… I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of his labor.–Nikola Tesla
The War of the Currents
But the most famous falling out between the two men came to become known as the “War of the Currents.”
Edison stood by direct current (DC), while Tesla advocated for alternating current (AC).
The man who became a household name after his invention of the light bulb, the phonograph, the movie camera and countless other helpful, soon to be household items, didn’t want to bring “dangerous” alternating current into every home. He was convinced the best way, and certainly the safest way, to power the world was through single direction DC power.
But Tesla, with his theoretical approach, pointed out that DC power had severe limitations that would impact the future. In the 1880’s, DC technology only allowed for a power grid with a one-mile radius from the power source. And while DC only went one way, AC power allowed the flow of energy to go both ways, creating a much more practical solution for transmitting large quantities of energy to power an industrial city, which he predicted the United States would rapidly see more of in the coming years.
Unfortunately, Tesla did not always employ his considerable prognostication techniques to his own life. In his efforts to prove his former mentor wrong, he made a deal with a Pittsburgh industrialist whose name would also become a household word – George Westinghouse. Westinghouse paid Tesla a handsome fee, including residuals, for his AC motor and electrical transmission patents and began a campaign to make the public aware of his newly purchased invention.
In retaliation, Edison launched his own propaganda campaign against alternating current, even sending Professor Harold Brown on a “speaking” tour, where he routinely used AC power to electrocute dogs, horses, elephants and a convicted ax murderer in New York.
But everything changed on May 1, 1893—stay tuned next week to find out!