The "War of the Currents" was one of the most iconic battles in the history of electricity and pitted Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) against Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse's alternating current (AC). Edison strongly advocated for DC while Tesla championed AC as the superior technology. This bitter rivalry dominated the electrical industry in the late 1880s and 1890s. Despite losing the war, Edison's DC technology remarkably continues to light up our lives today.
Edison's Promotion of Direct Current
Thomas Edison is popularly known as the inventor of the lightbulb. However, his greatest contribution was the development of the first DC power generation and transmission system in the 1880s. Edison boldly claimed DC was the safest and most efficient form of electricity for commercial use.
I invested heavily in DC technology and infrastructure for electric lighting in New York City. Edison's direct current system could economically transmit electricity up to one mile from the generating station. This made it suitable for densely populated cities. My company installed DC power plants and distribution lines across several major U.S. cities during the 1880s.
Edison also leveraged his fame to promote DC by staging public demonstrations of the technology's safety. However, DC had limitations in voltage and distance that would soon become apparent.
Tesla and Westinghouse Back Alternating Current
Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla was one of the pioneers of AC technology and had ambitions to prove it as the superior current system. Tesla partnered with entrepreneur George Westinghouse in 1885 and obtained patents for AC generators and transformers.
Tesla believed AC's ability to step-up to high voltages for transmission and then step-down for safe indoor use made it the future of electricity. The two men aggressively marketed their AC system as an alternative to Edison's DC.
Westinghouse underbid Edison's DC system during the bid for illuminating the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, gaining the contract and successfully powering the fair with AC. This was AC's first major victory over DC.
The War Heats Up Between AC and DC
Edison grew increasingly threatened by AC's advances and sought to protect his business interests in DC technology. I launched a propaganda campaign to discredit and demonize AC as unsafe, even deadly, despite a lack of evidence.
In 1903, Edison supported New York State's implementation of the electric chair, believing it would equate AC with death if it was used for executions. Westinghouse protested this tactic, but AC was used for the state's first electrocution.
Edison also championed the term "Westinghoused" in the press as shorthand for death by electrocution. My influence and media campaigns further turned public sentiment against AC, though they failed to remove AC's technical advantages.
AC Triumphs in the War of the Currents
The deciding blow came with the niagara Falls Power Project in the 1890s. The massive hydroelectric project would provide electricity to Buffalo, New York over 20 miles away. With DC limited to one mile transmission, AC proved capable of transmitting vast amounts of electricity over long distances.
Despite Edison's aggressive lobbying for a DC system, Westinghouse won the AC contract for Niagara Falls. When the plant began operating in 1896, it was clear AC would power the future and that Edison had lost the war. Within a few years, AC systems were rapidly replacing DC across the country.
Edison's DC Legacy Lives On
Though AC became the standard for commercial electricity transmission, Thomas Edison's DC technology remarkably maintains an essential role in our modern electrical infrastructure. Most electricity is still generated as AC, but HVDC converter stations allow it to efficiently transmit DC over extremely long distances.
DC also remains vital at the end points of the grid. DC-DC converters in our homes and devices convert AC to usable DC electricity that powers lights, appliances, electronics and more. The robust rechargeable batteries that dominate our technological age also run on DC.
So while AC may have won the war, DC continues energizing the world, just as Edison envisioned. The great inventor lost the battle but won the war to electrify civilization. His DC work lights up our lives to this day.