Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific inventors in history, responsible for breakthroughs like the phonograph, motion picture camera, and the first practical light bulb. However, one of Edison's inventions that truly changed the world was his system for electrical wiring and power distribution.

Edison's DC Power Networks Cause Sparks

In the late 1800s, Edison and his researchers at Menlo Park pioneered the generation and distribution of electricity using direct current (DC). At the time, DC power offered a major advantage over the alternatives - it could be transmitted over long distances using metal conductors.

Edison quickly established local DC power networks, the first being in New York City in 1882. These early systems used copper wiring to distribute 110 volts of DC power to homes and businesses from fossil fuel-powered generators and accumulators.

While revolutionary, Edison's DC networks had some major drawbacks:

These shortcomings led many to view Edison's technology as unsuitable for wider adoption.

Tesla and Westinghouse Introduce AC Power

Seeing the flaws in DC networks, inventor Nikola Tesla and industrialist George Westinghouse developed a competing alternating current (AC) system in the mid-1880s.

The key advantages of AC power included:

To prove the capabilities of AC, Tesla and Westinghouse constructed a demonstration hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls in 1893, transmitting electricity to Buffalo over 15 miles away.

The War of the Currents

Edison was fiercely opposed to AC power and teamed up with Harold P. Brown to undertake an ugly PR and lobbying campaign to discredit Tesla and Westinghouse's technology. This came to be known as the War of the Currents.

Some of Edison's fear tactics included:

Edison's smear campaign culminated in Brown's development of the electric chair, touted as a demonstration of AC's lethal potential. Despite these efforts, AC proved superior and was rapidly adopted after the Niagara Falls project went live.

The Move to AC Power

In just over a decade after Niagara Falls, AC power had become the universal standard. Some key milestones included:

AC Power Legacies

The shift to AC networks had profound and lasting impacts:

Edison's Bitterness

Despite losing the War of the Currents, Edison remained an iconic figure and continued inventing into his 80s. However, he harbored bitterness against Tesla and AC power his entire life.

Some examples of Edison's lasting animosity include:

In the end, Edison had no choice but to live in an AC-powered world, although he never acknowledged defeat until his death in 1931. The War of the Currents and pervasiveness of AC systems cemented Tesla's critical role in shaping modern civilization.