Tech UPTechnologyEdison vs Tesla: the current wars

Edison vs Tesla: the current wars

There are two kinds of electricity: direct (DC) and alternating (AC). In the first, a series of electrons flows permanently in one direction, as is the case with the battery. On the contrary, the alternating current changes direction 50 or 60 times per second and also oscillates. Which one to use for lighting? Edison favored the former, in part because so few knew how to work with it and no one had been able to build an efficient AC motor. Meanwhile, DC had been with us since the days of Alessandro Volta –almost a century ago- and DC motors did exist. Tesla was aware of the problems with Edison’s decision to shine light bulbs across the US in this way. The main problem in electrical installations is losses due to the Joule effect : the friction of the electrons with the metal atoms as they move through the cable causes the current to lose voltage in the form of heat (the principle of electric stoves). The best way to send electricity over long distances without excessive losses is through high voltages (which is why we have power lines from power plants to our cities). And at this point the AC wins, as it can be easily converted to high voltages. If we used DC, we would have to put a generating plant every 6 meters in order to reinforce the voltage for the next section.

Everything would have turned out as Edison imagined were it not for the fact that in 1882 Tesla, in a Budapest park, had taken a crucial step towards an AC generator by conceiving of a rotating magnetic field as the product of two or more alternating currents out of phase.

Tesla y Westinghouse

Weapons were piling up on the front lines and Tesla was gaining supporters. Among the most influential was AK Brown, director of the Western Union Telegraph Company, who had no idea of the ins and outs of electrical technology but was very interested in this new idea and the future it might lead to. So in April 1887 he supported the creation of a new company, the Tesla Electric Company, whose objective was the development of an alternating current system capable of lighting the United States.

At that time, several electrical companies operated, each with its own systems and components. Among them was that of the inventor of the compressed air brake for trains, George Westinghouse . Born in New York in 1846, he was the author of 261 patents and created 70 companies. But he not only dedicated himself to inventing: in 1871 he was the first to give his employees half of Saturday off, at the beginning of the 20th century he created pension funds for his workers and introduced paid vacations , which meant a revolution in the business world. And just like Tesla and Edison, he only needed to sleep 4-5 hours a day.

Westinghouse had built America’s first commercial AC system in Buffalo in November 1886 and by the following year had more than 30 plants operating across the country. Of course, his most powerful opponent was Edison himself. But things couldn’t get any better for CA; the timing was perfect. In 1887 the technology that Westinghouse needed was just registered by Tesla in the form of 40 patents. When both men met, the crush arose thanks to their mutual love for AC. And they signed a contract: Tesla would receive $60,000 for all of them and $2.50 for each horsepower of electricity sold.

Edison strikes back

It cannot be denied that Edison was afraid of the tandem that had been formed: he had to publicly put an end to the AC business, even resorting to crooked stratagems. To put an end to them, he launched a smear campaign through pamphlets where he spoke of the mortal dangers of AC. By one of those coincidences of life, the pets of the people who lived near Edison’s laboratory in West Orange (New Jersey) began to disappear, and he decided to take advantage of it. He paid teenagers 25 cents to bring him stray cats and dogs and placed them on a griddle connected to an AC generator before the astonished gaze of journalists and onlookers. And right there he electrocuted them, claiming that if people weren’t careful they would be “Westinghousenized.” He even surreptitiously bought the licenses to three patents from Tesla of CA and convinced those in charge of the Sing-Sing jail to execute inmates by electrocution. This is how he built the first electric chair in 1890. But his engineers miscalculated the necessary voltage and the first prisoner executed with the chair, William Kemmler, had to be “fried” several times.

For his part, Tesla, between 1892 and 1893, gave four lectures in Europe and America that made him the most famous scientist of the time. With devices he designed, built, and tested himself at least twenty times, he set about proving that AC could be controlled safely . He himself was subjected to a tension of two million volts until a halo of light appeared around him. He then explained that high-voltage, high-frequency AC flows across the outer surface of the skin without causing damage.

In his demonstrations, this “magician of electricity” threw sparks from the tips of his fingers, lit light bulbs and melted metals by letting the electric current pass through his body, and when he clicked them he produced a ball of fire that he held in his hand without burning himself. while speaking of the mysteries of electricity and magnetism. The audience of the two continents, fascinated, raised him to the top.

Edison’s defeat

But the great success of the Tesla-Westinghouse tandem was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which chose AC to illuminate the main attraction of its World of Tomorrow pavilion, the White City. This success allowed Westinghouse to win the contract to build the first two AC generators in Niagara Falls with Tesla patents – his childhood dream had come true. The war of currents ended with the Edison debacle.

But you can also die of success. AC was spreading so fast that Westinghouse was facing bankruptcy due to being paid $2.5 per horsepower for using Tesla’s patents. This would make him one of the richest men in the world, but at the cost of Westinghouse’s ruin. And so he did an act of incredible generosity: he waived his royalties . The company’s 1897 annual report shows that it was paid $216,600 to destroy the contract that bound it to its patents. And all because Westinghouse had believed in him when the rest of the world laughed and ridiculed him. But in the cruel business world such an act was, is and will be branded as supine stupidity, giving away the millions he had earned up to then and would earn in the future. But that was not in Tesla’s head. First in New York and then in Colorado Springs, the Croatian made a series of crucial inventions, such as radar and radio, and envisioned a world where information and communication would flow wirelessly across the globe.


Jonnes, J. (2003) Empires of light, Random House

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