Current Wars

The 2006 mystery thriller, The Prestige, had an unlikely protagonist: David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. He is portrayed as a passionate, if eccentric, scientist leading a monastic life in Colorado Springs surrounded by an advanced model of his magnifying transmitter. While the film depicts this as a teleportation device; in reality, his experiments dealt with the wireless transmission of electrical power. In the course of his experiments, like Jagadish Bose in Calcutta, Tesla successfully transmitted radio waves over the ether, well before Guglielmo Marconi did.

However, Tesla’s everlasting contribution to modern life was the development of alternating current (AC) to replace the then-prevalent system of direct current (DC). As an employee of the Edison Machine Works in West Orange, New Jersey, his blueprints were not received very kindly by Thomas Edison who had invested heavily in DC power. Edison was a self-taught man and brute-force experimenter (hence his memorable quote about genius being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration) who had a brilliant mind for envisioning mechanical tools like the typewriter, gramophone and kinetograph for recording motion. However, the intricacies of alternating current required a more intimate understanding of the properties of electromagnetic waves, and to his lasting regret, he allowed Tesla to walk out of his company.

George Westinghouse, another American entrepreneur, was more willing to consider Tesla’s idea of effectively transmitting high voltage AC over long distances and using step-down transformers near a customer’s premises. Edison’s General Electric (GE), on the other hand, faced a nineteenth century version of the last-mile-problem, and had to install DC generating plants within a mile of the customer load to compensate for line losses. Thus began the War of Currents between Westinghouse Electric and General Electric.

Edison personally participated in a negative publicity campaign to badmouth AC; this included spreading disinformation on safety, and publicly electrocuting farm animals. He also funded the development of a primitive electric chair that employed AC, and tried to popularize the term “Westinghoused” for being electrocuted to death (predating the practice of using a trademark, like Google, as a verb by a century!). This episode cast a dark pall on the life of Edison, who was otherwise an outstanding humanitarian promoting the employment of women, and was considerate enough to install a piano in the servants’ dining room in his estate at Glenmont.

The battle was finally decided during the Chicago World Fair in 1893, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. The organizers (who had previously designed New York’s Central Park and the iconic Flatiron Building) wanted to dazzle attendees with an exhibit that would reflect the flamboyance of the age. General Electric put forward a bid to power all electric exhibits and light up Edison’s incandescent light-bulbs at a cost of $1.8 million. Westinghouse’s counteroffer using three-phase AC for induction motors, primitive fluorescent lamps and power for the world’s first Ferris Wheel came in under $400,000. Even though GE attempted to reduce their bid, they could not match the efficiencies of Tesla’s transmission, thereby conceding to the public that AC would be the wave of the future.

Chicago in 1893 did “bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus”, and Swami Vivekananda’s eloquent speech at the Parliament of World Religions had an electrifying effect on the people of that era. Tesla himself was so influenced by Vedic philosophy that he used Sanskrit names for some of his subsequent inventions. Sadly, neither Tesla nor Edison was awarded a Nobel Prize for their contributions to science. Such was the animosity and antagonism between these two pioneers that they both refused to accept the award if the other received it first, and also rejected the possibility of ever sharing the prize. However, the precursor to today’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) honoured Tesla with the highest award it offered in the field of electrical engineering: ironically, it was called the Edison Medal.


In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep; this was due to a malfunction at the Lots Road Power Station.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light, but Eastern Electricity Board said that He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.

And God saw the light and it was good; He saw the quarterly bill and that was not good.

Spike Milligan, The Bible According to Spike Milligan

1 comment:

Altamont said...

Informative and enjoyable read - as always. Was fascinating to know about Edison and Tesla and their rivalry