The War of the Currents

If you are not an electrician or an engineer, you likely do not think much about the current that powers your reading light or your computer battery. Even if you have reason to own a household generator or a single phase to 3 phase converter, you may not know the surprisingly exciting history behind the standard for electrical current.

Not Just a Band

In the late 1800s, electricity was generated using both alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC.) You could say that electricity was AC/DC. Some of the most brilliant inventors of the time were locked in a battle to see which current would become the standard.

The dispute among the three men – Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla – was dramatic enough that it inspired a movie call The Current War, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Thomas Edison.

Direct Current

Edison championed DC power for his entire career. He had success with the first light bulb in the 1870s. After that, he started building a system to produce and distribute electricity to homes and businesses, thus creating a market for his new invention. IN 1882, he opened his first power plant. For a time it seemed Edison was the only game in town, and DC power would reign supreme.

Alternating Current

Both Westinghouse and Tesla were proponents of the alternating current system. Tesla worked as Edison’s assistant upon first arriving in the United States from his native Serbia. He attempted to interest Edison in some AC improvements to Edison’s DC motors, but when he was repeatedly snubbed, he struck out on his own in 1885. Shortly after, Tesla acquired a number of patents and sold them to Westinghouse.  Westinghouse Electric Company soon became a fierce competitor for Edison.

Scare Tactics

Aware that AC power was taking hold in the country, Edison sought to discredit it by any means necessary. He electrocuted animals using AC power as a way to show that is was not safe. He even put aside his stance against capital punishment to propose electrocution (using AC power) as the most lethal and effective means of killing criminals. He arranged for a convicted murderer to die in an electric chair in 1890. Edison made sure the electric chair was powered by a Westinghouse AC generator.

The Winner

In 1893, Westinghouse received the contract to light the World’s Fair in Chicago. Shortly after, Westinghouse also received the contract to build the AC generators for a power station at Niagara Falls. These, and many other, successes ultimately made AC the standard for electrical power in America.

Now, when you switch on a light, consider a household generator, or look for a single phase to 3 phase converter, you have a little known and exciting piece of history behind these modern conveniences.

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