AC/DC – The Battle of Genius That Changed Our World

Why This is Important In the 1880s, two of the most influential innovators of electricity, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla had a public battle

Why This is Important

In the 1880s, two of the most influential innovators of electricity, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla had a public battle for electricity supremacy, now known as the “War of the Currents.” This little known contest of genius, was instrumental in shaping how we use electricity in everyday life.

Tesla’s connection to Edison started when he was hired by the Edison Company and assigned the job of repairing an electrical plant in Strasburg France. Upon completion of the repairs, however, the Edison Company refused to pay the money it had promised. Tesla quit, and set his hopes on obtaining work in America. Strangely enough, once in America, he went to work for Edison.

Thomas Edison was revolutionary with the thought of applying patents to ideas. The first patent for the light bulb was Edison’s in 1879. To date, he is responsible for 1,093 patents, by far the most of any U.S. citizen. Edison developed direct current, which is current that runs continually in a single direction, like in a battery or a fuel cell. During the early years of electricity, direct current (DC) was the standard in the U.S. The problem was direct current was not easily converted to higher or lower voltages.

Nikola Tesla was the inventor that is directly responsible for alternating current (AC), and holds the patents that are the basic principles for much of the modern technology that we enjoy today such as the laptop computer, and smartphone, as well as being credited as the inventor of the common radio. Tesla developed alternating current. (AC) He believed that alternating current was the solution to the conversion problem that DC experienced. Alternating current reverses direction a certain number of times per second — 60 in the U.S. — and can be converted to different voltages relatively easily using a transformer.

How This Unfolded

Edison was earning royalties from his direct current patents. For fear of losing out on these, he began a campaign to discredit Tesla, and his alternating current. Edison started a smear campaign, spreading the notion that alternating current was more dangerous. At one point, he publicly electrocuted an elephant using alternating current to prove his point.

At the height of the dueling battle of genius, was the 1893 “World’s Fair” in Chicago. General Electric bid to illuminate the fair using Edison’s direct current for $554,000. However, George Westinghouse, who said he could power the fair for only $399,000 using Tesla’s alternating current won the bidding war. As Tesla was not as business savvy as Edison, he teamed with Westinghouse to further develop his ideas.

Also in 1893, the Niagara Falls Power Company awarded Westinghouse the contract to generate power from Niagara Falls, utilizing Tesla’s (AC). On Nov. 16, 1896, the City of Buffalo New York was powered by alternating current from Niagara Falls.

Shortly after, Edison and General Electric decided to put their time and efforts into alternating current. It seemed that alternating current had won out over direct current. However, in recent years direct current has come back to the forefront.

Today, most electricity is powered by alternating current. However, many of our modern technology such as computers, LEDs, solar cells and electric vehicles all run on DC power. Since direct current is more stable than alternating current, companies are finding ways of using high voltage direct current (HVDC) to transport electricity long distances with less electricity loss.

In the end, instead of continuing the battle of AC vs. DC, the two currents have ended up working with each other to further power the world. This has all become possible with the genius of both Tesla and Edison.

To start creating an energy strategy for your business, contact one of our senior advisors today at 1.800.920.4631. We are here to answer any questions you have.

Matt Helland
Sr. VP of Client Relations





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