From the War of Currents to the history of electricity in homes

From the War of Currents to the history of electricity in homesIn this section of the GeekHistory almanac we look at the history of electricity in homes from the discovery of electricity through the War of Currents.

What was the War of Currents?

In the 1890s the War of Currents was a business and technology battle between the Edison Electric Light Company and Westinghouse Electric Company over what electric power transmission system should be used. George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric Company supported AC (alternating current). Thomas Edison and the Edison Electric Light Company supported DC (direct current).

The internet loves to portray the battle as one between rival inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. It makes for a good story of the hero, Tesla, defeating his rival, Edison. Both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were well known in the 1890s and were masters at drawing attention to themselves. George Westinghouse, unlike his rival Edison, did not seek media attention, and was a very private person.

Thomas Edison was a well known inventor riding his success and media attention for inventing the phonograph. Edison leveraged his name and fame to start building DC power plants in New York City. Nikola Tesla was a genius, and his inventions contributed to AC Power distribution, but Tesla was member of a team put together by George Westinghouse.


Who was Nikola Tesla the legacy of the most interesting geek

Nikola TeslaNikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian born inventor who grew up in an area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is the modern-day country of Croatia.  At times the life story of Nikola Tesla flows like an epic science fiction saga. According to legend, the man known as the Master of Lightning was born at the stroke of midnight on July 10, 1856, during a lightning storm in a mountainous area of the Balkan Peninsula. Tesla's parents were Serbian, his father was an orthodox priest, his mother was an inventor of practical household gadgets.

Most of Nikola Tesla's early inventions fell into the categories of electrical power distribution or motors and generators. In 1884, at age 28, Tesla left Europe and headed for New York City in search of Thomas Edison. Tesla was interested in AC (alternating current) systems and was looking to impress Edison with his ideas on AC systems. Edison wasn't interested in hearing about AC, as Edison was developing DC (direct current) electrical power systems.


Thomas Edison launched the modern electric utility industry

Charles P. Steinmetz and Thomas A. Edison All major inventions were an evolution of ideas and inventors over many years. Many light bulbs were invented before Edison's that worked in the laboratory and for short-term demonstrations. There were more that twenty inventors that filed patents for various versions of the incandescent lamp before Edison, and there have been dozens of inventors that have filed patents for incandescent lamps since Edison.

In the mythology of famous scientists and inventors, there is the eureka moment, that's when some totally new idea or totally new theory is discovered. Thomas Edison's eureka moment was not in inventing the light bulb but in creating a carbon-filament lamp in a vacuum. This one improvement of the concept of the light bulb created the first commercially practical incandescent light. Edison's first attempts lasted a little over half a day, but eventually his efforts led to a bulb that could burn for 1,200 hours.

Edison's success went beyond the incandescent light bulb to developing an entire integrated system of electric lighting. Thomas Edison presented to the world a complete system of commercial electric lighting and power using a DC (Direct Current) generating station.


Who is responsible for electricity and AC power in our homes

Westinghouse Electric engineers William Stanley and Benjamin Lamme In the previous article we looked at the answer to who contributed to the development of electricity and AC power, by drawing attention to the work of various European inventors that were the establishing the ideas and principals that were used by Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla.

The War of Currents

The War of Currents was much more than a battle between two crazy inventors, and the efforts to electrify our world was the work of many inventors and engineers. Just as it is impossible to pin point one single invention or one single inventor as the eureka moment when the Internet was invented, the same can be said of the development of electricity and AC power distribution. There are many names from that generation that all played a significant part in the development of bringing electricity to our homes and AC power distribution.

The War of Currents was started as a battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla was not a member of team Westinghouse when it started. The War of Currents started not long after Westinghouse created the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886. Edison was creating DC power plants and felt threatened by Westinghouse who had been experimenting with AC Power and was ready to start rolling it out commercially. Edison began a public media campaign claiming that high voltage AC systems were inherently dangerous.

By the time the War of Currents ended Thomas Edison was no longer in control of Edison Electric. In 1892 Thomas Edison lost control of his own company, as financier J. P. Morgan merged Edison Electric with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric.

George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric Company would have two decisive victories over General Electric in 1893, first winning the bid to light the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, followed by the getting the contract for building a two phase AC generating system at Niagara Falls.



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