Thomas Edison

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.

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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.

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