War of Currents

Last week we have seen how Thomas Edison became extremely upset after seeing his business empire under threat if ideas of Nikola Tesla ever came into existence. With this, though Edison dismissed Tesla’s idea of Alternating Current and ridiculed him yet, Edison at the back of his mind became sure that Nikola Tesla is a genius who could rather help his business empire grow, if employed. Though Edison did not understand the concept of alternating current and rotating magnets, he noted one thing that Tesla is remarkably genius person, and he decided to 'use genius Tesla' for empowering his own business. Hence rather than creating an adversary, Edison recruited Nikola Tesla as a subordinate and paid him a mediocre stipend. It was believed that Edison’s company was miser when it came to paying its employees.

Thomas edison & Tesla

So from 1884, Nikola Tesla started working for Edison Machine Works. Initially Tesla was given simple tasks of electrical engineering but within no time he was assigned to solve some of the most complex problems that the company faced. Though Tesla had opposed Edison’s DC system during his interview, yet unlike Edison, Tesla did not blindly rule out the other option. Tesla did not discard DC system totally but with his own creativity and thinking, even harnessed DC system to the best of its abilities.

Here I would like to clarify a misconception. There are few texts and references that mention that it was Thomas Edison who invented Direct Current form of electricity. But contrary to this it was actually Michael Faraday who invented electric motor in the year 1821 and used the Direct Current for the first time though without mentioning the name as ‘Direct Current’. Edison actually had only adopted the DC power in his power systems to deliver electricity to distances. DC power generation was in use much before Thomas Edison.


Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison showing electric bulb

 Thomas Edison had just shown the electric light bulb to the world and needed a system to distribute electricity to houses of his customers when Nikola Tesla was recruited with him. Yet the DC system that was designed by engineers of Edison reportedly had many flaws and error. Even at Edison Machine Works, Nikola Tesla was very much revered for his genius. Accordingly he was asked to redesign Edison’s direct current generators. With this Edison even offered Tesla fifty thousand dollars if he succeeded with the assignment. Within  just two months but with lots of hard work Tesla succeeded with the redesign. As a result of this Edison Machine Works actually ended up saving lakhs of  dollars which as per today’s standards would convert to billions. Thus it means that the corrected DC system that Edison used in his company was also designed by none other than Dr. Nikola Tesla.

With this achievement accomplished, Nikola Tesla enquired about his reward with Edison. But to his utter surprise and anguish, Thomas Edison did not keep his word and rather claimed that he was just joking. He made mockery of Tesla saying that ‘Serbian’ Tesla could not understand the so called ‘American humor’. Instead of the promised fifty thousand dollars, Edison offered a paltry rise in payment to Tesla. Hence weighing dignity over acceptance to this breach of trust Tesla quit Edison’s job. From this moment Edison took to feud with Tesla and spent the rest of his life trying to discredit Nikola Tesla and his inventions.

This was the flashpoint that made Thomas Edison a swore opponent of Dr. Nikola Tesla. Edison did everything he could to malign Dr. Nikola Tesla and prove his inventions to be dangerous for humans or atleast useless. This sequence of events in which Edison tried every trick of trade to destroy Tesla is famously known as War of Currents.

After resigning from Edison, Tesla went on to create his own company Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. After closure of this venture, Nikola Tesla formed Tesla Electric Company. (We would be seeing about these two ventures of Dr. Nikola Tesla in our next article). Finally Tesla joined Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company under George Westinghouse, who was also a respected figure in power industry during those days. With Tesla, Westinghouse migrated its systems from DC power to AC power.

Fearing loss of his business empire if AC power was to take shape, Edison carried out various disinformation and misinformation campaigns to condemn AC power and discourage its use. To do this he went to worst and most inhumane levels. Initially Edison started to spread false news about accidents being caused due to use of AC power. He also used his political weight and money power to lobby against the use of AC power system in various state legislatures and professionals’ clubs and bodies.

Electrocuting An Elephant
Electrocuting An Elephant (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VD0Q5FeF_wU)

 Edison did not stop here, he also organized public displays in which he himself electrocuted (killed) various animals by giving them electric current shocks in a very innatural and brutal manner. These included stray cats, dogs, cattle and horses. Not just this, on 4th of January 1903, Edison even publicly electrocuted a circus elephant using AC power. Not contended with this heinous act and the satisfaction derived from it, Edison even went on to film this execution and publish the footage as a movie under the title ‘Electrocuting an Elephant’ in 1903. With all these and specifically the elephant execution, Edison tried to prove to the masses that if AC power can kill an elephant it certainly is fatal for the people and especially for their kids. Thus by playing with public emotions Edison indeed had succeeded to a certain degree to scare the masses off from using the AC power.


Electric Chair
William Kemmler being executed using Electric Chair

 He even specifically appointed two of his engineers to carry on with these public display and campaigns of spreading fear. One of these two namely Harold Brown, invented an electric chair. Like always Edison got this invention on his name which was his usual practice for all the inventions that were created by his subordinates. This invention was adopted and used by prisons across the United States to execute prisoners on death row. Edison purposefully ordered Brown to use AC power driven technology for electric chair as this would manifold the fear in the minds of the people and would make them refrain from using AC power. Edison even started calling electrocuting as Westinghousing as Westinghouse was the main proponent of Nikola Tesla’s AC power technology. It instantly became publicly known slang for the death penalty administered by electrocution with the use of electric chair. The first electric chair was built for the New York State prisons and its first use was for electrocuting a prisoner named William Kemmler who was to be condemned to death. When the chair was actually used for Kemmler it left him half burnt rather than finishing him off peacefully as it was actually intended to be. This procedure had to be repeated few more times to finally kill Kemmler. This whole event was specifically orchestrated in presence of media for the news to spread in public. Reporters who witnessed this cruel and barbaric execution went on to describe it to be far worse than hanging. It is worth mentioning and noting that this merciless and cold-blooded method of execution is still commonly in practice throughout the United States of America which is also the only country to practice this till today.

While you read this article on your computers, laptops, mobile devices, etc. remember that you are able to do so just because your houses, offices and establishments are powered by Alternating Current. Thus it clearly proves that eventually time always sides with the truth. Even after carrying out so many disinformation campaigns and conspiracies it was Dr. Nikola Tesla and his Alternating Current that emerged victorious in the ‘War of Currents’. It is also worth noting that though Thomas Edison tried all the dirty tricks yet, Dr. Nikola Tesla neither ever uttered any word against Edison and his activities nor did he participate in any kind of mudslinging in this battle and yet emerged victorious. 

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