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Edison vs Tesla – How Electricity Got Started

Thomas Edison & Nikola Tesla – Pioneers of Electricity

The story of how electricity came to be prominently used in America and the world is filled with intrigue and drama.  Two brilliant, driven men and their associates literally battled against one another for the honor and glory of having their ideas carried out in the streets, homes and businesses the world over.  Read on to find out who won this battle between Thomas Edison vs Nikola Tesla and discover the origins of electricity.

Thomas Edison - Nikola Tesla

Thomas Edison & Nikola Tesla

Edison’s Successful Start

Young JP Morgan

JP Morgan

In 1869, a young partially deaf Thomas Edison quits his telegraph job to set out after his dreams and begin work on inventing devices that would help him achieve fame and fortune. Thus, setting him on a path to becoming one of the greatest inventors ever known to mankind.

It wasn’t long until Edison meets a prominent figure in the New York banking industry, J.P. Morgan.  Morgan quickly hires Edison to install electric lighting in his 5th avenue Manhattan mansion. There, Edison experimented with and developed a small generator to power the home’s 400 light bulbs. Morgan then goes on to invest everything he has in Edison, and the two men eventually form the Edison Electricity Company.

Edison Develops Direct Current

Thomas Edison depended on repetitive experimentation for the greater part of his inventions. These methods may have been a result of the informal education he received early in life, being schooled at home by his mother.

Edison invented the world’s first practical electro-lamp in the late 1870s. He then began building a system for producing and distributing electricity, so businesses and homes could use his invention.

Thomas Edison Electro Lamp

Thomas Edison invented the first practical electric lamp in the 1870s.

In 1882, Edison opened his first power plant in New York City. He developed direct current (DC), which is electrical current that runs continuously in a single direction.  He used DC to power small grids of street lamps throughout the city. Later that same year, The Mahen Theatre in Brno (in what is now the Czech Republic), became the first public building in the world to use Edison’s electric lamps. In the beginning years of electricity, direct current was the standard in the U.S.

Tesla Works for Edison

Edison Machine Works - Paris France

Workers standing outside the Edison Machine Works building – Paris, France. This is where Nikola Tesla first began working for Thomas Edison.

Meanwhile, Nikola Tesla, a well-educated mathematician from the Austrian Empire (now Croatia), began working for the Continental Edison Company in France.  Specifically, Tesla worked for the French division of the Edison Machine Works Co in Paris for about one year, where he designed and made improvements to electrical equipment.

Tesla was an emotionally driven visionary with years of engineering training.  He also had incredible mind power and was said to have both a photographic and eidetic memory, enabling him to carefully work out all of his theories in his mind before any attempt to actually develop them.

At the beginning of 1884, Tesla moved to the United States and began working directly for Thomas Edison himself. Even though he had hired Tesla, Edison thought the man’s ideas were “splendid” but “utterly impractical”.

Edison’s least favorite of Tesla’s “impractical” ideas was the concept of using alternating currents (AC) to bring electricity to the world. Thomas insisted that his own DC system was superior, in that it maintained a lower voltage from the power station and was much safer.

Tesla believed that he could increase the efficiency of Edison’s prototypical electric dynamos and set out to prove he was correct. Believing that Edison had promised a reward of $50,000, Tesla worked around the clock for several months and was eventually successful in this task. When it came time to pay, however, Edison claimed the offer was a joke and instead offered Tesla only a $10/week raise.

Unhappy with his position and the fact that Edison does not believe in his alternating currents method for delivering electricity, Tesla soon hands in his resignation and quits his job working for Edison.

Tesla Electric Company

After leaving the employment of Edison, Tesla went on to pursue his work with alternating current electrical delivery.  In 1885, Nikola founded the Tesla Electric Company where he patented several inventions, including AC motors and power systems.

Tesla Electric Company

Tesla Electric Company 1885

Unable to fund his own research, Tesla spent months picking up odd jobs across New York City, even working as a ditch digger for $2.00 per day.  During this time, he began to question the value of his education. Tesla considered the winter of 1886/1887 a time of “terrible headaches and bitter tears.”

While digging ditches for installation of Western Union Telegraph Company  cables, Nikola was introduced to Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck.  Brown was a director at Western Union Company and Peck a wealthy New York City attorney. The two high-society men agreed to let Tesla demonstrate his “Egg of Columbus” – which was a device Tesla created to explain the principles of the rotating magnetic field model and the induction motor.  Convinced of Tesla’s potential, Brown and Peck agreed to fund production of Tesla’s alternating current system.

The three men agreed to split Tesla’s patents on a fifty-fifty basis in exchange for the funding. A new laboratory was opened at 89 Liberty St. and the company filed for its first patent by the end of the month.

The Battle of the Currents

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse

In 1882, George Westinghouse’s company bought Philip Diehl’s competing induction lamp patent rights for $25,000. This act in-turn required Edison to charge more reasonable rates for use of his company’s patents and, thus, lowered the price of the electric lamp.

Later, in 1885, while reading a UK technical journal, Westinghouse became aware of a new European electric transformer system that was based on alternating currents.  This sparked an interest that would eventually become his legacy and set Westinghouse on a journey to promote AC as the standard electric system in the United States.

Recognizing that Tesla’s work with alternating current might be what he needed in his efforts to unseat Edison’s DC electric system, Westinghouse struck a deal with Tesla to lease his electrical patents for $25,000 in cash, $50,000 in notes and a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower for each motor. Tesla soon travels to the Westinghouse headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA to sign the contracts and begin work on developing a new AC driven electric motor.

The partnership between Tesla and Westinghouse, one can imagine, was a very bitter one to Edison.  He felt threatened by the rise of AC, which could distribute electricity over long distances much more economically than DC. So, Edison and his colleagues launched a propaganda campaign to discredit AC and try to convince the public that AC was much more dangerous than DC.

Harold Pitney Brown - Edison - Electrocute Horse - 1888

Death Current Experiments – Harold Pitney Brown electrocutes a horse to discredit AC electrical system – 1888.

As part of this campaign, animals were publicly electrocuted using AC by men thought to be aligned with Edison. Dogs, horses and even an elephant were publicly electrocuted during this time, all in an attempt to discredit Tesla and Westinghouse and their AC system.  The electrocutions were brutal and garnered lots of  negative attention very quickly.  Coincidentally, around this same time, New York State was in the process of looking for a more humane alternative to hanging – as a death-penalty for prisoners. Edison found out about their search and recommended that an AC-powered electrocution become the new method of prisoner execution.

Execution by Electric Chair - Scientific American Volumes 58-59 - June 30 1888

Execution by Electric Chair – Scientific American Volumes 58-59 – June 30, 1888.

In 1890, convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first person to die in the “electric chair.” The apparatus, designed by an electrical salesman secretly on Edison’s payroll, was powered by a Westinghouse AC generator. The execution was a total disaster, requiring Kemmler to have electricity ran through his body multiple times before he was pronounced dead.  As a result, the Westinghouse Company quickly suffered a tremendous social and financial blow.

With the Westinghouse Company faltering, George Westinghouse pleaded with Tesla to renegotiate the royalties’ clause from their contract. Tesla, being more concerned with his legacy than wealth, agreed to halt all royalty payments.  This fateful decision would serve to haunt Tesla for the rest of his life, as the Westinghouse Company later made a full and healthy recovery which would have paid Tesla millions of dollars.

The turnaround for the Westinghouse Company began in 1893, when the company won the contract to supply electricity to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  Smartly, Westinghouse placed a low bid of only $399,000 to use Tesla’s alternating current system – beating out rival General Electric (the new name of Edison’s company) bids to electrify the fair using Edison’s direct current at $554,000.

Tesla Polyphase Exhibit at 1893 Worlds Fair

Westinghouse Electric & Tesla Polyphase Exhibit at 1893 Worlds Fair.

The expo became a dazzling showcase for Tesla’s AC system. On October 24th, 1893 Westinghouse went on to win the initial Niagara Falls electrical contract signifying the end of “The War of the Currents” and setting the scene for AC to become the electrical standard of the United States.

Tesla’s Dream Fulfilled

Tesla in His Electricity Lab

Tesla in His Electricity Lab

Tesla believed his polyphase AC induction motor could power not only Buffalo, New York but also the entire Eastern United States. On Nov. 16, 1896, Buffalo was lit up, fulfilling Tesla’s dream of building a power plant at Niagara Falls to power New York City.  Finally sensing that DC power was not going to become mainstream, the General Electric Company began using alternating currents at this time as well.

Although Tesla got to see his dream of lighting the Eastern United States come to fruition, he did not profit from this endeavor.  As a result of Nikola relinquishing his patent rights to George Westinghouse years earlier, he made no money while the Westinghouse Company’s profits skyrocketed from use of Tesla’s electric motors and patents.

Tesla lived his later years as best he could, but with little to no income.  Eventually, in 1934, he moved to the Hotel New Yorker.  He lived his final years in the hotel, with room and board paid for by the Westinghouse Company.  The board of directors for Westinghouse felt they owed him at least that much, but never considered reinstating his patent royalty payments.

Recent Developments

Today’s electricity is still mostly powered by alternating current, but methods are now available for converting direct current to higher and lower voltages.  As a result, use of direct current is on the increase in the United States and throughout other regions of the world.

Since direct current is considered to be more stable, researchers are exploring methods for using high voltage direct current (HVDC) to transport electricity long distances with less electricity loss.  Advanced studies examining ways in which AC and DC power can work together with modern energy-harnessing technology are resulting in revolutionary improvements that may help run our overall energy grid more efficiently in the future.

Thomas Edison Light Bulb

Thomas Edison holding a light bulb.

Nikola Tesla, with his equipment for producing high-frequency alternating currents - 1901.

Nikola Tesla, with his equipment for producing high-frequency alternating currents – 1901.



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Edison vs Tesla – How Electricity Got Started


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