Day 803: The Shocking (Pun Tragically Intended) War Of Currents

originally published March 13, 2014

While ruminating on beer and movies and the mighty Cleveland Browns may fuel the tip-tap-thump of my dancing fingers, every so often I owe it to myself and to my rapt and generous audience to dip into the unknown. A project such as this is by necessity a learning experience, and I pride myself on the days when  the scope of my learning extends beyond “man, writing a thousand words takes a lot out of my day.”

To wit, I give you the Current Wars. My entire life I’ve taken for granted those two or three metal prongs that when plugged into a wall socket can generate electrical functionality. I know there’s a difference between AC and DC, but I never cared much what it was. The plug enables my stereo to play Hall & Oates really loudly. That’s all that matters.

And while part of me is swiftly stomping upon the piece of my brain that decided a history of Hall & Oates would be too fluffy a topic, the rest of me is on board for hearing all about the scraps and scuffles that shaped our electrical standards. Let’s load up our Big Gun, then Shoot to Thrill at Hell’s Bells while a little TNT Shakes Me All Night Long and leaves me Thunderstruck at the Highway To Hell that was the Current Wars. To those about to read, I salute you.

Thomas Edison waved the proud flag of Direct Current (DC), and helped it to become the early standard for the United States. It was simple – a power plant fed the power outward, and each street lamp could tap into it, as could anything else that required around 100 volts to operate. If you needed something a little oomphier or a little less mighty, different lines would have to be run for those things. As long as every area built their own plants to their own needs, everyone would be serviced and no corporate monopoly would run everything.

But DC power couldn’t travel very far, maybe a mile or so before the current started to whittle down. It was an imperfect system, but Edison owned a number of the patents so he fought to keep it as the standard. And given that he was Edison, a lot of people were gladly gulping back that Kool-Aid.

Once Nikola Tesla pitched in with a few improvements to AC technology, a rivalry was born. Alternating Current periodically reverses direction, while DC only fires one way. I’m not going to bore you (and myself) with the details down to the electron level (it has to do with magnets; also, possibly magic), but AC power could be transmitted over longer distances safely, and could generate more power. Throw a transformer into the AC line and more houses, businesses and factories can safely pump juice into their wall-holes with fewer generating plants necessary.

You know we’re into some serious engineering talk when I use professional terminology like ‘wall-holes’.

The point is, two technologies were competing to be the go-to in the electricity world: the more practical (AC) and the established (DC). George Westinghouse, who was already a gas and telephone magnate and was heavily invested in electricity, poured money into research on the AC side. Now the rivalry was gearing up to become a war.

I’ve written before how Thomas Edison publically murdered an elephant just to demonstrate how dangerous Westinghouse’s AC power could be. He also lobbied in state legislatures, disseminated bogus information about AC-related accidents and even tried to add the term ‘Westinghoused’ into the common lexicon, hoping it would become the go-to term for getting electrocuted. It was weird… and it gets worse.

Edison was on record as an opponent of capital punishment. When Harold P. Brown introduced the electric chair to the state of New York as a new method to terminate prisoners, he neglected to publicize that he’d been paid by Thomas Edison to design it, and that this was merely another covert demonstration of the dangers of AC power. Thomas Edison was willing to kill people and elephants to make his point. He did not want to lose this war.

In 1889, an historic long-distance blast of DC current stretched from Willamette Falls station in Oregon City, Oregon to Niagara Falls. The following year, a flood destroyed the Willamette Falls station, and its owners were set to re-build with AC. The Niagara folks decided they could make use of the mighty falls to generate their own power. But which power to use?

The International Electro-Technical Exhibition of 1891 sealed it. Held in Frankfurt, Germany, it was the perfect venue to demonstrate the superiority of AC power, as a mighty three-phase electrical current was successfully sent from a power plat 175 kilometers away. The Niagara people were deeply impressed, and the contract was awarded to Westinghouse. Not only did the demonstration lock in that deal, but it showed off AC’s might all over Europe. General Electric was born the following year, and as much as the company (in its previous incarnations) had relied heavily on Edison’s input, they threw their financial muscle behind AC research.

Edison had lost.

The remnants of DC power stretched into the 20th century. Helsinki remained on DC until the 1940’s, while Stockholm kept their DC service into the 60’s. Even in Greenwich Village, New York and in parts of Boston the change-over was slow to happen, which led to a few small appliance fires by folks who didn’t know what was going on in the wires behind their walls. The New Yorker hotel had its own DC plant and didn’t switch over until the 60’s; somewhat ironically, this was the hotel where Nikola Tesla spent his final days in 1943.

You’ll still spot DC power in cars, or when energy storage uses batteries or fuel cells. The current isn’t going to drop out of public use, though now we have cheap converters that can tweak DC to AC or vice versa. As brilliant as Thomas Edison was, he simply didn’t have the patience or the open-mindedness when his inventions were challenged with improvements. Also, as we have discussed before, he can be a dick when it comes to elephants and business. But it’s a closed case – the Current War is settled and Edison lost.

And I win, because I learned something. Time for a nap.

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