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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Currents War- Edison vs. Tesla

By Tom Morrow

Today, when you hear the name “Tesla,” the popular electric-powered automobile might come to mind. But it’s an earlier electrical invention that surrounds our daily lives, which touches nearly every aspects of world-wide society: Alternating Current (AC) electrical power. The man responsible for this was Nikola Tesla.

Tesla was born July 10, 1856, in Serbia. In 1884, he immigrated to America and became a noted inventor, dealing specifically with electricity.
After arriving in America, Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison. The popular inventor offered Tesla the task of redesigning Edison’s Direct Current (DC) generator. Tesla said he could redesign the inefficient DC motor and generators, making an improvement in both service and economy. Edison remarked, “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you … if you can do it.” This has been noted as an odd statement from a man known for his stinginess.

After months of work, Tesla fulfilled the task and asked for the promised $50,000 payment. Edison replied he was only joking. “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Instead, Edison gave Tesla a $10 a week raise over his $18 per week salary. Tesla promptly resigned.

Tesla found financial backing and began setting up laboratories and companies to develop a range of electrical devices. His patented his AC induction motor and transformer, and licensed them to George Westinghouse. Tesla’s work in the formative years of electric power development was involved in a corporate alternating current/direct current “War of Currents” as well as various patent battles with Edison. (Edison claimed Tesla developed AC while working for him. The courts found in Tesla’s favor, but not without a series of lawsuits.

The “War of Currents” developed between Westinghouse and Edison. The battle started out as a competition between the two rivals’ lighting systems with Edison holding all the patents for DC and the incandescent light. Westinghouse used his own patented AC system developed by Tesla. They were to power arc lights as well as incandescent lamps. Westinghouse used a bulb of a slightly different design to get around the Edison light bulb patent.

The competition was won by Westinghouse and resulted in Edison finally taking Tesla’s AC power seriously. In 1890, Edison’s company pursued AC development. The problem for Direct Current is it services a very limited area compared to Alternating Current, which take far less generated energy, with less of a chance of causing a fire.

By 1892, Thomas Edison was no longer in control of his own company. It was consolidated into the conglomerate now known as General Electric, which began developing its own AC delivery system.

Tesla’s interests moved on from AC power and began pursuing his ideas of wireless lighting and electricity distribution in his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments in New York and Colorado Springs, and, in 1893, made early pronouncements on the possibility of wireless communication with his devices. In his lab, Tesla built a wireless controlled boat, one of the first ever exhibited.

Tesla was renowned for his achievements and showmanship, eventually earning him a reputation in popular culture as an archetypal “mad scientist.” Tesla died Jan. 7, 1943.

Tesla’s work fell into relative obscurity after his death, but in 1960 the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density the Tesla in his honor. Tesla’s name has experienced a strong resurgence of interest since the 1990s.

While Edison’s name has been revered for decades because of his many inventions, such as the light bulb, motion pictures, and recorded sound, it is Tesla’s Alternating Current that has had the most profound impact on everyday life around the world because it is AC that powers all of Edison’s inventions.


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