The Electricity War

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In the War of Currents era in the late 1880s, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison became adversaries due to Edison’s promotion of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution over alternating current (AC) advocated by Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

During the initial years of electricity distribution, Edison’s direct current was the standard for the United States and Edison did not want to lose all his patent royalties.

Direct current worked well with incandescent lamps that were the principal load of the day, and with motors. Direct current systems could be directly used with storage batteries, providing valuable load-leveling and backup power during interruptions of generator operation.

Direct current generators could be easily paralleled, allowing economical operation by using smaller machines during periods of light load and improving reliability.

At the introduction of Edison’s system, no practical AC motor was available. Edison had invented a meter to allow customers to be billed for energy proportional to consumption, but this meter only worked with direct current. As of 1882 these were all significant technical advantages of direct current.

From his work with rotary magnetic fields, Tesla devised a system for generation, transmission, and use of AC power. He partnered with George Westinghouse to commercialize this system. Westinghouse had previously bought the rights to Tesla’s polyphase system patents and other patents for AC transformers from Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs.

Several undercurrents lay beneath this rivalry. Edison was a brute-force experimenter, but was no mathematician. AC cannot be properly understood or exploited without a substantial understanding of mathematics and mathematical physics, which Tesla possessed.

Tesla had worked for Edison but was undervalued (for example, when Edison first learned of Tesla’s idea of alternating-current power transmission, he dismissed it: Tesla’s ideas are splendid, but they are utterly impractical.

Bad feelings were exacerbated because Tesla had been cheated by Edison of promised compensation for his work. Edison later came to regret that he had not listened to Tesla and used alternating current.

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