People are generally in favour of harnessing electric current to power their lights and appliances. It’s mostly safe and inexpensive, and has been a mainstay of human civilization since the late 1800s. For the most part, people are pretty onboard with electricity.
Some people even hold rallies for it
But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, when electrical power started being sold commercially, people were pretty wary of it. And they had a good reason, too, because Thomas Edison was electrocuting animals all over the place.
He found it worked best on water types
I should back up. Back in 1878, Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, founded the Edison Illuminating Company to sell electricity throughout the USA. Edison’s electricity was in the form of Direct Current, or DC.
It had a sweet logo and everything
A couple of years later, a young Serbian upstart by the name of Nikola Tesla came rocking down to electric avenue to work for Edison. Tesla, though, was no fan of DC. Indeed, DC had its problems, chief of which was its low voltage and the fact that it required a power plant every few blocks to get electric current to a whole city. Edison offered Tesla $50 000 if he could improve the efficiency of the DC system.
Tesla said “Fine, right after I finish cloning Wolverine”
Tesla, being Tesla, worked like a madman and improved Edison’s system. Tesla pointed out that Edison now owed him $50 000, but Edison, being Edison, said he was joking about that and told Tesla to stop being such a dumb foreigner and grow a sense of humour.
“Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor. Also, your mustache is stupid” – Thomas Edison
Tesla resigned shortly thereafter, presumably because his boss called him an ignorant immigrant, and after digging ditches for a while, he raised enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company, which sold Alternating Current (AC).
Tesla, during a typical workday in his lab
AC was actually a fair shot better than DC, as it had a much higher voltage and could be transported long distances, meaning that there didn’t need to be a power plant every few feet. So AC was a much better product, and Tesla sold AC while Edison sold DC. That should’ve pretty much been that, right? Tesla wins and Edison loses, right?
This is not the face of a man who loses gracefully
Wrong. Edison was not a man who let a little thing like selling an inferior product get in the way of success. Instead of just say, switching from DC to AC, Edison waged a one-man war on alternating current, and the War of the Currents began.
Indeed, people were Thunderstruck
Edison went on a PR blitz, screaming to anyone who would listen that AC was super unsafe. DC, Edison said, was low voltage and safer and just the best electric current, while AC would kill anyone who looked at it sideways.
“And is AC really Jack the Ripper? We don’t know that it’s not!” – Thomas Edison
While all this was going on, Tesla sold most of his patents to George Westinghouse, a big AC fan, Edison’s archrival, and possible walrus.
Edison’s real reason for hating him: Mustache envy.
Westinghouse and Tesla formed a tag-team and started building AC power stations around the country, presumably sticking their tongues out at Edison the whole time. It seemed they were close to becoming the real electricity champions.
They even posed for publicity photos
That’s when Edison ramped up the insanity. One day, a dentist asked Edison to invent the electric chair. Such was life for Edison, I guess. Edison told the dentist he didn’t believe in capital punishment, until he remembered that he hated Westinghouse and Tesla more than he hated death itself. He created an electric chair with AC electricity, being very sure to point out that AC was the only electric current dangerous enough to kill a man. Which he did, with his electric chair. He even made sure to name his method of execution: “Westinghousing”.
It was a sick burn to Westinghouse. And also the man they electrocuted
Edison wasn’t done there, though. For some reason, a random electrical engineer named Harold Brown hated Westinghouse and AC as much as Edison did, and he let the world know about it as loudly as possible. It was only natural that Edison and this Brown fellow and should form their own tag-team to bring down Westinghouse. The reason behind Harold Brown’s hatred for Westinghouse remains unknown to this day.
Again: Mustache envy
Edison and this inexplicably enraged stranger continued to crusade against AC, desperately trying to show how unsafe it was. This desperation culminated with Harold Brown paying children to collect stray animals so he could electrocute them in front of live audiences. That is not hyperbole. In real life, this man straight up murdered a bunch of cats, dogs, and horses with electricity to show how dangerous AC was.
“Let me show you how dangerous and insane my competition is by electrocuting this horse.” – Harold Brown
It gets worse. A circus elephant named Topsy killed one of her handlers. Long story short, she was sentenced to death by electrocution, because nothing made any sense during this period of time. The Edison Electric Company was tasked with the job, and so of course they used AC to do it. Video of the event still exists, aptly titled “Electrocuting an Elephant”. I would post it here, but it’s pretty shocking. Hahaha! Seriously, though, the video shows an elephant getting electrocuted, it’s awful.
It’s much less fun than this picture would lead you to believe
Somehow, all of this electrocution of man and animal didn’t win over the public, and AC eventually became the more popular form of electricity. Westinghouse won a bid to power the Chicago World’s Fair with AC in 1893. By 1896, a Westinghouse power plant was harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to turn on the lights in Buffalo, New York.
Although when they saw Buffalo, they immediately turned them back off
Meanwhile, Edison’s company merged with General Electric, and Edison lost majority control. With Edison no longer in charge, Edison General Electric started making their own AC power stations. The war was over. AC won. Upon hearing the news, Tesla and Westinghouse spontaneously broke into a choreographed pop-and-lock dance number, creating the dance now known as electric boogaloo.
Tesla (foreground), with Westinghouse and company, 1896
So goes the story of the War of the Currents. It’s worth noting that, between the electric chair guy, the cats, the dogs, the horses, and Topsy the elephant, this “war” had more casualties than many actual military conflicts.
Tesla and Edison in an electric current battle
Lastly, it’s somewhat ironic to note that AC and DC work in harmony now. While AC is used to transmit power through city infrastructure, many appliances can only use DC. The AC has to be converted to DC, which is why your laptop cords have these things.
They’re also there to make it hard to fit into your laptop cases
So the next time you plug in your computer, spare a thought for the brave and/or idiotic men who fought in the War of the Currents. Though they’re gone, their legacies live on. In fact, if you look into the night sky, you might even see their names up in lights.
Tesla, the day after Edison died: “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.”
Sick burn, Tesla.
“Also, at least I can grow a mustache, you bald-faced sonofabitch” – Nikola Tesla
Dan writes a bi-weekly post here. Have an idea for a post? Let him know below, or at dan [at] scienceninjas.ca. We literally only let him write if he gets enough readers, so he’ll probably write about whatever you want. He’s not proud.