Edison vs. Tesla, the AC/DC War

“Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.”

Thomas Alva Edison


Auburn Prison, August 6, 1890. Inmate William Kemmler approaches the chair, legs trembling. He is moments away from being the first prisoner executed with the electric chair designed by Harold Brown, an employee of the famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison.

But on this day, Kemmler is more than just a prisoner about to be put to death: he is an important pawn in a war that is completely foreign to him. A pawn in the most propagandist move by Edison against his rival, Nikola Tesla. The newspapers, of course, would report it as such the next day. And Tesla, joining forces with his main investor, Westinghouse, would take up the gauntlet.

It had been just over 2 years since Tesla had parted ways his mentor and boss, Edison, leaving on bad terms. Although the relationship had turned sour, Tesla would forever lament their falling-out. He would never forget the years he spent working alongside Edison, becoming his top apprentice. Perhaps that is why he was especially hurt by the blindness, the hurt pride of Edison, which had led to the infamous War of the Currents.

Tesla still remembered arriving at Menlo Park, Edison's lab, with a letter of recommendation from a former electrician boss. Fortunately for him, Edison valued the candidates for what they could do, not for their résumés. So, for several years Tesla worked in the very place that had seen the birth of the great wonders of the Second Industrial Revolution: the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph…

In those years, Edison's sights were set on one thing: building the world's electric power network and being the electricity supplier for the whole planet. With that idea in mind he set up Pearl Street Station, the first commercial central power plant. Using direct current (DC), he was able to produce electricity... for an entire block.

Requests for new power plants soon came from all over the city. Everyone wanted electric light in their homes! But there was a big obstacle: energy loss due to heat conduction in direct-current voltage made it impossible to supply power over a mile away.

So, Edison offered a special challenge to Tesla, his outstanding disciple: a $50,000 reward if he could devise a more efficient system for supplying electric power.

Tesla quickly responded by designing the first generator using alternating current (AC). He took his design to Edison's office, demanding his reward. Instead, he was mocked by the inventor:

"You Europeans, you don't understand our American humor."

That sarcastic laugh, that comment, the refusal to increase his salary, and finally his contempt for alternating current ("It's not safe!"), would permanently ring in his ears. It was the year 1887, and Tesla decided to leave the company immediately.

To make ends meet while developing his design, Tesla worked as an electrician, a laborer and a ditch digger... Until luck knocked on his door just as he was putting the final touches on his generator.

George Westinghouse, entrepreneur and investor, had decided to venture into the electricity industry and compete with Edison's company. By chance he had learned of the ideas of the young Tesla, and decided to invest in his designs. With that, at the Westinghouse laboratories in Pittsburgh, alternating current was coming to life.

Tesla, who had a flair for the theatrical, went about convincing investors and potential clients that his model was the future. So much so that Edison realized his leadership in the industry he himself created could be in jeopardy.

It is difficult to put oneself in the shoes of a man who would secure 1,093 patents, only to see a former student leapfrog him in the field he gave the most of himself to, his pride and joy. Edison, inventor of the incandescent bulb, the first man in history to provide a source of lighting other than fire, was unable to adapt to the innovation that could replicate his invention on a massive scale.

His bruised ego blinded him to the fact that Tesla was right, that direct current would never be an efficient energy source. So, he resorted to discrediting alternating current, trying to show the world its dangers: Higher voltage did entail less heat loss in transmission; but also, a greater danger for users.

In a series of brutal experiments, he used alternating current to electrocute dogs, cats and even an elephant. And he supported his employee Harold Brown in developing the electric chair—with alternating current.

The newspapers that Tesla and Westinghouse read on August 7, 1890 reported a victory for Edison: “Death Current," the headlines declared. Sensationalist, without a doubt. Now everyone would fear alternating current and associate it with the electric chair. But Tesla and Westinghouse knew the future was in their hands; they just needed to deliver the knockout punch. They had already resolved the safety issue by inventing transformers; now they needed to show the world the full potential of their model.

The knockout punch came when they were awarded the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant. It was the definitive battle for the energy model of the next hundred years. A battle that Edison would observe from the sidelines: The board of his company, in a last-minute meeting prior to the contest, had voted to remove him from the company he founded, and rename it General Electric. Why? Because of his stubborn insistence on direct current, even though alternating current was clearly the future.

But there was still one final episode, which would turn the battle of the currents into an epic. Shortly after getting the contract, the Westinghouse company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Many years of competing, too much investment. And the punishingly high royalties Tesla was owed per the agreement he signed with Westinghouse himself. It certainly looked like a Pyrrhic victory, which any other competitor would relish. But then, Nikola Tesla, the man who would never receive any recognition beyond, ironically, the Edison Medal, made a dramatic decision: renouncing his rights to his entire fortune, so that the company would not collapse.

In order to secure the final victory, he renounces the spoils. Tesla, one of the most brilliant men in history, would die poor and alone in 1943. Edison, the most prolific inventor of all time, would suffer his most bitter defeat in the confrontation with his former student, proving that the best men are still men with their many successes and failures.

Reflecting on this legendary confrontation, we want to highlight the following:

  • No genius is free from the temptation of arrogance, which often results from an overwhelming record of successes.
  • Being surpassed by an apprentice should be a source of pride for every teacher—not a humiliation.
  • There is a greater source of satisfaction than money, in the eyes of the artist: successfully