This week I was in New York City attending a meeting with the Executive Communication Group. One night I decided to go for a walk, and as I was walking I reflected upon the fact that right there, in the streets of Manhattan where I walked, there was once a decisive battle fought in “The War of the Currents.” Let me share this story with you:
In the late 19th century, the US government was deliberating on whether to use AC or DC power for residential and industrial service.¬† There were two prominent personalities at opposite sides of this debate, thus establishing the battle lines- Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
You’ll recall Edison as the famous inventor of the 19th century.¬† Thomas Edison is of course well known as the inventor of the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb.¬† Edison had been experimenting with DC power and developing ways to commercially distribute DC power.¬† There are some other very interesting things about Thomas Edison.¬† Besides his scientific achievements, Edison was very ahead of his day in the area of animal rights.¬† Thomas Edison was very outspoken about animal cruelty and an activist of sorts for animal rights, well before there was any such movement in the broader society.¬† He was also an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.¬† He was very vocal in his opposition of execution as a form of punishment in the judicial system.¬† And finally, while certainly not unique to him alone, Thomas Edison had a very large ego and was extremely competitive.
The other personality in our War of the Currents was George Westinghouse.¬† George Westinghouse, of course, was the famous American industrialist.¬† Westinghouse is credited with a number of revolutionary mechanical inventions, but in the late 1800’s he became interested in electrical power distribution and was largely focused on the work done by Nikola Tesla with AC power.¬† In 1885, Westinghouse began experimenting with AC power in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
By this time, Edison had already demonstrated DC power distribution by establishing the very first residential utility service, powering 59 homes in lower Manhattan with 110 volts DC.¬† Very shortly though, Westinghouse accomplished a similar feat in Great Barrington, Massachusetts using a hydro-power generator with 500 volts AC.
The war between AC and DC subsequently ensued!
Many successful of AC and DC power distribution installations were demonstrated, but very soon it was apparent that AC power had the upper hand and long-term promise for industrialization of America.¬† In a last ditch effort to regain the lead, Thomas Edison came up with a plan designed to create the impression that AC power, with its associated higher voltages, was unsafe for delivery into people’s homes.
Edison hired an engineer to create a device that would electrocute and kill animals with high voltage AC electricity.¬† In 1887, a number of public electrocutions of animals were performed in New York City under Edison’s plan.¬† The public was appalled at the act, but not frightened themselves.¬† The State of New York, on the other hand, was very impressed and purchased the machine from the engineer as the basis for execution of condemned prisoners.¬† In August of 1890, the the first electric chair execution took place in New York.¬† The early animal rights activist and staunch opponent of capital punishment had given the world the electric chair after demonstrating electrocution of animals.
In 1911, George Westinghouse was awarded the “Edison Medal” by the AIEE, for meritorious achievement in the development of the alternating current system light.
A powerful ego can be a dangerous thing.