Power Struggle - Edison vs. Tesla

9 December 2019


If you’ve ever moved from one state to another in elementary school, you may be able to relate to the following phenomenon. Let’s say, you are going to school in Alabama, and they teach the solar system in the third grade. Unfortunately, in second grade, you move to California, where they teach the solar system in first grade. Bad news – you missed the solar system all together. Ugh. Nevertheless, this happened to me; not only with the solar system, but also with one of the greatest rivalries in history – Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla. By the way, I didn’t live in Alabama or California, but I liked the illustration it provided for all intents and purposes, and I am still working on learning the solar system. Stay tuned for my progress.

Anyways, how did I miss this? I remember Edison and of course, the lightbulb, but Nikola Tesla; why did no one mention him? I started to panic and ask everyone around me if they knew of this rivalry. They did. Not great for my pride, but it seemed like an interesting story to tell, so here we are.

Maybe, you’re like me and you have no idea what I am talking about. Great, stay with me. Otherwise, you’re not free to go because you’ve never heard the story, as it’s written by me.

So, what happened?

Well, you are likely familiar with Thomas Edison – a legendary American inventor, perhaps the most famous. He is often credited with inventing the lightbulb. Realistically though, it’s more like he created the first incandescent lightbulb that could be used commercially. It drastically outlasted its competitors – staying lit for over 1,200 hours. Regardless, I am not downplaying Edison in the slightest; the man has 1,093 patents, it’s incredible.

As a child, young Thomas struggled with hearing loss and partial deafness, so traditional schooling was a bit of a struggle, but he compensated by reading anything and everything he could. I mean, imagine how boring and dreadful school would be if you couldn’t hear anything the teacher was saying? Poor guy. Don’t worry though, as soon as he was able, Edison headed off to work.

The telegraphy industry proved to be the perfect place for him, initially. The original Morse code telegraph sent and received messages as a series of dots and dashes on a piece of paper, which allowed him to succeed without needing to hear. Unfortunately, as technology improved over time, telegraphers eventually read the messages by listening to the “clicks”, rather than reading the code.

Albeit a handicap, Edison was up for the challenge; motivated by his disadvantages, he invented new devices that assisted him in his daily tasks, making his life easier. He was so good at inventing though, that he eventually ditched telegraphy all-together to become a full-time inventor. You go dude!

At this point, we can’t go into all of the details, but Edison was thriving. He built his own laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey and got busy inventing. Plus, he played a large role in implementing and installing commercial electricity distribution, since he owned and operated America’s first power plant.

Now, here’s where our lovely rivalry begins.

Edison’s power plant, Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan used direct current (DC), which was great for powering lights at 110 volts. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for industry. These guys wanted to do more than just power lights; they wanted a range of voltage available. Fair enough.

Enter: Nikola Tesla. I imagine him kicking down the doors of Pearl Street Station as he enters, but maybe that’s just me. Anyways, he believed that alternating current (AC) was the way to go. So, who is right?

First, hold up. Who even is Nikola Tesla?

Unfortunately, he is not the inventor of the Tesla, as he would have been 147 years old when the car was invented. But who’s counting? Anyways, I assume he would have been impressed by how far his technology has come, since inventing the induction motor and AC power transmission in the late 1800s.

Tesla was a rock-star inventor too, as was his mother, Djuka, who consistently invented various tools and appliances for use around the house. His father, Milutin, was a priest who desperately wanted young Nikola to follow in his steps. Unfortunately, the inventor in his blood was just too strong, so his father finally let the dream go.

After the priest plans fell through, Nikola enrolled at the Graz Polytechnic Institute in Austria. Here, he contended that the future of power was all about alternating current (AC) electricity, as it was capable of generating high voltages across lengthy distances, without losing strength. At this point, Tesla was rarely attending his classes anymore, so he decided to ditch Graz and start working as a draftsman. Later on, he recanted this decision and continued his studies at Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague. It’s hard to keep up with this guy and his education choices, but to each their own!

From there, Edison started working with the Continental Edison Company. Ironic, huh? He moved from Budapest to Paris to Strasbourg, and eventually settled in the United States, after his work was noticed by the head of Edison’s operations in France.

Now, I don’t want to make any assumptions, but I think what happened next may have kick-started the tension between our good friends Edison and Tesla.

In 1884, Tesla was working on arc lighting, which Edison (his boss and arch-nemesis) wanted nothing to do with. Like every good business man, a disgruntled Tesla just started his own company instead – the Tesla Electric Company (a very creative name). Free of Edison, he was able to return to his alternating current research, filing over thirty patents on his electric system.

But who won?

Shortly after, Tesla continued his business-centric ways, handing his AC development research (and numerous patents) over to the Westinghouse Corporation; a decision that brought him great wealth initially. Throughout the late 1880s, alternating current electricity generation took the lead. Despite great resistance from Edison, the rivalry was coming to a screeching halt. The world spoke. They wanted AC electricity to meet their growing industrial power needs. Regardless, Edison continued to operate Pearl Street Station successfully, despite a lack of support from the rest of society, until a tragic fire struck – destroying all but one of the generators.

Well, that’s the rival folks. A bit of a lackluster ending, if I may say so myself. I am guessing it was a LOT more dramatic in person. I mean, they don’t call it the “War of Currents” for nothing, right?

Next week, we are going to talk about alternating and direct current more in-depth, plus the role that electrical testing plays with AC and DC electricity. Sounds exhilarating, I know.  

-Meredith Kenton, Digital Marketing Assistant, Valley Forge