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The War of the Currents: Thomas Edison vs. George Westinghouse

After inventing the world’s first practical light bulb in the late 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison set his sights on creating an electrical system that would allow homes across the country to take advantage of his new contraption.

And if everything went according to plan, he’d make a killing. 

Edison’s strategy relied on DC, or direct current electricity, but its limitations became evident early on. 

During the transmission process significant amounts of power vanished into thin air—an inconvenient characteristic in a big country with a largely rural population.

To iron out the kinks Edison turned to a young employee, a Serbian mathematician and visionary named Nikola Tesla. 

Tesla began the arduous process of reengineering Edison’s DC generators, but he soon realized they were wholly unsuited to the job.  

Meanwhile, less than 400 miles away in west-central Pennsylvania, George Westinghouse’s company had been working on a system based on alternating current, or AC.

Unlike direct current, alternating current electricity could be efficiently transmitted over vast distances without major power loss. 

Recognizing its superiority, Tesla consulted Edison and suggested they embrace the competing technology, but his pleading fell on deaf ears, and shortly thereafter he set out on his own.

Tesla began raising funds for his own new company, but it wasn’t until Westinghouse bought some of his AC patents that things started to look up. 

Now, with Tesla’s advancements and his company’s marketing and manufacturing departments at his disposal, Westinghouse sought to make cheap, reliable electricity a reality for many American families. 

Due to DC’s limitations, Edison had no choice but to focus on urban electrification. 

On the other hand, Westinghouse concentrated his efforts on rural areas that benefited from the long transmission lines made possible by AC power. 

George Westinghouse

In some cases Westinghouse sold electricity below cost to gain a foothold in budding markets, and just a year later his AC power stations outnumbered Edison’s DC stations nearly 2 to 1. 

But Edison wasn’t about to take defeat lying down.

Realizing he’d driven two opposing forces with superior technology into one another’s arms, he embarked on a smear campaign of epic proportions. 

He reasoned that Westinghouse’s electricity must be more dangerous than his own, and he predicted it was only a matter of time before it began killing hapless customers.  

Not one to wait for fate to intervene, Edison conspired to hasten his competitor’s demise, but it wasn’t until 1887 that he finally got the break he’d been looking. 

As luck would have it, an inebriated man in upstate New York accidentally electrocuted himself with an AC generator. 

The incident was witnessed by a local dentist named Alfred Southwick who’d been looking into more humane methods of execution, and he decided to drop Edison a line.  

He claimed that electricity could be just the thing to make executions more merciful, and therefore more palatable to the public. 

Though not a proponent of capital punishment Edison agreed to help, though his motivations were suspect.

If he played his cards right, he might be able to strike a death blow to his nemesis’ business and reputation, all while opening up a clear path to dominating the fledgling electricity industry.   

To that end, in mid-1888 Edison went on a bizarre marketing campaign touting Westinghouse’s AC generators, the very ones he’d spent the previous few years bashing. 

At the exclusion of all others, Edison’s campaign highlighted one particular aspect of Westinghouse’s generators—that they made perfect killing machines. 

Edison’s efforts met with some success, but words alone would never be enough.  

He needed a spectacle. 

Like public animal electrocutions for hordes of gawking spectators. 

For his first performance Edison chose a forlorn pooch. 

Edison’s men connected wires from a small AC generator to a metal bowl, then enticed the emaciated canine toward the food. 

Unable to resist, the unsuspecting dog placed his muzzle to the bowl, after which it let out a pathetic yelp and fell over dead. 

The stunned onlookers were reminded that the same electrical principles could be applied to humans, especially when the current came from AC machines manufactured by The Westinghouse Electric Company of Pennsylvania. 

The Battle of the Currents had gotten personal. 

Wise to his underhanded tricks, Westinghouse sent multiple letters to Edison stating that cooperation—not conflict—would benefit both parties. 

But they had little effect, and Edison escalated his campaign. 

Bolstered by the success of his first show, he took advantage of New Jersey’s stray dog problem. 

Aided by a network of enterprising street urchins, he bought dogs by the dozen and began electrocuting them in public with increasing frequency. 

The ghoulish demonstrations became so well-known that he was summoned to appear before a New York State panel tasked with investigating alternative methods of execution. 

Seizing the opportunity, he invited the committee members to his West Orange workshop where he proceeded to electrocute a number of horses and calves with powerful current from an AC generator. 

The animals all died as planned, but death came neither quickly or painlessly. 

Nonetheless, the committee was impressed, and an order was placed for three Westinghouse AC dynamos. 

Though Westinghouse’s biggest adversary had just sold three of his machines, he refused to make delivery when he discovered how the state intended to use them. 

Unfortunately for New York’s condemned, Westinghouse’s unwillingness to do business with The Empire State wouldn’t thwart their efforts. 

They were able to source AC generators elsewhere, and they hired Alfred Southwick to build an electric chair.  

Then in late March of 1888 the winds of fortune blew once again, when a destitute alcoholic vegetable hawker in Buffalo conveniently murdered his common-law wife with a hatchet. 

His name was William Kemmler, and his death would become a tale of horror told to frightened children around crackling fires for decades to come.

Kemmler was convicted of first-degree murder on May 10, and his date with Auburn State Prison’s new execution contraption was scheduled for August 1890.

Still morally outraged, Westinghouse filed an appeal claiming that death by electrocution violated the 8th Amendment’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause.

He also purportedly spent $100,000 (nearly $3 million today) on Kemmler’s defense, though there was little question of his guilt. 

His appeal and those from Kemmler’s lawyers were ultimately unsuccessful, and the state decided that after nearly a decade of development the device was more than capable of completing its grizzly task. 

Westinghouse was appalled at having his name associated with such a ritual, especially since the implication was that if AC electricity was capable of killing helpless animals and death-row convicts, it could certainly do the same to innocent consumers. 

On August 6 Kemmler was led into Auburn’s death chamber, strapped to the electric chair and wired to an AC dynamo. 

Then, after the formalities were concluded a switch was flipped, and a massive surge of current poured into his taut body.

The onslaught packed such a punch that Kemmler’s face contorted grotesquely, blood spurted from his eyes and ears, and his coat burst into flames.  

After nearly 20 seconds the power was cut, but Kemmler wasn’t quite dead. 

Apparently he was still moving and gasping for air, at which point a spectator reportedly shrieked, “Great God, he’s alive!”

The current was ordered back on to finish the job, but the dynamo wasn’t ready. 

It needed time generate the necessary current. 

Meanwhile horrified guests fainted, vomited, and implored the executioners to put the poor man out of his misery. 

Minutes passed before Kemmler was finally finished off, after which the attending physician said it was such an atrocious spectacle that he doubted there’d ever be another electrocution.  

After reading first-hand accounts of the incident, Westinghouse apparently opined that they’d have been better off using an ax. 

Rather than bask in his success, Edison coined the term ‘Westinghoused’ to describe electrocution—permanently linking his competitor’s name to the shocking death forever.

Not one to sit by idly and watch his hard work minimized by disparagement, the electric chair’s inventor claimed his apparatus had elevated society to a higher level. 

If he were still alive Kemmler might’ve disagreed, but despite the obvious debacle, Edison remained convinced that with a little tweaking executions could go more smoothly in the future, and he decided to prove it in garish fashion. 

On New York’s Coney Island he staged a demonstration that would put his previous dog experiments to shame. 

The victim would be an ill-tempered circus elephant named Topsy that’d killed a number of trainers over the years. 

After Topsy’s circular feet were clad in shoes made from copper wire, the massive elephant was guided onto a metal plate connected to an AC generator. 

Then a 6,000-volt blast sent the massive beast toppling onto her side stone dead. 

But despite his showmanship, perseverance, and willingness to engage in tasteless personal attacks, alternating current’s technical superiority and commercial viability were just too much for Edison to overcome. 

The writing was on the wall. 

When Westinghouse won the contract to provide electricity for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, AC became the gold standard for electric systems almost overnight.

Westinghouse secured other high-profile contracts like building and installing a number of massive hydro-electric power generators at Niagara Falls. 

Hydro-electricity illustration

Just a few years away from the turn of the century, those same generators began delivering safe energy to Buffalo more than 25 miles away—the final shot in the War of the Currents that had raged for more than a decade. 

After the dust had settled, Edison admitted that he regretted disregarding Tesla’s advice.

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