Talk: Edison & Telsa, The War of the Currents

Event details

  • April 14, 2020
  • 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
  • Hughes Library, 25 Heritage Green Pl. Greenville, 29601
  • 864-244-1499

 View Map  Cost: Free

Talk: Edison & Tesla, The War of the Currents


Erik Vedeler, MSEE retired from NASA after a 26-year career at Langley Research Center as the head of the electromagnetics and sensors branch and prior to that as a microwave electromagnetic measurements researcher. He holds degrees in physics, computer science and math and a masters in electrical engineering.

A popular teacher at OLLI UNC Asheville, Erik demonstrates a passion for uncovering history and unveiling the mystery of electromagnetics. His courses include fun, scientific topics such as “Elec-trickery and Magic-ism,” “Light and Electricity: Tools of a Scientific Revolution,” “Great Women of Physics,” and “In-Light-and Elec-trickery (Enlightened Electricity.)” Classes include this caveat: A technical background is not necessary, only a zest for history and science.

An avid runner, biker and mountain climber, Eric just missed qualifying for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Trials by 2 minutes and 4 seconds!

This event is a discussion NOT an in-character performance. In the Chautauqua History Comes Alive Festival June 12 – 2, Edison will be performed by Hank Fincken from Illinois and Tesla will be performed by Ian Ruskin from Los Angeles.

What was the War of the Currents? by Elizabeth Nix

In the late 19th century, three brilliant inventors, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, battled over which electricity system—direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)–would become standard. During their bitter dispute, dubbed the War of the Currents, Edison championed the direct-current system, in which electrical current flows steadily in one direction, while Tesla and Westinghouse promoted the alternating-current system, in which the current’s flow constantly alternates.

The most famous of the three visionary men, Edison, developed the world’s first practical light bulb in the late 1870s, then began building a system for producing and distributing electricity so businesses and homes could use his new invention. He opened his first power plant, in New York City, in 1882. Two years later, Tesla, a young Serbian engineer, immigrated to America and went to work for Edison. Tesla helped improve Edison’s DC generators while also attempting to interest his boss in an AC motor he’d been developing; however, the Wizard of Menlo Park, a firm supporter of DC, claimed AC had no future. Tesla quit his job in 1885 and a few years later received a number of patents for his AC technology. In 1888, he sold his patents to industrialist George Westinghouse, whose Westinghouse Electric Company had quickly become an Edison competitor.

Feeling threatened by the rise of AC, which could be distributed over long distances much more economically than DC, Edison launched a propaganda campaign to discredit AC and convince the public it was dangerous. As part of this campaign, animals were publicly electrocuted with AC, and when New York State sought a more humane alternative to hanging its death-penalty prisoners, Edison, once an opponent of capital punishment, recommended alternating current-powered electrocution as the fastest, deadliest option. In 1890, convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first person to die in the electric chair. The apparatus, designed by an electricity salesman secretly on Edison’s payroll, was powered by a Westinghouse AC generator.

Ultimately, however, Edison failed in his efforts to discredit AC. Westinghouse won the contract to supply electricity to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—beating out rival General Electric, which was formed in 1892 by a merger involving Edison’s company—and the expo became a dazzling showcase for Tesla’s AC system. Westinghouse also received an important contract to construct the AC generators for a hydro-electric power plant at Niagara Falls; in 1896, the plant started delivering electricity all the way to Buffalo, New York, 26 miles away. The achievement was regarded as the unofficial end to the War of the Currents, and AC became dominant in the electric power industry.

1752 – Ben Franklin invents the lightning rod, demonstrating that lightning was a form of electricity

1879 – Thomas Edison develops the incandescent lamp with the direct current system at Menlo Park, New Jersey and forms the Thomson-Houston Electric Company

1882 – Edison’s first power plant

1886 – Westinghouse Electric Company is founded

1888 – Westinghouse licenses Nicola Tesla’s AC and induction motor patents (Tesla hired as a consultant for one year but quits after a few months)

1890 – Four companies merge into Edison General Electric Company. Two years later Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston merge to become The General Electric Company.

1893 – Tesla and George Westinghouse light up the Chicago World’s Fair with 160,000 phosphorescent lights using alternating current electricity, and the “War of the Currents” with Edison’s direct current electricity is over.

Tesla on Edison:

His [Thomas Edison] method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense. In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle. 

Edison was by far the most successful and, probably, the last exponent of the purely empirical method of investigation. Everything he achieved was the result of persistent trials and experiments often performed at random but always attesting extraordinary vigor and resource. Starting from a few known elements, he would make their combinations and permutations, tabulate them and run through the whole list, completing test after test with incredible rapidity until he obtained a clue. His mind was dominated by one idea, to leave no stone unturned, to exhaust every possibility.

* The Electric War: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Light the World by Mike Winchell (2019) Rousing account of one of the world’s defining scientific competitions

Empires of Light by Jill Jones (2003) If you think History is just about good guys rising to the top, you should read this. Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison battle for leadership in the light/power hungry world.

The Current War – Movie Release date Oct 25, 2019. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison

(Starred items are available through the Greenville County Library System)

GREENVILLE LIBRARY