When Thomas Edison Exposed his Dark and Inhumane Side
If there was a popularity contest between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, Edison would win by a landslide. The reason being that, from an early age, we are taught that Edison is one of the biggest inventors the world has ever seen.
And Tesla is just another scientist, although he developed the innovative ideas for x-rays, remote controls, radio, the electric motor, etc. The fact that Nikola Tesla died a relatively poor man, while Thomas Edison died a multimillionaire is also proof of how the world saw these two scientists.
But Edison did not see Tesla as just another scientist. Edison considered him a dangerous rival and an astute scientist whose ideas could cause Edison serious monetary losses.
The most recent such rivalry that comes to mind is of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste,” Jobs famously said in 1996
Yet despite the verbal spats, (and occasional lawsuits) and the rivalry, both Jobs and Gates knew that there was room in the consumer market for both Apple and Microsoft to coexist, and over the years, neither was too proud or too stung by the other’s words to stop them from entering into various partnerships along the way.
But the same cannot be said of Edison and Tesla, who, more than a century ago, engaged in a nasty feud over alternating and direct current, known as the “War of Currents”.
The Initial Rendezvous
In 1884,Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla, then 28-years-old, arrived in New York City and quickly found a job with Thomas Edison.
At 37, Edison had already invented a new type of telegraph, light bulbs, and the phonograph. In his new position, Tesla helped Edison install lab equipment, repair generators, and design new machines
After Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879, supported by his own DC (Direct Current) electrical system, the rush to build hydroelectric plants to generate DC power in cities across the United States practically guaranteed Edison a fortune in patent royalties. But early on, Edison recognized the limitations of DC power — It was very difficult to transmit over distances without a significant loss of energy.
There was no way back then to convert the DC voltage to higher or lower values. To be safe for use in homes and factories, the DC generators were designed to produce electricity at low voltages. The downside was that this meant the losses during transmission from the generator to the consumer were high. Edison judged that to be an acceptable compromise but did want to solve the problem.
To help him with this, Edison turned to Tesla who was already at that time employed by Edison. Tesla even claimed that Edison had promised huge compensation if he was able to crack this challenge.
The Rise of AC Current
Tesla accepted the challenge and started working on it. With a background in mathematics that his inventor boss did not have, he set out to redesign Edison’s DC generators.
Instead of redesigning the current system, he refined and proposed AC current (Alternating current was already developed in principle by Michael Faraday and was in practice by Hippolyte Pixii in the early 19th century). Tesla believed that using transformers, the voltages could be raised and lower enabling energy to be transmitted over long distances using lower current — miles beyond generating plants, and hence being much more efficient and consumer-friendly.
Edison did not like Tesla’s idea. Edison had a lot of investments and patents related to DC Current, and could not encourage this idea. Edison dismissed Tesla’s ideas as “splendid” but “utterly impractical.”
Tesla was distraught knowing that not only did Edison disregard his opinion, but also declined to provide the monetary compensation promised for his work. Feeling dejected, Tesla left Edison in 1885, and started working with industrialist George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, who was a believer of AC Current.
George bought some of Tesla’s patents and even had plans to commercialize the system to make it more efficient and economic. Knowing that George Westinghouse had both ambition and capital, Edison saw the threat to his own business.
And this started one of the world’s dirtiest feuds in history, and exposed the inhumane side of Thomas Edison.
When the Going gets Tough
Within a year, Westinghouse Electric began installing its own AC generators around the country, focusing mostly on the less populated areas that Edison’s system could not reach.
But Westinghouse was also making headway in cities like New Orleans, selling electricity at a loss in order to cut into Edison’s business. By 1887, after only a year in the business, Westinghouse had already more than half as many generating stations as Edison
This brought out the dark and inhumane side of Edison.
Edison launched a propaganda campaign to discredit AC and convince the public it was dangerous. Edison wrote in a November 1886 private letter to Edward Johnson,
“Just as certain as death Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size, He has got a new thing and it will require a great deal of experimenting to get it working practically”.
In order to prove the lethal nature of AC, in 1888, Edison began executing stray dogs. He rigged a sheet of tin to an AC dynamo and led a dog onto the tin to drink from a metal pan.
Once the dog touched the metal surface, it yelped and Edison exclaimed “the little cur dog fell dead”. There were also reports of him electrocuting cattle as well.
Harold Brown, an electrical engineer, and a compatriot of Thomas Edison also joined in this demonstration. Brown paid local children to collect stray dogs off the street for his experiments with direct and alternating current.
In one such presentation, Brown subjected a caged dog to several shocks with increasing levels of direct current up to 1000 volts, which the dog survived. Brown then applied 330 volts of alternating current which killed the dog.
Edison even helped New York state authorities to find a new way of executing prisoners using AC, in an attempt to show how brutal it is.
Despite all the horror attempts of Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse won the Battle of the Currents when they secured the contract to light the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
They also won multiple tenders and contracts for using AC like the one for the Niagara Falls power station. Tesla’s exhibits displayed how electricity could reshape the nation
They say that the toughest of challenges brings out the true colors of a person, the true nature of a human being, the true character of a soul. The “War of the Currents” brought out the worst of Edison. He did not spare a thought before sacrificing all these animals in an attempt to prove him right.
The world still has a place for both AC and DC, but Edison was so engrossed in his patents and monetary benefits, he missed to realize that both can go hand in hand. Edison could have adopted AC and worked with Tesla but chose not to. A strong belief in “his” technology — despite the evidence against it — led to his downfall and exit from the company he had created.
“If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.”
— Tesla about Edison. New York Times, October 19, 1931 (the day after Edison died)