In my last blog, I wrote about a young man from Ohio who came to Boston and worked feverishly in a Scollay Square laboratory on an invention whose sale he hoped would start him on his fortune. But the young man was unable to sell the device and so, when he decamped Boston for New York City, the young man - named Thomas Edison - was as broke as when he arrived two years earlier. There he had a reversal of fortune when he sold the rights to a stock ticker he had begun designing back in Boston. Using those funds to build laboratories in New Jersey, Edison began churning out inventions that literally changed the world. By 1880, the man who had produced the phonograph and the first practical light bulb was being called "The Wizard of Menlo Park."

 

But, when it came to that light bulb, the Wizard had a dark side.

 

First, a bit background. For most of human history the only way to produce light was to burn something. We have evidence from over 125,000 years ago that early man knew how to build and, just as important, control fire. 50,000 years later we see remnants of hollow shells and rocks in which was burned moss soaked in animal fat. By 4,500 B.C.E. oil lamps were providing more efficient light sources that burned less but glowed brighter, and were portable. Candles, developed by 3,000 B.C.E., would provide light that lasted even longer, without the deadly oil fumes. Then... well, that's pretty much it for lighting technology for the next four or five millennia. Be it naturally produced coal, gas, or man-made kerosene (processed in the mid-1800s), creating light was still a burning issue. (Sorry, couldn't help myself)

 

The first electrical solutions, known as arc lamps, produced prodigious amounts of light but required up to 6,000 volts of AC (alternating current) to operate. They were also noisy and the light they produced was harsh, which limited their use to the outdoors. Subsequent refinements by men such as Charles Brush allowed for their use indoors, but only in large venues such as factories and theaters. What the world needed was a safe artificial light that could be used in the home. Safe was the key word, as some very public and horrific electrocutions had killed linemen and others who had strayed too close to the arc light's power source.

 

This was precisely the sort of problem that drew Thomas Edison throughout his life. With a fresh set of eyes, he studied the failures of others so he could adjust his approach accordingly. Perhaps more important to Edison was that the world was eager for a safe electric light, meaning great fortune to the successful inventor. As a young man in Boston he learned what he later said was his most valuable lesson: never invent anything that you cannot sell. This drive for financial success caused something of a backlash to the Edison legacy in the anti-establishment 1960s, something I witnessed first-hand while studying history at the University of Maryland in the mid-1970s. Edison, seen as the Wizard for much of the past century was, by the time of Nixon's resignation, under attack by historians who focused on episodes like the one I am about to describe. It placed him not in the company of scientists like Faraday and Bell, but with Gilded Age robber barons like Stanford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.

 

By most accounts, the first light bulb was created in 1850 by an English physicist named Joseph Swan, although it was ten more years before he had a reliable working prototype. And even then it wasn't very bright, nor did it last very long. Swan never overcame the technical deficiencies of his light bulb, and commercial success eluded him. Same for the Canadian team of Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, although they got further with their design (and even secured a patent) they were unable to generate enough revenue to continue their research. In 1879 they sold their patent to Thomas Edison, who was a year or so into his own serious attempt to build a commercially viable electric light. In fact, Edison had already filed his very first patent for an early version of his light bulb, in October of 1878.

 

Edison knew from bitter experience the value of a patent. The one for his stock ticker that he sold for $40,000 in 1870 was already worth millions. Sure, $40,000 in the hand was worth... well, he wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. What we today call IP (Intellectual Property) was worth as much, if not more, than the slivers of carbon filaments that glowed inside those glass tubes, and from 1878 to 1880, even as he continued to make improvements to his incandescent light bulb, he continued to file new patents.

In 1880, the Edison Electric Light Company began to market the first commercially viable light bulb. Inside was the breakthrough— a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1200 hours.

Original carbon-filament bulb from Thomas Edison (image courtesy bulbs.com)

Edison next had to address the challenge of how power for the light bulb should be distributed to businesses and residences. The Wizard had a very definite opinion on this subject. With the deaths from the high-voltage alternating current required for Arc lights still fresh in the public's mind, Edison advocated a direct current system that could safely deliver the necessary power for the light bulbs. A system that only his company made. His laboratory even built a meter (which worked only on DC, of course) that could measure the consumption of power by each home or business, thus ensuring that everyone paid their fair share. To the Edison Illuminating Company, of course. To quell the public's— and Edison's—safety concerns, his company utilized what is best described as a fuse that shut down the power system if there were a surge, something his AC competitors did not have.

 

Not everyone was convinced that AC was the public safety hazard promulgated by Edison. In 1886 George Westinghouse, using advances in transformer technology developed by the Hungarian "ZBD" team of Károly Zipernowsky, Ottó Bláthy and Miksa Déri (and improved upon by American William Stanley in his Pittsburgh tests) lit 23 businesses in Great Barrington, Massachusetts using AC. Not only could the AC system support more customers, it also proved to be much cheaper to build and maintain than Edison's DC system. The biggest drawback to the Edison system was the simple fact that DC cannot be sent much farther than a mile. Extending the range required power stations— each with large dynamos —built every few square blocks, as seen in this screen shot from the PBS American Experience episode War of the Currents.

Edison's NYC power grid (courtesy Con Edison)

That combination of AC's advantages led to the installation of the first commercially viable AC system in Buffalo, which motivated other cities to sign contracts with Westinghouse for their own AC systems. Here was a direct threat to the Wizard and his DC system. And the Wizard did not like threats.

 

So began the War of the Currents.

 

The first shots fired were legal ones. Edison was not the only inventor to appreciate the importance of patents. Westinghouse and a number of other electrical distribution entrepreneurs would file— and then have challenged by one of the others— dozens of patents for power systems, light bulbs, and other electrical devices. But it wouldn't have been much of a war if it was just a bunch of men in high-button collars and pince-nez glasses passing court papers back and forth. The war between DC and AC would be fought in public.

We return to New York, where hundreds of wires for telephone, telegraph, and high-voltage arc lighting were a foreboding presence overhead. Unregulated by the city, the wires for all those different services haphazardly crisscrossed each other. During the Blizzard of 1888, several high-voltage arc lighting lines fell and utility services were interrupted all over the city. Then, a few months after the blizzard, a boy was killed by a high-voltage wire that had been left dangling. Edison's fears of AC were proven to be real with this and other deadly accidents.

New York City during the Blizzard of 1888

The reputation of Thomas Edison takes something of a hit during this war due, in part, to the myth that he had an elephant electrocuted as a way to demonstrate the dangers of high-voltage AC. I'm happy to bust that myth. Topsy, the unfortunate elephant in question, was put to death after killing a drunken spectator at the Coney Island park where she had been on display (in all fairness, the spectator burned Topsy's trunk with a cigar, so who can blame her?) But the demise of Topsy was in 1903, years after the War of the Currents was pretty much settled, and except for Edison Studios filming the electrocution (warning: graphic content) the Wizard himself had no role in this event.

 

The confusion about Edison and the electrocution of Topsy likely comes from Edison's association with engineer Harold Brown. Brown, like Edison, saw only danger and death from AC, and took it upon himself to campaign against Westinghouse's AC system in letters to city newspapers and the city's electrical board (Westinghouse countered in letters of his own of how DC equipment had caused fires.) This very public sniping happened around the same time that the state of New York legislated using electricity as a method of execution.

 

A lot happens in a short period of time, and it can be confusing to unravel the timing because there are a lot of overlapping of events. We'll start with the one little detail that had been left out of New York's electrocution bill: what kind of electricity— AC or DC— should be used. The New York Medico-Legal Society was tasked with choosing between the two, and how much voltage was needed to "humanely" execute a human being. When Edison, who claimed to be personally against the death penalty, was asked what would be the best method for performing electrocutions, he replied "Hire out your criminals as linemen to the New York electric lighting companies."

It was around this time that the two DC proponents, Brown and Edison, got acquainted. Precisely how is not completely clear, but we know that by the summer of 1888 Brown had a space at Edison's West Orange laboratory where he began a series of often gruesome electrocutions, at first using stray dogs. Later that year, before the press, members of the Medico-Legal Society, and Edison himself, four calves and a horse were killed using high-voltage AC. The tests served two purposes. First of all, it was clearly a tact meant to associate the electric chair with Westinghouse's high-voltage AC system, and spread fear among the public about bringing it into their homes. It also led to the recommendation that AC at 1000 - 1500 volts be used for execution.

 

The electrocution of a horse by Harold Brown at Edison Labs

Westinghouse was furious and slammed Brown, Edison, and the tests they had performed as baseless, self-serving, and incorrectly performed. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to block the State of New York from acquiring one of his AC generators for their new "electric chair," which would make its debut with the capital sentencing of a street merchant named William Kemmler. After a series of failed legal appeals, Kemmler was strapped to the chair on August 6, 1890 for not one, but two gruesome jolts of electricity. Westinghouse is reported to have said, "They would have done better using an axe."

 

In his wildest imagination, author John Grisham could not have conjured up the next chapter in the Current War. Just three weeks after the botched electrocution of William Kemmler the following headline appeared on the front page of The New York Sun: For Shame, Brown! - Disgraceful Facts About the Electric Killing Scheme; ***** Work for a State's Expert; Paid by One Electric Company to Injure Another. The article below detailed the scheme between Brown and Edison to surreptitiously acquire Westinghouse generators for New York's electric chair. It also told how Edison's company paid for the printing and distribution of anti-AC pamphlets to members of the Missouri legislature, then debating which system to install in their state. Turns out that somebody had broken into Harold Brown's office and stolen 45 letters—correspondence between Brown and Edison. The Sun was happy to use the letters as a basis for the article, which severely compromised both Brown and Edison's public stature and cast doubts of the veracity of their anti-AC bias. But both men, especially Brown, would quickly be rehabilitated following the October death of a man named John Feeks.

 

Feeks was a Western Union lineman working high above a downtown Manhattan street when he touched a shorted high-voltage AC line. Randall Stross, in his 2007 book The Wizard of Menlo Park, describes how "...the jolt entered through his bare right hand and exited his left steel studded climbing boot. Feeks was killed almost instantly, his body falling into the tangle of wire, sparking, burning, and smoldering for the better part of an hour while a horrified crowd of thousands gathered below." Feeks' death was not only gruesome, but it was very public. His death came after at least six others— five linemen and one innocent bystander— were electrocuted by high-voltage AC lines.

 

That the electrocution of the unfortunate lineman Feeks occurred near the center of New York City’s government is significant. Apparently nothing galvanizes public officials into action faster than seeing a man roasted in the air above them. They quickly passed legislation requiring that all utility lines be buried deep in the ground. Naturally, the electric companies fought back, but the law was upheld and the overhead wires were cut down. (There was an almost comical side note to this part of the story, as corrupt and do-nothing city workers did, well, nothing for months, leaving large sections of New York dark during the subsequent winter.)

 

Ironically, after so many fireworks (sorry about that) the Great War of the Currents ended quietly. Westinghouse had been carefully purchasing companies with technology that solved some of AC's biggest problems. On the business side he acquired a meter that could accurately measure power consumption. Westinghouse also bought patents that improved both the efficiency and safety of AC systems, which quelled much of the resistance to AC. One of those patents was from a disgruntled former Edison employee who felt financially slighted by the Wizard. His name was Nikola Tesla, and he's worthy of his own blog. I'll put that on my list.

 

Distracted by his new interest in ore processing, Edison gradually released control of his power company to the company's board, which in 1889 approved a merger of Edison Electric with General Electric. At the same time, the Wizard lost control of his own company and most of his interest in the fight for DC. The new Edison General Electric Company spent the next few years buying up AC technology, which they were now free to pursue as the future of power distribution. This included buying their chief rival, Thomson-Houston, lock, stock, and transformer. In a sign of how disengaged Thomas Edison had become from power distribution, the story is that he didn't even hear about the purchase or that the new name, General Electric, would not include his own until after the sale went through. GE and Westinghouse would continue to snipe and sue each other, but would also be thrown together on projects such as the Niagara Falls Power generation and distribution system.

 

Direct current systems continued to be used in some cities. Helsinki distributed DC until the 1940s, Boston supplied it along stretches of Beacon Street into the 1960s, and remnants of Stockholm’s DC system survived until the 1970s. In New York City, where the War of the Currents began, it wasn't until 2007 that the last customers requiring DC (used mostly for elevators) were finally migrated to AC. As for "Old Sparky," after a decades-long national moratorium on the electric chair ended in 1977, only six states still use it as their primary form of execution, if the inmate chooses it over lethal injection.

 

It is my opinion, based on the historical record, that Thomas Edison absolutely believed in the superiority of DC over AC, until the safety and transmission issues of AC had been resolved. Ironically it is Edison— the DC proponent who watched dozens of animals (although not an elephant) get electrocuted to prove a point— and not Tesla— the man whose genius solved many of AC’s safety and transmission issues— that remains associated with the modern AC power grid.

A blog for another day. Time to turn out the lights on this one...

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