Two of the most important characters in science history had a neverending feud that changed technology.
I’m pretty sure that if I ask you if you know a certain man named Thomas Alva Edison, you’ll jump in and answer, “Hell yes!” But, what if I say a less popular name, like Nikola Tesla? Does it ring any bell? Well, it’s no surprise that many people know Tesla from Elon Musk’s amazing cars, although the only thing that those cars and Nikola have in common is the last name. If you think you don’t need to know who he is, think again.
While this man isn't as popular in contrast with Edison, he was one of the greatest physicists in the nineteenth century, and I would dare to say, one of the best in history, even more that Edison himself. In fact, Tesla and Edison were very close, until they started hating each other's guts and started a kind of war against each other. If you're curious about this, then let me tell you the story of one of the biggest science feuds you have to know about.
Nikola Tesla (left) and Thomas Alva Edison (right).
It all began when electricity as we know it today was still being developed. During the late years of the nineteenth century, there were two particular men who were highly attracted to this new technology but from very different perspectives. One of them was Thomas Alva Edison. By that time, he was working on improving his Direct Current generators and motors but seemed to be stuck with certain calculations along the way. Enter Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American engineer who offered to help Edison in exchange of a large amount of money (how does a million dollars sound to you?). Everything was going apparently well, until Tesla finished his work, and Edison decided not to pay him. Seeing inventions and discoveries as something to be passionate about, Nikola didn’t care much for the money, and continued working on his own research. He did it for the sake of science itself, contrary to Edison, who also loved science, but thought of it as a profitable area. The real issue arrived after this first altercation, when Tesla developed an alternative to Edison’s direct current. It was literally called "Alternating Current," and it started one big feud between these two inventors.
Thomas Alva Edison
First, let me explain you each one of these technologies. Direct current is a unidirectional flow of electric charge that can be used for batteries and electronic systems, for example, your phone’s battery. It contains an electrically charged device that lets you use your gadget for hours (until the charge is completely used). This is where alternating current comes in handy, since it is a flow of electric energy that periodically reverses direction (contrary to direct currents). This second kind of current can deliver bigger flows of electricity than the direct option, and it can travel long distances to do so. This alternating current is often used for corporate buildings, homes, and schools for computers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, telephones, televisions, and other electronic gadgets. You can have access to it from the wall sockets. Okay, now back to the story.
Edison was positive about using direct current. In fact he thought it was the only way to go. At that time, he saw Tesla’s alternating current as dangerous, impractical, and a possible threat to his business. So he started a campaign to slander Tesla’s work. It all began with misinformation being spread, but it didn’t seem like enough for his purpose. So, instead, he took the alternating current and used it on living animals (which were eventually killed because of these experiments) to prove others how harmful it could be. Tesla profoundly believed in his work. He knew it wasn’t dangerous if it was used correctly, and although he wasn’t as sharp as Edison in the business world, he had his ways too.
For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, General Electric had announced they were bidding to electrify the fair with the best proposal they could find, and guess who were offering their current based energy? GE bid to Edison’s direct current for $554,000, but eventually lost to George Westinghouse’s proposal, who claimed to provide enough power for only $399,000 (using Tesla’s alternating current, of course). Edison couldn’t believe this was actually happening, but he kept on working on his strategies to wipe Tesla’s invention out. One of his employees saw the utility of having alternating current as a dangerous weapon and eventually developed what we know today as the electric chair (although if you use enough direct current, people can die too).
While he showed how powerful and hazardous alternating current was, he failed to make it unpopular. Actually, Tesla’s alternating current became more and more popular. That same year, the Niagara Falls Power Company gave an award to Westinghouse (sadly not Tesla himself because, for unknown reasons, he never licensed any of his inventions) for Tesla’s polyphase AC induction motor patent, a powerful generator that used the Niagara Falls as a source of energy.
Statue of Nikola Tesla, in front of the Niagara Falls.
This constant fight to prove each other wrong never really ended. More inventions were developed, both Edison and Tesla eventually died, and their respective currents were still used against each other for a while. However, now we know both inventions are equally important and relevant. Even though today we mainly use energy powered by alternating currents, recent technological developments run on direct currents, such as solar cells and electric vehicles (ironically, that's the case of Elon Musk’s Tesla). The real problem at that time was that both Edison and Tesla were adopting different perspectives to achieve the same goal: make the most of electricity.
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