Nikola Tesla & George Westinghouse

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about two famous innovators, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. We will explore their life, achievements, and see why they are important historical figures.

Innovation in the Late 19th Century

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be living when electric lighting became available? Think about it: all your life you had used some type of gas or oil lamp for lighting purposes, and now suddenly, with the flick of a switch, light powered by electricity was available in almost endless quantities. The electrification of America, led by inventor Thomas Alva Edison, was an exciting phenomenon. The end of the 19th century in general was an exciting time to be alive. Tremendous technological and industrial advances took place in the United States between the 1870s-1914. Because of this, many historians consider this time period the Second Industrial Revolution.

The incandescent light bulb invented by Thomas Edison (1847-1931) in 1879 was just one among many innovations that completely transformed American society. During this time, scientists and inventors were becoming aware of the powerful potential for electricity. Edison himself created a number of businesses based on applications of electricity, such as the Edison Electric Light Company. The telegraph, telephone, and the electric motor are just a few of the applications of electricity that experienced major advances during this time. Between the 1870s and the turn of the century, the electrification of America took place at an exhilarating pace. We hear a lot about Thomas Edison, but there were other innovators who also played critical roles in electrifying the United States. Let's dig deeper and learn about two of the most significant: Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the incandescent light bulb.
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Who Was Nikola Tesla?

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a dynamic Serbian-born American inventor who pioneered the alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. The AC system differs from the direct current (DC) system in that in a DC system electrical energy flows in one direction only (for example, from a battery to the electrical device). In an AC system, however, electrical energy is capable of being reversed (or flowing in an alternate direction). Tesla's contributions to AC technology would eventually result in what has been called the ''War of Currents'' (which we will discuss shortly).

Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the AC supply system.
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Tesla was born in what is now Croatia, but what was then part of the Austrian Empire, in 1856. As a young man, he worked for the Budapest Telephone Exchange, a telegraph company. There he gained vital experience in telephony. In 1882 Tesla moved to France where he took a position with the Continental Edison Company. Tesla proved himself brilliant in the field of electrical engineering, and within a few years he was hired by Edison Machine Works in New York City. Edison and Tesla had a falling out, and Tesla ventured out on his own. In 1884 the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing Company was formed. In 1888 Telsa received a patent for an AC induction motor he had developed. Tesla's big break came that same year when he partnered with George Westinghouse and his Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company.

Who Was George Westinghouse?

Enter George Westinghouse. George Westinghouse (1846-1914) was an American entrepreneur and innovator who invented the railway air brake and exerted considerable control over the American electrical industry during the the Second Industrial Revolution. Westinghouse was a major competitor against Thomas Edison, and whereas Edison's business endeavors relied on a direct current (DC) supply system, Westinghouse recognized the potential of harnessing alternative current (AC). Westinghouse decided the AC system was more efficient and could bring in greater profits.

American entrepreneur, George Westinghouse.
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