Copyright

Thomas Edison & George Westinghouse

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Discover the great rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, two giants in the science of electricity. Explore the controversy over electrocution and death by electricity that erupted in New York in the 1880s, and learn about the strategies each inventor used to promote his vision for the future of electrical power in America.

A War of Currents

Inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and industrialist George Westinghouse (1846-1914) were key players in the making of the American electric and power industry. Their rivalry, which erupted in the late 1880s, has been dubbed The War of Currents, because it highlighted the debate over which type of electrical current should supply the New York's power grid.

The War of Currents witnessed the coining of the term electrocution, which designates the death of a person or other living thing by electricity. It led to the use of electrocution, or execution by electricity, as a means of capital punishment. The War of Currents also set the stage for the standards in the American power infrastructure -- power stations, overhead power lines, and all the light bulbs and generators in between.

In this lesson, we look at the debate between Edison and Westinghouse, and the circumstances that led to the American adoption of alternating current.

AC/DC

In the 1880s, the electrical industry was in a state of disarray. There were few regulations or standards and each company followed its own set of rules. Edison's Electric Light Company distributed a kind of electricity called direct current (DC), a low voltage, relatively harmless source of power. Westinghouse advocated for alternating current (AC), a different way of distributing electrical power which produced a higher and potentially deadly voltage that could travel greater distances along power lines. Westinghouse's system required fewer relay stations and less physical infrastructure.

So you see, AC/DC is not just a rock band. Historically, the acronym is used to discern between two different types of electrical current: alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). In the late nineteenth century, a battle raged between Edison, who promoted DC, and Westinghouse, who promoted using alternating current (AC).

Edison gained fame from his diverse repertoire of inventions, most notably the phonograph, which could record and playback one's voice. He thought it would revolutionize both domestic and commercial life by making handwriting obsolete. Edison approached the process of invention with the user in mind, coming up with ways to make life easier and business more efficient.

Westinghouse had a bigger picture in mind. He worked on engines, motors, and massive electrical machinery that had no place in the home. Westinghouse focused on electricity as an industry and a national infrastructure. He believed that the stronger voltage of the alternating current would provide a more effective system of electrical distribution. But to make it work, the nation's electrical infrastructure would need to be better managed.

Electric Wire Panic

Overhead wires in the city of New York, Winter of 1889
overhead wires

In the 1880s, there was a general sense that electricity was a magical new gift that could have rejuvenating power. Novelties like therapeutic electrical baths, beautiful electrical jewelry, and electrical belts for weight loss reflected the belief that electricity was benign. Today, we know that electricity reaches the home through an infrastructure of overhead and underground power lines from a centralized station. We are told that the electrical sockets are harmful, not to touch them, and to keep children away. This recognition that electricity was deadly came about as the result of the war between Edison and Westinghouse.

The War of Currents reached a climax in 1889, in an episode called the Electric Wire Panic, when the overhead wiring situation in New York grew so dangerous that people were getting electrocuted on the streets. Fears erupted when a Western Union worker named John Feeks was killed while running maintenance on the overhead telegraph lines, in October 1889. The lines had been so haphazardly mounted that AC, DC, and telegraph lines were all tangled together on the overhead poles above the pedestrian streets. When Feeks touched the AC cable, he and the whole pole went up in flames in downtown Manhattan.

John Feeks, Electrocuted in the overhead power lines
JohnFeeks

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support