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Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison -The Real “Power” War

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Let’s start with nerd Alert, Edison vs Tesla is one for those who are into the world of science like most are into the world of fiction. If you are someone who likes Big bang Theory for the science bit then you would have definitely come across Sheldon talking about how TESLA was the real genius and Edison was a thief , really Edison a thief- the man with 1093 patents ?

Thomas Alva Edison born in 1847 ,at the age of 31(1878) was already the most famous scientist in the world having invented the phonograph which eventually would become the Gramophone . He was the wizard of Menlo park . WIth his ingenuity he was taken seriously when he proclaimed that he would replace gaslights with electric lights, Edison presented a plan for electrification to his investors that included J P Morgan and Vanderbilts who loaned him $30,000 for his research and development.

Interestingly Edison had little to no schooling, he even has famously said that,“I do not depend on figures at all. I try an experiment and reason out the result, somehow, by methods which I could not explain.”

By 1880, Edison had discovered the Electric Bulb and had a working model for electrification, he then began the process of creating electric power plants moving from Menlo Park to Manhattan. The only problem was that his current could only go up to a mile or so and hence wasn’t scalable to small towns, limited by investment on creating a power plant everywhere.

THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR OF CURRENTS

Illustration of Thomas Edison at his laboratory in Menlo Park from 1894.

Far away from The Edison Laboratory was an Austrian physicist who wanted to alter the future of electricity and sought the most famous scientist of the times walking into Edison’s laboratory asking for a job. Tesla had an eidetic memory unlike Edison and did most of his calculations in his brain. Tesla soon proved his worth by working on projects assigned by Edison and became a trusted aide.But when Tesla finally presented the concept of the alternating current to Edison, he rejected the idea and asked him to instead focus on the existing Direct current and improve it for scalability.

Tesla quit the job at the laboratory but to keep paying the bills he had to resort to digging trenches for laying out the cable for Edison Electric company where he mentions to the supervisor that he has a better model which can be operated at fraction of a cost and can go farther making the whole process of laying the cables outdated. The supervisor had a friend at Wallstreet who sought to meet Tesla and decided to invest in AC .

5 yrs on Edison was struggling to scale, demand was coming from far corners and he didn’t have a solution  but just round the corner was another electric company- TESLA ELECTRIC COMPANY.Teslas AC was a populist version of electrifying everyone vs Edison ‘s DC which only plied to big industries with huge power plants made for them.

Tesla envision current as waves which had enough space for another overlapping wave to be embedded in thus creating the AC motor garnering attention from Westinghouse a key investor from America. Westinghouse agreed to Pay Tesla $2.5 /HP of energy or a modern day equivalent of $2MN to secure the rights to Teslas patent.

1HP is a lot of energy and could kill someone, Tesla had the same problem as Edison on transporting current but he looked to solve this with transformer where he would transfer 1HP current and using transformer bring it down to 110 Volt for it to be controlled and made safe. 

Tesla s system could wirelessly transmit voices, images and moving pictures — making him a futurist, and the true father of radio, telephone, cell phones and television.Although compared to 1000 odd patents of Edison Tesla has 300 patents but often Tesla ‘s inventions were truly pathbreaking and hence scientists have always debated “Who was the better inventor?”

BATTLE LINES ARE DRAWN

Edison had multiple patents running in parallel, he got the idea of a kinetoscope or moving picture camera and then left the execution to his assistants, he thus invented modern innovation itself. He went to tell press that AC was “untested,unproven ,uncontrollable”. He was ready for war , the Edison camp started a smear campaign using dogs to demonstrate how the current could lead to electrocution of big animals.

Edison then went on beyond animals and used the AC system to electrocute criminals- a 1000 watt current through a man in front of press leading to gruesome and immediate death labeling AC as death current.

NIAGARA COMMISSION SHOWDOWN

The 1893 contest for the Niagara Commission headed by Lord Kelvin was to decide who would get the mandate to produce electricity using the power of 225,000 cubic feet water flowing down every second generating energy equivalent of more than a million tonnes of coal/year

Edison went to his board proposing to pitch for it but the board had now lost confidence in him.The board wanted to go with AC and they knew Edison would never be onboard with it and  decided to cut him loose, renaming Edison Electric company to General Electric .

The Battle of Niagara falls was eventually won by Tesla and Westinghouse thus winning the most pivotal battle in the “War of Current” but the legal fees led Westinghouse to bankruptcy.

To keep the company functional Tesla decided to let go of his millions of dollars of licensing fees

BEYOND THE WAR OF CURRENT

Tesla thus won the War of currents rather convincingly given today 99.99% of our consumption of electricity is through AC however he died a destitute alone . His mental health and OCD wasn’t understood back then and his peculiar phobia of women’s earrings whereas Edison was mourned on his death for loss of the best scientific mind . 

This is a rivalry worth retelling in honor of the man who truly electrified the world  and as a reminder to many simple truths of life

  1. Just because you get somewhere first doesn’t make you the best
  2. Just because you win at work doesn’t mean you win the battle of life
  3. Everyone is always dispensable at work, even the founder- Steve jobs at Apple and Edison at GE
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