About this Article
Written by: Kevin Roth
Written on: December 3rd, 2007
Tags: electrical engineering, history & society
Thumbnail by: Yelm/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In the fall of 2007, Kevin Roth was pursuing both a Bachelors and a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California. Originally from Colorado, he enjoys rock climbing, swimming, running, and skiiing.
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Volume IX Issue IV > Power Wars: AC vs. DC
At the end of the 19th century, humanity captured power in its highest form: electricity. With a new magical power in the hands of great industrialists, a battle for ownership of the multi-million dollar future of its technological development ensued. The great engineer George Westinghouse dared do battle with Thomas Edison--fellow engineer and brilliant inventor--in a terribly sinister public relations clash over economic dominance. This "War of Currents" centered on the most base of human emotions: fear. It was so fantastic and unbelievable that it was even recently featured in the popular movie, "The Prestige."

Let There Be Light!

The beginning of the 20th century saw a particularly amazing change in the human condition thanks to the ingenuity of engineers. Light, which had once regularly disappeared with the setting sun, was now shining late into the night, allowing humanity to squeeze a few extra hours of productivity into each day. Small, glowing orbs called incandescent bulbs were working with newly developed distribution networks to produce a vibrant light that would change our world.
However, this was not a happy, magical new world for everyone. Electric power was creating a new, rapidly expanding market, with millions of dollars up for grabs. Two great engineers, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, had two very different ideas about how to deliver electric power to the masses (see Fig. 1). The political and economic climate in the late 1800s was quite cutthroat, inducing a standards war like none other. These two engineers went to great lengths, from brutal animal experimentation to the invention of the electric chair, to ensure dominance for their own respective technologies. Only one, however, could prevail.
Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Thomas Edison.

Thomas Alva Edison

Born February 11, 1847, Thomas Edison had a curious manner. He asked too many questions in school, which lead teachers to consider him less intelligent than most children [1]. Later in life, he became a telegraph operator, where he became enthralled with the power of electricity. He eventually collected enough money to leave day jobs behind and work as a full time inventor. Among the astounding 1,093 patents to his name, one that stands out is the 'Carbon Filament Lamp', more commonly known as the first practical light bulb. This invention left the gas companies reeling and Edison started the Edison Electric Company to capitalize on his new market. Edison enjoyed a short period of complete dominance over the market, supplying customers with Direct Current (DC) electric power for his new bulbs. However, a menace called Alternating Current (AC) was beginning to threaten his newly devised distribution network [2].