TESLA VS EDISON : A RIVALRY THAT SHAPED THE MODERN WORLD
Calling Tesla (1) the “Inventor of the Modern World” would not be an overstatement. His inventions form the backbone of modern power and communication systems.
A turning point in his entrancing life was his intense rivalry with the great Thomas Edison.
Tesla was a child prodigy. He had eidetic memory, could speak several languages and was able to perform integral calculus in his head. His innate intuitiveness and curiosity naturally led Tesla into the world of physics and eventually to the renowned Austrian Polytechnic university at Graz, where he studied engineering.
At the Polytechnic University, he proved his scientific prowess and emerged as an ideal student by attending every lecture and scoring the maximum possible grades. However during his second year, he found himself tangled in a conflict with a professor when he suggested that commutators were not necessary in a Gramme DC motor. This was a turning point in his life. He set out on a quest to design a motor which did not require a commutator (2) to reverse the direction of current — a motor which would run on alternating currents.
Consequently, he spent the next six years of his life thinking about electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternate-current (3). Tesla’s unhealthy fixation on AC current took a heavy toll on him. He became estranged from his family and dropped out of his dream school but the story goes on. This huge setback ignited a spark within him, a spark which enabled him to do great things.
One afternoon, Tesla was walking with his friend in the city park, reciting poetry, when an idea struck him like lightning. He took a stick and drew a crude diagram of a device that came to be known as the AC generator.
THE WAR OF CURRENTS: TESLA VS EDISON
In June 1884 Tesla arrived in New York with a head full of dreams, four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor (Edison’ closest laboratory assistant whom he had met in Paris while working at Continental Edison company) to Thomas Edison (4).
The letter said the following: “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!’’
Edison was sceptical of the idea of an AC generator but he was able to recognize Tesla’s potential and did not want to pass up on an opportunity to employ him. So instead of offering Tesla funds to materialize his ideas, Edison offered him $50,000 to improve the motors in his DC generation plants.
Tesla was in dire need of money so he reluctantly accepted the offer, hoping that if he managed to impress Edison with his work on the DC motors, he would receive financial support for his AC system designs. Tesla worked hard and consequently delivered a better and more sophisticated version of the DC motor.
Sadly his efforts were in vain as not only did Edison refuse to compensate him for his work, he also dismissed his ideas for an AC generator as ‘splendid’ yet ‘utterly impractical’. When Tesla demanded proper remuneration, Edison gave an audacious reply — “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”
This was the last straw. Tesla promptly quit and took up a job digging trenches. Fortunately, word got out about Tesla’s generator and the Western Union Company agreed to finance Tesla’s designs. They put him in a lab which later became the founding place of some of the most valuable inventions since the telephone — the AC motor and power systems!
George Westinghouse, the inventor of air brakes for trains, heard about Tesla and his AC motors. Their first meeting proved to be very fruitful indeed; it was obvious that the two inventors had similar plans for AC power systems.
Westinghouse saw this as an opportunity to dethrone Edison ‘s General Electric Co., a company, which at this point had a monopoly over electric supply in the US. He licensed Tesla’s patents for $60,000 in stocks, cash and royalties based on how much electricity Westinghouse could sell.
Do you think Edison, a man who had made millions of dollars in profit from his DC supply company, would go down without a fight? Absolutely not! He filed lawsuits and hired thugs to intimidate Westinghouse. Eventually though, Westinghouse won but the litigations had delivered a huge blow to his company’s fiscal stability. He begged Tesla to forgo his royalties and Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, effectively losing billions of dollars.
Edison soon launched a public campaign, smearing Westinghouse and Tesla. “Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months,” he had written in an 1886 article. He cited examples of people who were accidentally electrocuted (due to poorly installed or insulated wires) to prove his point. He staged several grisly experiments in which he electrocuted stray dogs, calves, and horses. He even imported elephants and electrocuted them in public, just to portray AC as a very gruesome and perilous aberration.
His hankering for besmirching AC gave rise to one of his most inhumane (some, ironically, even refer to it as his only original) inventions — the electric chair, which became popular for capital punishment. Edison even coined the term ‘Westinghoused’ to describe someone being electrocuted.
Of course, we can’t entirely dismiss the possibility that Edison was genuinely concerned about the safety issues arising from using AC power system but at the same time we need to acknowledge the fact that most of his attacks were directed towards Westinghouse and Tesla.
Truth triumphed in the end, though. All of Edison’s schemes were in vain, as they neither prevented the ascendancy of AC nor stopped his profits from falling.
Eventually, Edison started to pursue other projects and his anti-AC campaign fizzled out. In 1892 his company merged with Thomson-Houston company, and thus became the more AC-friendly, General Electric (GE)company.
Finally, in the year 1893, Westinghouse and Tesla claimed victory in the ‘War of Currents’, when his company supplied electricity to The World Fair in Chicago. The fair proved to be a monumental triumph for AC technology, which catapulted it into the public eye.
The AC power systems give us a mere glimpse into Tesla’s brilliance. His knowledge, scientific proficiency and perceptive thinking are unrivalled. Although it is clear that he was exploited by money-grubbing people who were intimidated by his brilliance, it would be unfair to say that his work went unrecognised because over the years he had won numerous awards and accolades, which are the true testament to his brilliance.
2. Tesla and Edison
- Tesla’s AC Induction motor