Thomas Edison (left) and Nikola Tesla (right) were driven by fierce competition. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

One of the most well known rivalries in the science field, particularly in the use of energy, is that of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison was the driving force behind the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, early motion picture cameras, and many other inventions. Tesla, on the other hand, was highly regarded for his development of alternating current (AC) electrical systems and his contributions to the field of electromagnetism and wireless radio communications. When did the rivalry between the two highly-esteemed inventors start?

War of the currents

In the late 1880s, Edison and Tesla were involved in what was then known as the “war of the currents.” What were the fighting over? Edison was responsible for developing direct current (DC), a current that flows continuously in a single direction such as in a battery or fuel cell. Tesla, on the other hand, developed a competing alternative to DC, the alternating current, or AC.

In the early years of electricity, Edison’s DC was the standard used in the United States but there was one issue – with DC, the voltage flow cannot be easily adjusted. Tesla’s AC was the solution to this problem, as it can be easily converted to higher or lower voltages using a transformer.

To protect the royalties he was earning from his DC patents, Edison started discrediting AC by spreading misinformation on how alternating current was more dangerous. Edison even went insofar as to electrocute live stray animals to prove how alternating current can be harmful.

The DC-AC war intensified in 1893 during the Chicago World Fair when George Westinghouse won the bid to power the fair for only $399,000 using Tesla’s alternating current. Westinghouse beat the $554,000 bid of General Electric invloved using Edison’s direct current. From then on, power companies shifted from DC to AC power.

Given how electricity is still predominantly powered by alternating current, it may seem that Tesla has won the War of the Currents. However, it is important to note that today, LEDs, solar cells, and electric vehicles are powered by direct current. Methods to convert direct current to higher or lower voltages are now available.

Perhaps instead of determining who is “better,” it is more accurate to acknowledge that the two currents developed by Edison and Tesla are working parallel together to help mankind and serve respective applications better.