Flipping the Switch
Whenever somebody flips a switch to turn on the lights, they seldom think about this process. Rarely do they say to themselves . . . hmm, is this AC or DC? Do they think about names like Zipernowsky, Bláthy and Déri or do they simply take electricity for granted? If they’re like me, they don’t give any of this a second thought. So long as they have electricity, then they don’t care.
But one of the great battles of commerce involved how we get electricity. It was the little known "War of the Currents." This struggle involved American and foreign businesses who had invested heavily in one of the two types of electrical current. This was a battle in which new technology and big money vied for a slice of the public utilities business. Just imagine, geniuses like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse all waving patents and capital at each other in an angry argument of how electricity was to be generated and delivered.
When electricity was first provided to the American public, it came in the form of Edison’s DC distribution. Edison’s system required numerous local plants all feeding large conductors that provided customers with lights and motors. There were downsides to this. It was costly and distance was its enemy. Furthermore, direct current could not easily be converted to higher or lower voltages. This meant that separate electrical lines had to be installed to supply power to appliances that used different voltages. As appliance became more sophisticated and needs varied, more wires had to be laid and maintained. Costs began to soar and people became concerned about the safety of electricity. When electricity was installed in the White House, Benjamin Harrison, the sitting president, was so afraid of the technology that he would go to sleep at night with the lights on if there were no servants available to turn them off. During the Great Blizzard of 1888, people died in New York City as the numerous overhead power lines came crashing down around them.
The Boys from Budapest
The French had developed alternating current distribution as early as the 1850, but it was the Ganz Works in Budapest that is credited with the prototype of the closed core shunt transformer that made AC practical. The Hungarian team of Zipernowsky, Bláthy and Déri developed the ZBD transformer, which was three times more efficient than the DC technology. By 1886, this technology was lighting the Eternal City when Rome became the first major metropolis to use AC technology. George Westinghouse in America was aware of these innovations. He decided to back the optional form of electricity delivery when he hired William Stanley to perfect AC distribution using step-up and step-down transformers. In 1888, Westinghouse licensed Tesla’s designs for AC delivery and hired him as a consultant. Things changed rapidly in 1890 when a flood destroyed the Willamette Falls power station in Oregon. The DC installation was replaced with experimental AC generators that proved more effective. This paved the way for the International Niagara Commission to award the contract for the Niagara Falls Power Company to Westinghouse. This contract enabled Westinghouse to power the City of Buffalo using AC current. Other successes followed for Westinghouse, including a major installation at the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. Soon General Electric followed suit. In 1892, GE began investing in AC distribution over the objections of Thomas Edison.
Topsy, the Electrocuted Elephant
Edison never read Who Moved My Cheese, but he was not one to be ignored. Tesla had once worked for Edison and there was bad blood between them. By hiring Tesla, Westinghouse sent a clear message to “The Wizard of Menlo Park” that he was out of date. Edison struck back. He vigorously campaigned against the use of AC distribution, claiming that it wasn’t safe for the public. At times, the abuse got personal. Edison coined the phrase “Westinghoused” as a synonym for electrocution. In 1903, Edison went so far as to electrocute Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant, using AC electricity. Topsy’s demise was captured on film and can still be viewed today. Edison recorded her death on camera as part of his publicity campaign against Tesla’s inventions. Imagine what PETA would have to say about that if he did such a thing today! They would have been shocked at the very least. Strangely, Edison’s campaign led to the invention of the “electric chair.” According to the records, the first electric chair was commissioned secretly by Edison to prove that AC was deadlier than DC—odd behavior for a man who decried the death penalty.
The usage of direct current continued well into the last century. Many universities in the US and Scandinavian cities like Stockholm and Helsinki had DC distribution until after World War II. Consolidated Edison in New York continued to supply customers as late as 2007 when their last 60 customers made the switch. One of the last buildings in New York to convert from DC to AC was the New Yorker Hotel. Built in 1929, the New Yorker boasted the biggest coal-burning powerhouse in the city. This private installation operated a large DC generator, supplying electricity to the many rooms in the hotel.
Ironically, one of its most famous residents was Nikola Tesla, who spent the last ten years of his life in this hotel. Tesla died in his sleep aged 86, on January 7th 1943 in room 3327 of the New Yorker.
Curious thought: when Tesla flipped the switch one last time before going to bed, did he think . . . hmm, is this AC or DC?