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The War of the Electric Currents

Solar Basics | 2 min read

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Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World!


Most of us know that Thomas Edison invented the first commercially successful light bulb, and many of us are familiar with the Tesla electric car, but why are these two names so present in American culture?  The answer lies in their contributions to modern life and our daily lives.


At the close of the nineteenth century, Thomas Edison was working on perfecting his system of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution. Meanwhile, the inventor and physicist Nikola Tesla was discovering the benefits of his competing alternating current (AC) system.  Once the entrepreneur George Westinghouse allied himself with Tesla, the race was on to win the right to power the United States and beyond.


Advantages and Disadvantages

Early on, Edison had the advantage as his direct current was quickly becoming the standard for the United States. Edison thought that his direct current was superior because it worked well with his light bulb and ran at a low voltage, which he knew could prevent death by electric shock.  However, due to the low voltage, the direct current system experienced high voltage loss during distribution, which required generating plants to be located within a mile of the load.


Aware of the problems associated with DC, Tesla saw an opportunity to create an electric distribution system using alternating current which could travel much longer distances with much lower transmission loss. The challenge was finding a way to “transform” the voltage from very high voltage to the low voltage used to power a light bulb. Westinghouse discovered that Tesla had invented a transformer that could make AC practical. Thereafter, Tesla and Westinghouse would partner to promote the benefits of AC over DC. The main problem with AC, however, was the risk of death by electric shock.  Edison was well aware of this risk, and he used this against Tesla in what became the War of the Electric Currents.


The Winner

Edison began a campaign to discourage the use of AC by demonstrating the hazards of high voltage. Edison was so desperate to defend his beloved DC, that he actually conducted public and private displays shocking animals with AC power. In the most infamous of these demonstrations, he shocked to death a circus elephant.  He even tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being “Westinghoused.”  Despite his desperate attempts to discredit AC, Tesla and Westinghouse, alternating current ultimately prevailed when the Westinghouse Company won the contract to build a generating station at Niagara Falls and to power the town of Buffalo, New York.

How does AC/DC relate to solar energy?

At Paradise Energy, we are in the business of giving our customers the power to create their own electricity.  Direct current is the electricity created by a solar system.  This is then converted to alternating current by an inverter, which is what we use in our homes.  Solar uses a system very similar to Edison’s DC, where power is generated close to where it is consumed (called distributed generation).  As solar becomes more popular in our homes and businesses, direct current will again become prominent in our lives.  The war of the electric currents continues!

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