When most people think of AC and DC together, they think of the famous rock band. AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current) go back way further. These two systems of power and their inventors were constantly at odds with each other. Nikola Tesla invented Alternating Current while Thomas Edison invented Direct Current. They were bitterly competitive with one another.
Thomas Edison was born in the American midwest in 1847. He worked as a telegraph officer as a young adult and later opened a small laboratory in New Jersey (Life of Thomas Alva Edison 1). He was always interested in inventing things. His first major invention was the quadruplex telegraph in which Western Union bought for $10,000. This allowed him to expand his laboratory and thus more inventions were made. He is credited with the phonograph, the carbon telephone transmitter, and the light bulb, but Edison did not invent the first light bulb, he merely improved it (Life of Thomas Alva Edison 2).
Edison represented the big business aspect of inventing. He had countless other inventors working under him while he took the credit. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents throughout his career. It is impossible for a man to hold that many without help from others (Life of Thomas Alva Edison 3).
Nikola Tesla has a somewhat different backstory. He was born and raised in the then Austrian Empire (now Croatia) and emigrated to the United States in 1884 (The Franklin Institute 2) . Tesla was taught a higher education in engineering and physics in the Austrian Empire but never graduated. He was later employed at a telegraph company similar to that of Edison albeit in Budapest. Tesla got his first taste of Edison when he was installing lights in Paris under the Continental Edison Company(Case Files:Nikola Tesla 2).
Tesla could be considered as an underdog in this story emerging into the vast empire that Edison himself had created. In 1884, Tesla emigrated to the United States to manage at the Edison Machine Works in New York City. Tesla left after only six months of working here because he thought he could do better. This is where things became interesting.
Tesla started his own company, The Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company. It was this point in Tesla’s life that he filed his first patents such as an arc lighting generator and a better version of the DC generator that was being manufactured under Edison’s company. The Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company was eventually disbanded when investors wanted to only utilize the utility aspects of the business and Tesla lost his patents(Case Files:Nikola Tesla 5). He was now broke. Tesla however was not finished.
During this low point in his life, Tesla realized a superior form of electrical current known as Alternating Current (Case Files:Nikola Tesla 5. This was in stark contrast to Edison’s more established and more funded Direct Current. Alternating Current is electrical power that flows back and forth rather than just in one direction like Direct Current. Although Alternating Current now supplies our homes with electricity, in the 1880s it was a new form of electrical current and potentially dangerous. Edison later played this to his advantage in the AC versus DC war.
Tesla garnered attention from investors with his idea of a motor that was powered by Alternating Current. Tesla and his backers founded the Tesla Electric Company in 1887 (Case Files:Nikola Tesla 4). Tesla's AC patents and work as an inventor made him wealthy and well known as an inventor, much to the dismay of Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison was not idle during the various rises and falls of Nikola Tesla. Edison felt threatened by the rapidly growing Alternating Current system. Alternating Current was much more efficient because it had the ability to switch voltages with a simple transformer and AC left unchecked, could completely make Direct Current obsolete. Edison started one of the most brutal campaigns to discredit an invention in history.
At the potential loss of money from Edison’s outdated power system, his first step was to launch a vicious campaign war. Using Alternating Current, Edison would kill various animals, including an elephant, in public to show how “dangerous” Alternating Current was (King 4). He even went so far as to pay children around his laboratory for stray dogs they brought to him for use in these atrocious marketing campaigns. Thomas Edison even funded the invention of the electric chair using Alternating energy (Kruszelnicki 1). In reality though, Direct Current could just have easily killed animals in this fashion.
Tesla, not as competitive as Edison, did not see it useful to retaliate in marketing campaigns. He was appalled that Edison would harm living creatures to discredit him. Instead, Tesla only worked harder on his research and testing of Alternating Current. This paid off when more companies and consumers started to take notice (King 3).
Edison’s crusade against Tesla was just about lost when Westinghouse, a distributor of Tesla’s alternating current, won the bid to power the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. General Electric had even switched to Alternating Current. Perhaps they didn't appreciate Edison electrocuting animals as a marketing campaign (King 5). It was definitely something an evil villain would do, let alone a potential serial killer.
After the defeat of Edison, Nikola Tesla faced a bigger and far more dangerous foe. J.P Morgan. J.P Morgan was a financier and one of the wealthiest men in America’s Gilded Age. He held many stakes in Edison’s companies and was furious that Edison lost to Tesla in the Current wars. Morgan offered to buy Tesla’s patents but Tesla refused believing that Morgan would make his inventions less accessible to the common man. While not known what the culprit was, not one but two of Tesla’s labs was burned down with all of his research and priceless inventions inside (Case Files:Nikola Tesla 3).
Tesla was not a very good businessman unlike Thomas Edison and ended up losing much of his wealth in later years. His inventions were sound but he had no drive to get them into practical use. Although his last years were spent in poverty, he died in 1943, twelve years after Edison and outliving him by two years, once again beating him (Case Files:Nikola Tesla 5).
Although this great war happened well over one hundred years ago, the Current War still goes on today. Inventions such as LEDs, computers, and other small appliances use Direct Current. Larger appliances such as Refrigerators and Air Conditioners use Alternating Current. Some appliances even use both. This “war” today over currents is more of an equal balance between the two. If Tesla and Edison had realised over one hundred years ago that each type of current works better for different things, perhaps they could have worked without conflict and the world could be a better place today because of it.
“Case Files: Nikola Tesla.” The Franklin Institute, 16 Dec. 2016,
King, Gilbert. “Edison vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 11 Oct. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edison-vs-westinghouse-a-shocking-rivalry-102146036/.
Kruszelnicki, Karl S. “Electric Chair.” ABC News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 10 July
“Life of Thomas Alva Edison | Biography | Articles and Essays | Inventing Entertainment: The
Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies | Digital Collections |
Library of Congress.” Planning D-Day (April 2003) - Library of Congress Information