Thomas Edison’s Biggest Mistake and Nikola Tesla’s Greatest Triumph: AC vs. DC Power for America’s Power Grid

Thomas Edison, America’s homegrown inventive genius, and Nicola Tesla, an immigrant from Serbia who arrived with four cents in his pocket at Castle Garden, New York, in 1884, were as different as day and night. Both men are remembered, today, as inventors with “genius” insights, and they each set out to tackle one of history’s great engineering challenges and commercial opportunities at the close of the nineteenth century. Their technological approaches to the challenge were diametrically opposed: one of these men was destined to win and the other to lose and lose big.

Thomas Edison, whose triumphantly successful electric lightbulb began to light the nation’s darkness in 1879, was to fail miserably in his efforts to provide the nation with sufficient electrical power to light the millions of his bulbs which rapidly materialized in homes and businesses across America.
Edison’s encore to his triumph with the light bulb was nothing short of designing and installing a series of prototype electric power stations which, if successful, would serve as a prototype for America’s first true power “grid.” Whoever first established a foothold in electric power would reap immense financial rewards.

On our recent vacation trip to Michigan, we spent a full day at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (see my previous blog post) and toured the recreation of an early Edison electric power station. Inside the brick building, a remarkable collection of Edison artifacts included one of the original steam-powered dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison in one of America’s earliest power stations. That “Pearl Street station,” located in the heart of New York, was used from 1882 to 1890 to illuminate and power several square blocks of buildings which had installed Mr. Edison’s recently perfected lightbulbs. A fire destroyed the station in 1890 along with five of the six identical generators installed therein. The sixth and surviving unit was the very one on display at Greenfield Village.

This machine delivered low-voltage, direct current (referred to as “DC”) to its electrical load within the Pearl Street neighborhood – presumably a large array of electric light bulbs as well as small electric motors and electric appliances. A dynamo, when appropriately configured, can also generate alternating voltage, thus delivering alternating current (referred to as “AC”) to an electrical load. The reality is that a DC dynamo is slightly more complex electro-mechanically than is an AC dynamo. A DC machine is an AC machine with an electrical polarity-switching device called a commutator installed on the rotor.

Why Did Edison Choose a DC Based System? GOOD QUESTION!

First, a little elementary background: no formal math/science required!

The simplest version of rotating dynamo inherently generates alternating voltages in its individual rotating coils. The term “alternating” implies that the voltage generated is not constant in value and polarity over time: instead, the amplitude of the voltage varies while the voltage polarity reverses between “positive” and “negative” and back again some sixty times each second (in the North American, 60 cycle, AC system). This polarity reversal can be visualized as alternately a push then a pull on electrons whose resulting mobility/response constitutes electrical current in the connecting wire.

A garden hose analogy will help to visualize AC/DC current behavior!

Think of a DC electrical circuit as a garden hose (the wire) through which water (electrical current) flows at a constant rate in one direction into a basin/receptacle (the electrical load) in response to a steady water pressure (voltage) at the supply side of the hose.

Now imagine the same garden hose feeding the same basin of water (the hose output submerged in it), only now, the water pressure at the supply side alternates between positive and negative (akin to alternately blowing into and sucking out of the hose). In this case, water would alternately travel down the hose and into the basin and back up from the basin into the hose and into the negative (sucking) water pressure source during each repeating cycle.

As already noted, a rotating dynamo inherently develops an alternating, or AC, voltage across its rotating coils, not a DC, constant voltage. The DC voltage which appears at the output of a direct current machine is artificially produced by an electro-mechanical switching mechanism within the generator called a commutator which automatically reverses the polarity of the rotating coils on the armature as they rotate in such a way as to produce a voltage at the output terminals which is essentially “direct” (unipolar and roughly constant in value over time).

Can AC and DC each be used for electrical power?

Yes, AC as well as DC electrical current can deliver useful electrical energy to a compatible electrical load… like a light bulb or a toaster!

What would not constitute a “compatible” electrical load?

Here, is the crux of our story: In 1879, the year that Edison’s practical lightbulb materialized, the only electric motors in existence required DC power. While AC could be used to power Edison’s light bulbs, no electric motors existed which could run on AC power!

The absence of motor designs at the time that could run on AC power steered Edison and others in the direction of DC for power generation and transmission in their proposed central power stations; this decision proved to be extremely unfortunate for Mr. Edison!

Enter Nikola Tesla, Electrical Engineering Genius;
Tesla’s AC Electric Motor Is Developed in 1887

Oft-times, one is tempted to revert to the expression, “Fact is stranger than fiction: you just cannot make this stuff up!” Nikola Tesla illustrates the truthfulness of the contention. Often called, “the master of lightning,” Tesla displayed levels of imagination, creativity, personal eccentricities, and electrical genius never-before seen in the long history of technological progress.

Tesla sits amid extremely high voltage electric discharges in his laboratory!

Whereas Thomas Edison famously claimed that, “Inventive genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” Nikola Tesla’s greatest inventions came to him in meditative, “dream-like” states of consciousness while his mind was set free to roam. Striking, indeed, were the differences between the men, their methods, and their personalities. Tesla revealed that not only new ideas came to him in these mental states, but detailed implementations of these ideas materialized in his mind’s eye as well. There is one other striking contrast between the two men to be highlighted: although Edison ultimately lost big in the “AC/DC current wars” with Tesla and his industrial partner, George Westinghouse, Edison died a rich and very famous man. Tesla lived his last years in virtual poverty, penniless and forgotten by the general public, yet it was he who revolutionized electrical power engineering at the peak of his fame, and it was he who determined the future implementation of America’s power grid in partnership with industrialist and Edison competitor, George Westinghouse.

Tesla Arrives at Castle Garden, New York, in 1884 with a Letter of Introduction to Thomas Edison and Four Cents in His Pocket.

In spite of being an immigrant, “fresh off the boat,” Nikola Tesla was very familiar with the international reputation of his then-hero, Thomas Edison. Soon after arriving in New York, Tesla appeared before the great man in Edison’s offices at the Edison Electric Light Company, 65 5th Avenue. In hand, was a letter from one of Edison’s important associates in Paris, one Charles Batchelor. In the letter of introduction Batchelor had penned to Edison on Tesla’s behalf, he wrote: “I know two great men and you (Edison) are one of them; the other is this young man.” Most likely Edison viewed the young man standing before him with considerable skepticism: he undoubtedly thought Batchelor’s favorable comparison of this youngster to his accomplished self to be a rather large stretch, but Edison did need an engineer to help with myriad electrical problems he was dealing with at the time. Tesla was quickly employed by Mr. Edison, his hero, and was floating on cloud-nine.

It took barely one year before Tesla walked away from his position after some questionable re-negging on incentive bonus promises Edison had made to the young engineer who had performed superbly enough to earn them. Nor was it helpful to the relationship between the two men that Tesla was speaking forcefully about his visions for AC current electrical systems as opposed to DC systems in which Edison was already heavily invested. Also invested and looking over Edison’s shoulder was J.P. Morgan, the banker/financier who had an uncanny nose for financial opportunity. As one of Tesla’s biographers expressed the situation, when Morgan invested in a fledgling venture, the venture quickly became “Morganized,” meaning subject to very close scrutiny and a 51% controlling share for Morgan – considerable pressure for any entrepreneur!

The year 1887/88 found Tesla employed digging ditches – for Edison’s New York underground electrical transmission lines. The labor was hard…and demeaning for the proud young man who arrived from Serbia with such a solid technical education and such supreme confidence in his own abilities. During this trying period, he wondered if all his years of schooling were wasted when contemplating the practical, real-world financial successes of Edison, his former boss and hero, who had barely the semblance of a grade school education.

During this period, Tesla pursued his electrical visions and was issued seven patents; such accomplishments paired with his ever-active intellect began to attract attention and backing for the new Tesla Electric Company, located at 33-35 South 5th Avenue – literally just down the street from Edison’s offices. Quickly, Tesla began filing patent applications on no less than three complete AC power systems and their requisite electrical components: AC dynamos, AC motors, power transformers, and various automatic controls. Working feverishly day and night, it took Tesla but a matter of months to transfer his long-held mental images for these components into solid patent applications. The sudden blizzard of tremendously important patent filings was quite unlike anything the patent office had ever seen.

Wall Street and academics quickly became aware of these patent activities, and, soon, an invitation came for Tesla to address the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers. On May 16, 1888, he delivered his presentation, “A New System of Alternate Current Motors and Transformers.” The lecture was received with widespread acclaim and was soon referred to as a “classic,” both in style and substance.

The Nikola Tesla/George Westinghouse Alliance Is Formed

At this time, there were several companies tinkering with the possibility of AC power. Most of these were small start-ups (or upstarts, shall we say). One of the serious players was The Westinghouse Electric Company founded by its namesake, George Westinghouse. Westinghouse immediately recognized the newly assembled technical mother lode of Tesla’s mind recently put to patent-paper. The industrialist made an offer to license the inventor’s patents. For his forty patents, Tesla received $60,000 – $5000 in cash and the remainder in Westinghouse stock. In addition, Westinghouse reportedly agreed to a mind-boggling offer of a $2.50 royalty to Tesla for every horsepower of electricity sold by the company. A few years later, when Westinghouse Electric found itself in financial straits due to market conditions and its heavy, up-front investment in AC electricity, Tesla supposedly agreed to help save the company by canceling the royalty agreement.

In less than a decade from that point, Tesla would have personally made millions of dollars in royalties which Westinghouse was at least morally obligated to pay per the original “agreement.” The reputed royalty situation may have literally been a “gentleman’s agreement,” originally. A modern Westinghouse historian states that there exists no written record of a legal, binding agreement and goes on to say that such royalties would, today, have been worth trillions of dollars to Mr. Tesla’s estate! The episode, whether true or not, does reflect Tesla’s disregard for money for money’s sake. The personal, intellectual satisfaction garnered from the success of his ideas was a far more valuable currency to Tesla than greenbacks!

George Westinghouse, the industrialist, was necessarily far more pragmatic about money matters than was his brilliant associate (discounting the aforementioned royalty “agreement”). Nonetheless, he was an honest broker with his Westinghouse employees and truly cared about them. Any patent granted within his company had the originator’s name on it. Patents granted to Edison’s companies based on the work of an individual employee invariably carried the name, “Thomas A. Edison.” George Westinghouse was not only the antithesis of the great industrial “robber barons” of the age, he was a dedicated husband and family man, as well – a decided distinction in such circles.

The Vicious AC/DC Current Wars:
Westinghouse Versus a Ruthless and Desperate Edison

The marketing battle waged between Westinghouse and Edison to win the favor of industries and public opinion was quite unlike anything ever seen before – and possibly since. The Tesla/Westinghouse alliance touted the logic and superior efficiency of the AC system as reasons why it should be the roadmap for America’s future power system. As events unfolded to his disadvantage, Edison proceeded to employ scare tactics through advertising in order to convince the public that the high AC voltages carried in the Westinghouse transmission lines posed a danger to the unwary public. Electricity seemed a mysterious entity to most of the public at the end of the nineteenth century, and fear of the unknown always sets a high bar. The fear of being electrocuted in one’s home while changing a lightbulb or making breakfast toast was palpable to much of the uninformed public, and Edison worked to capitalize on those fears.
Animals were electrocuted outside of Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in staged, public executions using high-voltage AC current to emphasize the supposed danger inherent in the Westinghouse system. The concept of capital punishment using a high AC voltage “electric chair” was the by-product of another campaign waged by the low-voltage Edison capitalists.

Edison was fighting a losing battle all along, as he likely soon realized after Tesla began his one-year tenure with Edison after arriving in New York.

Here is a brief outline of the Tesla/Westinghouse system of AC power generation and transmission which won the day and doomed Edison’s DC system after the latter had blown much capital and waged his vicious, but losing campaign against the Tesla/Westinghouse system:

-A (typically) steam-powered AC dynamo generates a moderate to low AC voltage (let us say 115 volts) at 60 cycles per second.
-The dynamo feeds a step-up transformer which boosts the voltage by an arbitrary factor, say 50X, resulting in 115 volts times 50 = 5,750 volts!
-The resulting higher voltage/lower current equivalent power is fed to the transmission line which can now be constructed of lower current-capacity (smaller diameter) copper conductors, thus minimizing voltage-drop (and power loss) in the line.
-At the “load” end of the line, step-down transformers reduce the line voltage by the original factor of 50 which makes 115 volts AC safely available to homes and businesses. Note: the step-up/step-down process occurs with minimal power loss.

After his tremendous accomplishment of quite single-handedly visualizing, designing, and birthing hardware for the master template of America’s future power grids, Nikola Tesla moved on to what, for him, were still more interesting and challenging endeavors.

One of Tesla’s long-lived and stubborn visions involved the wireless transmission of significant levels of electric power over long distances using the earth’s ionosphere as a conductor/conduit. In middle age, he relocated to Colorado and carried on his investigations into ultra-high voltage and wireless transmission utilizing the tower-dome of a specially designed and constructed laboratory. Among the many inventions for which Tesla justifiably claimed at least partial success and credit was a “death-ray” which could immobilize and destroy most anything in its path. The so-called “star-wars initiative” which President Ronald Reagan touted during the cold war with the Soviet Union was based on a satellite system of laser/death-rays in space, reminiscent of Tesla’s vision.

Upon Tesla’s passing in 1943, the U.S. military classified some of his work, and portions of it quite possibly remain classified, to this day.

The Personal/Mystical Side of Nikola Tesla:
Writing This Post on the Man

Nikola Tesla was the quintessential loner – a man who never married and a man who traveled through life with few close friends. He was entirely immersed in and consumed by the gyrations of his imagination and the work necessary to implement his far-reaching visions. The more one learns about Tesla, the greater is the intrigue that settles-in. I began this post with the intent of profiling him and his importance to technology in several written pages; I soon found myself right here, already on page eleven of this document, yet with much left to say in my efforts to convey the uniqueness of the man and his impact on society.
Those who knew him well, and they were few, recalled an earnestness, an old-world gentility, and a sweetness in his persona that does not usually pair with the notion of an edgy, narcissistic loner. At the height of his considerable fame and powers after the resounding successes of the Westinghouse system at Chicago and Niagara Falls, he became quite the celebrity and did allow himself to enjoy the spotlight for a time. He was courted by the rich and famous, became friends with the Astors and the Vanderbilts and was pursued by society women. Although never married, he appears to have had a definite attraction to the feminine mystique; he certainly enjoyed female companionship at that time in his life, yet he related that any serious relationship would have been incompatible with his driving ambition and the need to devote full time to exploring and implementing his personal visions.

As a young man, Tesla viewed the proper role of women as life-partners to men, to be respected and cherished for their role in a collaboration which implements God’s plan for humans. In his youth, Tesla expressed doubt that he could be worthy enough for a young woman, but in later years he wrote against the trend in women’s liberation. In 1924 he wrote, “In place of the soft-voiced, gentle woman of my reverent worship, has come the woman who thinks that her chief success in life lies in making herself as much as possible like man – in dress, voice and actions. In sports and achievements of every kind…The tendency of woman to push aside man, supplanting the old spirit of cooperation with him in all affairs of life, is very disappointing to me.”
Despite his intense focus on technology and creative innovation, Tesla was very much a renaissance man, a philosopher with wide-ranging ideas on many fronts. Although he lived an ultimately isolated life, the image he projected was that of an extremely bright and informed man, impeccably groomed and dressed – fluent with a genteel personality and a noble, old-world bearing.

At the height of his fame, Tesla could be seen dining nightly at Delmonico’s, a fashionable and exclusive New York restaurant. He was there, at the same table every night, precisely at 8:00 pm, dining alone. He was indulged by the management with his own personal waiter and his required stack of freshly laundered napkins. Personal tidiness and cleanliness seemed rather an obsession with the man, to the extent of seemingly obsessive/compulsive behaviors.

Tesla’s Late Years – A Bittersweet Ending

Tesla’s passion to achieve the wireless transmission of electrical power levels (as opposed to weak radio signals, for example) led him astray beginning in mid-life. By his later years, potential investors lost faith in the halting progress and promise of his still-considerable efforts. The local establishments including hotels like the elegant Waldorf Astoria and, later, the New Yorker, catered to him initially as a steady, good customer. Later, when his money was gone, Tesla would be carried along with credit by some out of a charitable recognition of his earlier achievements and personal uniqueness. He became, in other words, a local fixture, a notable, easily recognizable, once-famous “character.” It appears that the Westinghouse Electric Company stepped in at one point and committed to help with Tesla’s support in recognition of his past importance to the company and his role in its history.

At the end, as Tesla’s mind dulled and his money was gone, his life and his passion became the simple, daily ritual of sitting in local parks and feeding his loyal friends, the pigeons.

Nikola Tesla died alone in his room at the New Yorker hotel on January 7, 1943, in New York City at eighty-six years of age.

There is a concluding section to this post which follows. If you have read this far and found the material interesting, I urge you to continue on, forsaking any natural fears of a few simple algebraic equations. Your reward: a layperson’s easy-to-digest understanding of the great Edison vs. Tesla/Westinghouse “current wars” and insight into the basic technology behind today’s vast electrical grid, a technological marvel not to be taken for granted. Let the primer begin:

Ohm’s Law: a fundamental precept of electrical science and engineering was central to the failure of Edison’s DC power distribution scheme; let us begin here to follow the logic of the Tesla/Edison “AC/DC current wars.” First stated by Georg Simon Ohm in 1827, Ohm’s law is taught on day-one in all beginning electrical engineering courses.

Ohms Law: V = I R

Easy digestible translation: Ohm’s Law declares that a voltage-drop, V, along a wire (or electrical transmission line) carrying an electric current, I, is equal to the current, I, times the electrical resistance, R, of the line. For any current conductor, the overall resistance of the line can be quantified and shown to become proportionally higher, the longer the conductor/wire (twice the length, twice the resistance). For long wires like electrical transmission lines which carry large current, the voltage-drop along the line can be significant, resulting in less voltage, hence less electrical power transmitted to the load at the far end of the line. Ohm’s law also tells us that for a given fixed source voltage (at the dynamo output, for instance), the voltage drop in any given line will be proportional to the current being supplied by the line to the load (twice the current, twice the voltage-drop).

Ramifications of Ohm’s Law on Edison’s proposed system of power stations:

-In order to minimize voltage-drop in the transmission lines between Edison’s proposed low-voltage DC generator stations and intended customers, Ohm’s law dictates that either the current to be transmitted and/or the line resistance must be kept low.
-A low current transmitted means lower available total power at the customer end. Therefore, fewer customers can be served by each power station/transmission line, and more power stations are required. This is not an economical system.
-A low resistance requirement for the transmission line (wires) would mean shorter runs between power station and customer (again, more stations required) and/or thicker, heavier wire which offers less resistance per unit length and proves to be more expensive and more difficult to install over long runs due to the greater weight. Note: twice the diameter of a given wire yields one-fourth the total resistance in the same length of line. Copper is among the best-known conductors of electricity, thus very desirable, but copper has become very expensive, today! Another comment: long runs of thicker, thus heavier, copper wire between power station and customer pose structural challenges and greater expense for the construction of transmission towers.

The simple equation for deliverable power (from station to consumer):

P = V I

which declares that the power delivered, P, equals the voltage supplied by the dynamo to the transmission line, V, times the current delivered to the load, I, (assuming zero power dissipated/lost in the transmission line resistance).

Note from the above simple equation that the same numerical power can be delivered at one-hundredth of a given current if the applied voltage is boosted by a factor of one-hundred times! Small-gauge transmission lines could then be used to save cost and to simplify their construction. There is a problem, however: dynamos (generators) that directly supply high voltages are difficult to implement and operate. A second problem: at the customer’s end, a high voltage at the wall outlets in one’s home would be very problematic from a safety standpoint!

What Is Needed? A “Magic Black Box”

If the inherently lower voltages generated by dynamos could be boosted by some arbitrary factor, say, 50X by passing them through a “magic black box” before being applied to the transmission line, half the problem would be solved. If another, “inverse magic black box” which reduces the voltage at the transmission line output by that same factor of 50 before being distributed to homes and businesses, such a system would be safe for the consumer, economical in operation, and a commercial winner with huge financial rewards.

Two key items had yet to appear in 1882 when the AC/DC current wars began and Edison had already fatally committed to DC power: practical designs for both AC powered motors and for high-power transformers.

An electrical transformer in its rudimentary form is simply a magnetically soft-iron core shaped like a doughnut with two electrically separate coils of wire wound around the core. One of these coils is the “primary winding,” and the other is the “secondary winding.” Although the two coils are electrically separate from one another, they are magnetically coupled together via changing magnetic fields in the doughnut core which are generated by voltage changes across the primary winding. If the voltage from an AC (alternating current) dynamo is connected across the primary winding, an AC output will appear across the secondary winding according to the following relationship:

secondary voltage = primary voltage multiplied by the ratio Ns/Np where

Ns is the number of coil-turns of the secondary winding and Np is the number of coil-turns of the primary winding.

The transformer and its magnetic induction principle were first demonstrated in 1831 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain by Michael Faraday, one of history’s greatest physicists and electrical experimenters. Faraday truly was the “father of the electrical age,” having built and demonstrated the first electric motor (DC, of course!), the first dynamo, and the first transformer. Faraday was first to envision electric and magnetic “lines of force,” paving the way for the foundational electromagnetic theories of James Clerk Maxwell. With less than a grade school education, Faraday ascended to the pinnacle of science. Only names like Einstein, Newton, and Galileo, rank higher. An interesting comparison comes to mind: what the barely-schooled Edison ultimately was to invention and technology, Faraday, with his minimal schooling was to research and science – only in spades!







       Faraday’s induction ring       Faraday’s diary entry: Aug. 29, 1831

Faraday’s diary entry of August 29, 1831 reveals the details of his discovery of the principle of electromagnetic induction. Faraday showed that a voltage could be induced in the secondary coil of wire by a changing voltage applied to the primary coil even though they are electrically insulated from one another. His critical observation was that an induced voltage in the secondary resulted only when the voltage across the primary coil was changing. An unchanging DC voltage applied to the primary coil produced no voltage across the secondary coil. It was not until decades later that transformer designs emerged which were capable of high-power operation at relatively low AC frequencies like 60 Hertz (cycles per second).

In Nikola Tesla’s eyes, the potential of a transformer design capable of high power operation was the green light for AC power stations and transmission systems. Such a device, in concert with his own AC motor patents, foretold the demise of Edison’s DC power schemes. Tesla not only had the foresight to see the complete big picture clearly, his detailed designs for the first practical AC motors and suitable power transformers led the AC power revolution. Tesla personally calculated the optimal AC line frequency of 60 Hz (cycles per second) which is used exclusively today in North America. The levels of insight, engineering, and formal mathematics required to visualize the ultimate system and to invent/perfect its necessary components all speak to Tesla’s genius and ability. Thomas Edison’s cleverness and his grade school education were no match for Tesla’s engineering credentials and genius in the AC/DC current wars. Mr. Edison was, sadly, way over his head in this arena.

George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric Company had, by 1888, licensed Tesla’s AC motor, power transformer designs, and other auxiliary system components.

Here, once again to recap, is the short-form essence of the Tesla/Westinghouse system of AC power generation and transmission which won the day and doomed Edison’s DC system:

-A (typically) steam-powered AC dynamo generates a moderate to low AC voltage (let us say 115 volts) at 60 cycles per second.
-The dynamo feeds a step-up transformer which boosts the voltage by an arbitrary factor, say 50X, resulting in 115 volts times 50 = 5,750 volts!
-The resulting higher voltage/lower current equivalent power is fed to the transmission line which can now be constructed of lower current-capacity (smaller diameter) copper conductors, thus minimizing voltage-drop (and power loss) in the line.
-At the “load” end of the line, step-down transformers reduce the line voltage by the original factor of 50 which makes 115 volts AC safely available to homes and businesses. Note: the step-up/step-down process occurs with minimal power loss.

In the end, Edison had blown much of his own capital as well as investment money from the storied financier/banker, J.P. Morgan. What remained for Edison was the memory of both a failed system technology and a vicious, slanderous campaign against the Tesla/Westinghouse system.

Big “Wins” for the Tesla/Westinghouse AC Power System

Westinghouse outbid the Edison Electric Company for the rights to power the massive and important 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. A system of steam-powered AC dynamos was installed to power the Exposition and the thousands of lightbulbs supplied by the Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse’s bid was far lower than Edison’s and, although perhaps not very profitable to Westinghouse, signaled a major triumph for the more efficient AC system over Edison’s DC proposal. Chicago proved to be a complete success for the AC system of Westinghouse Electric.

Westinghouse AC system exhibit at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition

George Westinghouse buys all of Nikola Tesla’s patents for $261,000
in 1897. The Westinghouse AC System harnesses Niagra Falls Hydro-power!

The success of the Westinghouse AC system in distributing power to the northeast sector of the United States from the newly harnessed hydro energy of Niagara Falls provided further and final credence to the early claims of Tesla and Westinghouse regarding the promise of AC power for the country.

The Final Strange Twist to This Story

As is often the case, technological innovation moves relentlessly forward and often changes the status-quo in strange ways. Recent decades and huge technological progress have produced electrical components and systems that now make the generation and transmission of extremely high-voltage DC currents feasible. Many selective portions of today’s power grid now transmit DC power over long runs using voltage levels of hundreds of thousands of volts. As pointed out in the preceding technical primer, high voltage and low current is the preferred balance for long distance power transmission. In the early decades, there was no way to accomplish this other than using AC, alternating current. Even so, the use of AC does impose secondary power losses in the system which can be minimized using today’s ultra-high-voltage DC transmission. So, in retrospect, Edison was accidentally prescient with his early DC proposals, yet he deserves no credit for his advocacy of DC in the “current wars” of his time. History has justly and amply rewarded Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse for their engineering expertise, efforts, and conviction.

In Conclusion (For Anyone Still Standing):

I now find myself on page 21 of this post (the longest and most challenging of my many efforts on this blog), yet my efforts to portray the full story of the brilliant, eccentric visionary that was Nikola Tesla necessarily fall far short. Tesla’s many other innovations, his name, and his story have been largely forgotten more than once by the public at-large. Today, the Tesla automobile and the engineering unit for magnetic flux density, the “Tesla,” have kept his name alive. That is as it should be!

Tesla demonstrating wireless electro-luminescence in a hand-held bulb

“The Electrical Age”: Born At This Place and Fathered By This Great Man

I cannot resist saying to any young techies who might be reading this, “No, it is not Steve Jobs at Apple Computer in Cupertino, California!” There, I did it. Nor is it Thomas Edison, that well-known and prolific inventor working in New Jersey at the turn of the 19th century who can claim the title, “Father of the Electrical Age.”

Michael Faraday from London, England rightfully deserves that honor…and much more. Faraday was the greatest experimental physicist of all time, and a first-class chemist as well during a period when the sciences of chemistry and electricity were still in their infancy. His laboratory (and place of residence) for the years 1813 to 1862 was the unique Royal Institution of Great Britain, one of the first organizations dedicated to professional scientific research and to the dissemination and application of science – for the benefit of society.

21 Albemarle Street Then

Founded in 1799 at 21 Albemarle Street in the fashionable Mayfair District of London, it is still there today – in the very same building! It remains an important player in the international scientific scene.

21 Albemarle Street Today

As amazing as that may seem, the story of Michael Faraday is even more incredible.Coming from a childhood of poverty in London and a family background steeped in the trades and poorly educated, young Faraday was apprenticed at age twelve to a Mr. Ribeau, a London bookbinder. Seemingly headed down the same path of life as the generations in his family who came before him, young Michael learned the bookbinding trade and supported his widowed mother throughout his teen years. By taking the initiative to read portions of the many scientific tomes brought by wealthy Londoners to be fashionably bound for their libraries, young Faraday’s curiosity about the physical and natural world burgeoned, instilling a burning desire to eventually acquire a “position”  somehow connected with science – any position!

Michael Faraday

The Incredible Ascent of Michael Faraday: Fact IS Stranger Than Fiction!

 If true stories about people overcoming incredible odds and achieving great results fascinate you, I suggest that the story of  Faraday’s ascent to international scientific renown and his lasting influence on science – and our lives today – cannot be topped. Please read on.

In 1812, a wealthy, well-connected Londoner and an original life-time subscriber to the then-fledgling Royal Institution bestowed an act of kindness which would dramatically change Faraday’s life and the path of science itself. As a frequent patron of Mr. Ribeau’s bookbinding shop, George Dance developed a liking for the earnest, industrious young Faraday. He presented young Michael with tickets to a series of four scientific lectures at the prestigious Royal Institution, to be delivered by the premier young chemist of the time, Sir Humphry Davy, a member of the Institution’s small staff. Davy’s brilliant lectures always attracted a full-house – a mix of scientific types and the “nouveau learned” among London’s fashionable set, anxious to at least taste and rub elbows with the latest developments in science.

Young Faraday devoured the lectures making copious notes and diagrams of all the fine points. He proceeded to professionally bind these into a thick volume which he sent to Davy along with a letter introducing himself and declaring “My desire to escape from trade, which I thought vicious and selfish, and to enter into service of Science, which I imagined made its pursuers amiable and liberal…”  Davy, impressed by the young man’s initiative, wrote back, and, in Faraday’s own recounting, “He smiled at my notion of the superior moral feelings of scientific men and said he would leave me to the experience of a few years to set me right in the matter.” Davy had obviously come face-to-face with the less altruistic aspects of a career in science during his own recent, very rapid rise to fame. His warnings to young Faraday proved disappointingly appropriate as we shall see shortly.

Faraday Doc 006   Faraday’s Presentation Notes on the Davy Lectures

In January of 1813, the position of laboratory assistant at the RI became vacant, and Davy gave Faraday the job after interviewing him at the Royal Institution in February. Faraday was thrilled to be working with the great Sir Humphry Davy even though the title of “lab assistant” was much closer to “bottle/test-tube washer and general gofer” than true research assistant. After all, although bright and ambitious, Faraday had but several years of grade-level schooling, and no mathematics or scientific training whatsoever.

The Lowly Caterpillar Morphs Into a Scientific Butterfly


Faraday at Work in His Early RI Laboratory

Within several short years from his humble beginnings, Faraday was doing his own important, original research in chemistry and the relatively new science of electricity while building himself a growing scientific reputation for skill and ingenuity in the laboratory. In one of the great sorrows of science-history, his former superior and mentor, the great Davy, somehow felt personally threatened by Faraday’s absolutely unpredictable ascent into Davy’s scientific stratosphere. He tipped his hand by being the only voting member to register a blackball against Faraday’s proposed membership to The Royal Society of London, the most prestigious scientific body in the world – at one time presided over for many years by the great Isaac Newton, himself. Davy thoroughly respected Faraday and his hard-earned credentials; his only apparent reason for the blackball stemmed from his belief that Faraday had somewhat plagiarized a colleague’s work on “electromagnetic rotations” – the first working electric motor. The facts are fuzzy as often happens in cases of scientific priority, but as ambitious as Faraday was scientifically, he was scrupulously honest, maintaining his humble demeanor despite his escalating fame and reputation. For all his genius, Davy had his quirks.


The history of this sad event contrasts, in stark relief, the polar opposite personalities of the mercurial, proud, and ego-centric Davy as compared with the steady, humble and gracious Faraday – “the saint of science” if ever there was one. Sadly, Davy may have known himself all too well when he cautioned Faraday earlier about the notion of “superior moral feelings” where the practice of science is concerned. Faraday took the unwarranted blackball from Davy stoically, always preferring to remember Davy to others as the great scientist he was and the man who gave life to Faraday’s dreams and talent. Davy’s colorful life and story warrant a separate blog post of its own, and, because I have studied them both extensively, I will probably write one.

 Despite Davy’s numerous and important contributions to science, it has been said that his greatest discovery was Michael Faraday! Who could argue?

What Were Faraday’s Contributions to the Fledgling Science of Electricity?

Here is the succinct answer: He demonstrated in 1821 how to convert electrical energy into the mechanical energy of motion – the first working electric motor; in 1831, he showed how to convert the mechanical energy of motion into electrical energy – the electric generator! The experiment connected with the first practical electric generator (which he built) was conducted by Faraday in 1831, and is known as his discovery of electromagnetic induction – the principle of the ubiquitous electrical transformer. Basically, the transformer is a pair of physically separate, mutually-unconnected coils of wire wound on a common iron core. When electrical current changes in one of the coils, a voltage is generated in the second coil and an electrical current results if that coil is part of a closed electrical path. Note that I underlined current changes, above, for no voltage is induced in the second coil when the current in the first is held constant. It was Faraday’s insight and experimental genius that allowed him to make that critical observation after so many researchers, including himself, had failed by merely looking at the steady-state effects of an applied current. The reason we have AC (alternating voltages and currents) and not DC (direct, or constant voltages and currents) supplied to our homes is due to our ability to transform them up and down in level for efficient power transmission and distribution using transformers which operate on Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction.

 I have the actual 1831 printing of his scientific paper which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. For the layman, Faraday’s findings sound mysterious, though rather simple, but their ramifications form one of the bedrock pillars not only of our electric power distribution systems, but also of the great technologies which have historically stemmed from the geniuses at Bell Labs, RCA, IBM, and countless high-tech companies domiciled here in Silicon Valley, California and elsewhere.

Faraday's Induction Ring

                        Faraday’s Transformer                           

Faraday Diary_Crop 2

Faraday’s Diary Entry of Aug. 29, 1831

The true measure of Faraday’s genius is the fact that he did not stop there. He wondered about the mysterious, non-physical coupling between the two coils of wire. How can a changing current in one create a voltage/current in the other when they are electrically isolated from one another? To answer that, Faraday postulated a conditioning of space, a vision of invisible electric and magnetic “fields” in “empty” space which serve to electrically couple the two coils together. This daring leap into unknown territory was the lead which prompted another great physicist, the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell, to deduce Maxwell’s equations which today are four in number. These describe mathematically and quantitatively, the actual electric and magnetic field characteristics which are the basis of all electromagnetic propagation, including radio waves and that most ubiquitous of all electromagnetic propagation, visible light itself. The only fundamental difference between radio waves, X-rays, visible light, and the signals propagated to and from your cell phone is the frequency of  electromagnetic “vibration.”

All right, enough already! I can sense the glaze-over effect surfacing in some of you. I understand, but I did want to impart more than merely a handful of technological buzz-words to you, my faithful readers who have come this far.

Unlike Faraday who so keenly penetrated the natural world knowing essentially no mathematics whatsoever, Maxwell was a well-educated physicist/mathematician; his work on electromagnetics during the 1860’s was truly the foundation for ALL and I do mean ALL of our communications technology. His mathematical prediction of propagating transverse electromagnetic waves through space in 1865 (radio, in essence) predated the first experimental verification of such in 1887 by Heinrich Hertz.

Although Faraday could not possibly follow the vector calculus formulated by Maxwell to describe electromagnetic phenomena, it was Faraday who came up with the initial concept of “lines of electric and magnetic force” in space which Maxwell went on to describe and quantify mathematically.


Maxwell met Faraday when the great man was in his last years to show his great respect, graciously giving him credit as the ground-breaker for the magnificent edifice that Maxwell ultimately erected. Maxwell’s name, like Faraday’s  is little-known outside of science and engineering….but those two individuals have impacted society –indeed civilization – in profound ways, ways too numerous to list.

 I first saw them there in 1979 while attending a week-long engineering seminar, and I was thrilled. Along the upper carapaces of the imposing buildings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge, Massachusetts, one sees the names of scientists chiseled in appropriately bold letters. EINSTEIN, NEWTON, DARWIN, MAXWELL, and, yes, FARADAY are prominently visible there. They, and the others emblazoned and honored there, were the truly great ones – the immortals.

 Perhaps the ultimate endorsement of Faraday’s place in science is the fact that, at one time, three scientific portraits hung in Albert Einstein’s study: Newton, Maxwell, and Faraday.

As prolific and  important as Thomas Edison’s inventions were to the harnessing of electricity and the development of the electrical age, he was an inventor/technologist, not a scientist.  It is absolutely certain that without the scientist’s grasp of nature’s laws, there can be no real technology. Great inventions are drawn from great discoveries in science.

As for hands-on ability in the laboratory: Despite his great abilities, Edison would surely take a back seat to Faraday, the world –class physicist who did it all without the aid of mathematics by relying on superb intuition and powers of observation. In tribute to his lab technique and experimental skill, I would wager that Faraday broke few test tubes and other pieces of apparatus during those many years in the laboratory. Stories abound of otherwise great scientists who were decidedly unwelcome in the laboratory because they broke everything they touched!

Finally and fittingly, Michael Faraday, who worked and lived with his wife in the house of the Royal Institution for fifty-one years, continued almost seamlessly the great public lecture tradition begun there by the brilliant Davy in 1802. Faraday’s lectures on a great myriad of scientific subjects are legend; his lecturing style in the great lecture hall was unique. The public and the intelligentsia of science flocked there to hear him speak …and to learn. I have an admission ticket to his May,1833 RI lectures on electricity, endorsed by Faraday himself and addressed to “Miss Miles or a friend.”

Faraday Ticket Cropped

One of his best-known lectures was among his last, part of the annual Christmas Lectures delivered by Faraday around Christmas time, 1860 when he was in his seventieth year, near retirement, and already suffering from loss of memory. Published in March, 1861, The Chemical History of a Candle has been continuously in print (in English) since that time. It has long been considered a classic in popular science exposition; in its pages, Faraday analyzes the physical and chemical combustion processes of a burning candle in terms that even the scientific neophyte can understand…and enjoy.

If I have piqued your interest and curiosity with this post, and you would like to better understand  how a scientific virtuoso such as Faraday views nature, expressed in terms suitable for his “popular” lectures, take a look at this little book. I just purchased a nicely printed new edition from the Oxford Press. There is a good reason for its longevity in print.

Word Shadows of the Great


Have you ever wanted to “get” someone’s autograph? Who hasn’t at one time or another? Holding and viewing a hand-written document, even the simple signature of some interesting or important person, creates a tangible, almost intimate connection with the writer. Celebrities and athletes are besieged constantly by fans asking for their autograph. For athletes, autographs have become an entire industry featuring scheduled signing appearances and significant prices for signed jerseys, helmets, and photos. That is one level of participation within the larger group termed “autograph collectors.”

For those with specialized interests beyond celebrities and athletes, another collecting universe exists. If you love classical music, imagine the thrill of holding in your hand an original score or even a musical fragment penned by Mozart or Chopin. How about perusing a letter of George Washington, written and addressed from Mount Vernon in his graceful and distinct hand – all of his immense correspondence was beautifully penned, works of handwritten art! Maybe a speech-draft, hurriedly scribbled by Martin Luther King would excite your interest! Certainly, the heavily-corrected draft of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (long-since in the J.P. Morgan Library collection) would excite any literary buff.

The moving power of original autograph documents was celebrated in an old book from 1930 titled Word Shadows of the Great / The Lure of Autograph Collecting (Thomas F. Madigan, F.A. Stokes Co.). The book opens with a quote from the popular author of years past, Charles Reade, which beautifully captures the mystique of the handwritten word:

“These ink-stains, which in the imperfection of language we have called words – these WORD SHADOWS then, are latent living powers, which, could they again be uttered by the lips which perished long ago, would subdue, as eloquence ever does, the hearts of all within their reach, and even in their silence still possess a strange charm to penetrate and stir the deepest feelings of those privileged to read them.”

Although significant writings and documents are implied in Reade’s reflection, even a simple autograph fragment from some important person or event qualifies to some extent.

Truly significant autograph items can actually be purchased through a thriving network of autograph/manuscript dealers and auction houses. Collecting important “autographs” (the term encompasses signatures to handwritten documents) is, today, only for the well-heeled participant. Letters of George Washington with important content could be had for less than $75 eighty years ago; today they would fetch four to five figures! But even the rest of us can participate to a much more limited extent by restricting our tastes!

The value of autographs depends on the “two C’s,” content and condition. A dispatch written by Abraham Lincoln directing one of his field generals during the Civil War would be far more desirable than a routine authorization for promotion in the War Department or a letter declining a dinner invitation. A letter which illuminates Lincoln’s personality or his marital problems while president would, on the other hand, also be very desirable to collectors. For a given level of content, the physical condition and attractiveness of the document has a great influence on its value.

Word Shadows001   Word Shadows002    

I have acquired several autograph items over the last few decades having to do with my interest in both the history of science and the Civil War, proving that collecting need not be restricted to the rich and famous. The contemporary carte-de-visite of General William T. Sherman shown here with his signature as “Major General Commanding” cut from an unknown document (as purchased; this practice is not approved!) represent a total investment of only $17.50 at the time, yet they connect me with Sherman the man via  the mystical ties so ably expressed by Charles Reade. It was Sherman who swore that “war is hell” and proceeded to make it so for the South in Georgia. Sometimes a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words!

 Michael-Faraday[1]PS     Word Shadows005

My very first autograph purchase back in 1971 was an autograph letter written by Michael Faraday, undoubtedly the greatest experimental physicist in history, and one of only two scientists whose portrait hung in Albert Einstein’s study; the other was Isaac Newton! I bought it from a New Jersey dealer’s catalogue for the grand sum of $75…and still have it! Today it would fetch approximately $600, an indication that collecting can be a good investment if properly approached. In the 1844 letter written from the Royal Institution in London, Faraday graciously declines an invitation to join a newly organized science society “being so little of a club man as to have dined I believe only once at the Royal Society club and once at the Athenaeum” (he was a member of both prestigious societies).

Sadly, it is not widely known that Michael Faraday was truly the “father of the electrical age”, the technology foundation for life as we know it today. This, based on his enormous scientific contributions while at the Royal Institution of Great Britain for over fifty years beginning in 1813. In addition, he was a gentle soul, the humble “saint of science,” I call him. Emerging from dire childhood poverty in the London of Charles Dickens and with virtually no formal education, he rose to the highest pinnacle of science strictly on merit – an astounding accomplishment. Einstein’s regard for him was well-founded, and Einstein was not easily impressed! I plan to hold on to Faraday’s letter.

As you can see, autograph collecting is within reach of anyone and does not require a fat bankroll (providing one’s sights are not set too high!).

Certainly the next best thing to actually owning and handling important historical documents, is to see them on display, and there are abundant opportunities. I related my unexpected and moving “close eyeball encounter” with the original draft of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in my earlier blog, Lincoln: His Eloquent Words (March 17, 2013).

I understand and have felt the sentiments expressed by Charles Reade. My other memorable experience with “word shadows of the truly great” came over thirty years ago when my brother-in-law worked as a graduate student, part-time in the Stanford University rare book and manuscript library. As his guests, Linda and I were able to hold and examine several original documents in the hands of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. It was particularly exciting to hold letters written by and signed “Isaac Newton” with his characteristic signature. There were two or three other extensive documents in his hand peppered with strange names and symbols, obvious relics of his intense pre-occupation with alchemy, that mystical forerunner of modern chemistry.

A much more recent experience occurred a few years ago at the Huntington Library in southern California. While viewing the library’s public exhibit of rare science books, I came across the original letter written by Albert Einstein in 1915 to the great astronomer, George Ellery Hale, inquiring if it were possible to measure the possible physical deflection of starlight passing close to the rim of the sun on its assumed “straight” path to earth. Einstein was putting the finishing touches on his general theory of relativity which he published the following year. It predicted such a deflection of light due to the pull of gravity from the mass of the sun. Per Einstein’s suggestion, this deflection was verified during a solar eclipse in 1919 off the coast of Africa by a special expedition organized for the purpose – a conclusive confirmation of Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity. The publication of the expedition’s results captured the public’s attention and transformed Einstein from “merely” scientist to “pop-icon,” the most recognizable name and face in the world. The letter is famous, often appearing in books on the history of science, and there it was, in Einstein’s hand – the original item, in person – quite a surprise and, for me, a thrilling experience! Word shadows of the great, indeed!

Many universities and libraries have benefitted from donors who, during their lifetimes, have amassed autograph and book collections which are staggering in scope and historical importance. Generally, these private collections were formed decades ago, during a time when the monetary worth and perceived historical value of such items was far less than today. Great book and manuscript collectors from the past include Henry Huntington, J.P. Morgan, the banking scion, and many industrialists who, bitten by the “bug,” had the money to indulge their fancies. Credit is due them for their early recognition of the ultimate value of the artistic, literary, musical, and scientific treasures they sought and collected. They often left their libraries to large institutions; hopefully these institutions will continue to preserve these treasures while sharing them with the rest of us.