This is a summary of an Electrical Apparatus October 2003 article,  by Kevin Jones

Electrical Apparatus magazine,  October 2003

Electrical Apparatus magazine, October 2003


George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison & the Battle of the Currents

How dead dogs and botched executions helped pave the way to the power system we enjoy today

By Kevin Jones, EA Senior Editor

WILMERDING, PA.—Controversy is nothing new in the field of electrical power transmission and distribution. You might say that the North American power transmission system was born of one-upmanship and misrepresentation. As the politicians and pundits argue over who’s to blame for the recent blackout and where to find a solution, it might be instructive to look back at the controversy that started it all: the Battle of the Currents.

Before there were blackouts affecting vast sections of North America, before there was deregulation, even before there were utility monopolies, there was the question of whether the North American power system should run on alternating or direct current.

It wasn’t inevitable that the choice should go one way or the other. It only looks that way in retrospect. The matter had to be settled in the free market, and the combatants pitted against each other were none other than two giants in the history of electrical power, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse

Recently EA visited the George Westinghouse Museum in Wilmerding, Pa., on the edge of Pittsburgh, where the museum’s executive director, Ed Reis, presented some background on the Battle of the Currents and illuminated some frequently overlooked aspects of Westinghouse’s personality.

If Reis bears a faint resemblance to Westinghouse, it’s no coincidence. He portrays the Gilded Age electrical industrialist in presentations before classes and civic groups. He may work harder than anyone at keeping alive the memory of George Westinghouse and presenting him as a kinder, gentler industrial tycoon.

Because Westinghouse shunned the limelight and sought only the betterment of mankind (in Reis’s view), his influence to this day is underappreciated. And yet his achievements surround us every day. The Westinghouse power station at Niagara Falls power station, for instance, was nothing less than “the model used to electrify the world,” says Reis.

Westinghouse had already established himself as a successful inventor and businessman before turning his attention to the electrification of a continent. By the age of 30, he had achieved things few dream of achieving in a lifetime. His first patent, for a rotating steam engine, came at the age of 19, after a successful career as a Union Naval engineering officer in the Civil War. His first company, the Westinghouse Air Brake Co., was founded in 1869, when Westinghouse was only 22. Although the Westinghouse Electric Co. would be his greatest and longest-lasting legacy, the air brake business proved far more profitable to Westinghouse personally over the course of his life.

During the 1880’s, as his air brakes gained wider acceptance among U.S. rail companies, Westinghouse turned his attention to finding and exploiting natural gas. It’s a little-known chapter in the life of a man whose surname has become synonymous with electrical power. Discovery of a deposit of natural gas under Westinghouse’s estate led to a plan to supply natural gas to the booming metropolis of Pittsburgh. The cheap, reliable power attracted iron and steel magnates to the city—among them another icon of Gilded Age industrialism, Andrew Carnegie.

So it was a George Westinghouse already established as a successful inventor and entrepreneur who witnessed, in 1880, a demonstration of electric lighting at Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J.

Edison’s lights were powered by direct current. This was fine for a tinkerer, but Westinghouse—who had become accustomed to thinking on the scale of transcontinental railroads-saw that long-distance transmission of direct current would be problematical, to say the least. Power stations to boost the voltage in the d-c system would be required every mile or so, which would work fine in Manhattan but not so well on the Great Plains.

Edison may have had a genius for self-promotion, but Westinghouse had two weapons of his own: the secondary transformer, U.S. rights to which he had bought in 1885 from the inventors Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs; and the polyphase induction motor, invented by expatriate Serbian visionary Nikola Tesla and sold outright by him to Westinghouse. (Tesla was a notoriously poor business man and negotiator.)

“Westinghouse was the only person who could pull off alternating current against Edison,” contends Reis. Edison dismissed Westinghouse’s challenge with the suggestion that Westinghouse ‘”stick to the air brake business,’ or words to that effect,” Reis adds. As for envisioning an a-c distribution system powering polyphase induction motors, “Tesla had a piece of it,” Reis acknowledges, but “George put all the pieces together.”

The Gaulard & Gibbs transformer, with stamped copper plates, proved difficult and expensive to manufacture, so Westinghouse introduced the process of winding copper wire around the transformer’s core by machine—another Westinghouse innovation that’s with us to this day. With Westinghouse’s financial backing, electricity was provided to the town of Great Barrington, Mass., with twelve transformers stepping 3,000 volts down to 500 to illuminate 400 incandescent lamps. Soon other communities were installing the a-c system, and by 1886 the Westinghouse Electric Co. was employing 3,000 people.

Edison fought back with propaganda. He placed billboard and newspaper advertisements warning of the dangers of alternating current. An engineer on his payroll, using alternating current, staged public electrocutions of dogs rounded up from the neighborhood. Edison and Westinghouse sparred in print. Westinghouse’s cause was set back when Frank Pope, an electrician and patent attorney who advocated alternating current, was electrocuted while working on the Great Barrington generators.

Edison supported the use of alternating current for the newly invented electric chair. Advocates of the chair said it killed more humanely than other methods—a claim that any witness to the first horribly botched execution could plainly see was wrong. The true purpose of the electric chair was to a demonstrate the lethality of alternating current. So successful was this phase of the campaign that a victim executed by electric chair was said by some to have been westinghoused. This relic of the Battle of the Currents is still the favored means of execution in at least nine U.S. states.

Over time, in spite of the propaganda campaign, the Westinghouse a-c system gained the upper hand in the marketplace. By 1890, sales for the Westinghouse Electric Co. totaled more than $4 million per year.

The beginning of the end for d-c distribution came when Westinghouse won the bid to power 180,000 incandescent lamps at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Edison tried to block this play by suing Westinghouse for infringing on Edison lamp patents; Westinghouse responded by redesigning his lamps. The show went on, and the illumination of Chicago’s Midway was a public sensation. The nation embraced alternating current, and widespread distribution of direct current was never again seriously considered.

It wasn’t until years later, in 1908, that Edison was able to say to George Stanley, the son of William Stanley, an engineer who had worked on Westinghouse’s transformer: “Tell your father I was wrong.”

The success of alternating current did not secure Westinghouse’s future with Westinghouse Electric, however. Bankers headed by J.P. Morgan took control of Edison’s and other electric companies in 1888 to build a “trust,” which in those days was a polite word for “monopoly.” Westinghouse was the only major electric company to resist the bankers and remain independent. This angered the bankers, who retaliated by refusing to lend Westinghouse money and calling him on loans outstanding.

Their “trust,” now known as General Electric, became three times as large as the Westinghouse Electric Co. George Westinghouse ran into financial trouble during a recession at the turn of the century and eventually, in 1908, lost control of Westinghouse Electric to the bankers.

For the rest of his life, according to Reis, anytime Westinghouse’s private Pullman car passed the Westinghouse Electric Co., George Westinghouse would turn away, unable to look at the company bearing his name that had changed the face of industry.

Although Westinghouse left behind technologies that we use every day, Ed Reis believes that his legacy may go more deeply than that. “He was there to benefit mankind,” Reis says, “and electricity enabled him to do that.”

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