Edison Vs Westinghouse: The Current War

If you think the Apple/ Microsoft rivalry is the stuff of legends, you’ll love the Edison/Westinghouse feud. Characterised as the War of the Currents, Edison and Westinghouse’s famous rivalry captured the world’s imagination in the 19th century.

Edison, who once famously said that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, approached the electricity business like a race for the crown. He desperately craved the title of electricity Tsar of the ages. To that end, he engaged in myriad courtroom battles, often suing other inventors for stealing his patents. It might be argued that Edison’s motto should have been “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% litigation.”

Edison and Westinghouse: Two rivals, one overriding ambition

While Edison advocated for the direct-current system, Westinghouse (on Tesla’s advice) championed alternating current. To gain the advantage, Edison engaged in a Machiavellian scheme. He decided to prove that alternating current was public menace number 1.

Edison began a series of tests in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory. His goal was to discredit alternating current as a viable form of electricity. Fortuitously for Edison, New York state had abolished the hanging of criminals almost two years before. Ever the cynic, the inventor lost no time in proclaiming the benefits of alternating current for executing convicted criminals. He insisted that AC current would kill a man in ten-thousandth of a second.

However, the world’s first electric chair execution was not the success envisioned by Edison. It took two tries for convicted axe murderer, William Kemmler, to die. Since the chair was powered by secretly-acquired Westinghouse AC generators, convicted criminals who died in it was said to have been “Westinghoused.”

Despite his efforts, Edison failed miserably in his drive to discredit alternating current. In 1891, Westinghouse installed the world’s first commercial AC system in Colorado, where he built the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant. Then, in 1896, Westinghouse won a sizable contract to power the delivery of electricity from the Niagara Falls hydroelectric power plant to Buffalo. Thus, began the auspicious end to the War of the Currents.

Inventions of the century: How Edison and Westinghouse revolutionised the modern world

In his time, Edison’s inventions ranged from the humble incandescent light bulb to the revolutionary nickel-ion battery. One of his first important creations was the quadruplex telegraph, which facilitated the modernisation of the long-distance telegraph industry. The quadruplex allowed Western Union to increase its operational efficiency without building new power lines.

Besides the incandescent lighting system, the kinetoscope (a type of motion picture camera) was one of Edison’s most far-reaching inventions. His assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, was greatly instrumental in the development of the kinestoscope. Dickson also collaborated with Eastman Kodak to invent improved versions of celluloid film. The result? The first motion picture cinema premiered in New York City on April 23, 1896.

During that same period, Edison’s DC monopolised the electrical system in the United States. However, Westinghouse soon began making inroads into European and American markets with his AC system. In 1885, Westinghouse imported Gaulard-Gibbs transformers and a Siemens AC generator to power Pittsburgh’s electrical grid. He then purchased Nikola Tesla’s AC motor patents and hired him to perfect their use in his AC system. The rest, as we say, is history.

For his part, Edison could only watch in dismay as Westinghouse powered his way to victory in the electricity wars. Without a shadow of doubt, Westinghouse’s company proved the safety of AC when its Tesla/Westinghouse polyphase alternating current system powered the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago without incident. This crucial development in the Current War propelled Westinghouse to international prominence, leaving Edison in the dust.

The War of The Currents

The rivalry between the two great inventors has always captured our interest, especially on film. The latest offering, The Current War (a 2017 historical drama) is an interesting take on the electricity story. In the movie, the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison, while American actor Michael Shannon plays Westinghouse.

Cumberbatch’s feisty personality perfectly evokes what must have been Edison’s mercurial and intense personality. Meanwhile, Shannon does justice to Westinghouse’s more reserved persona. Their performances profoundly capture the intense rivalry between the two men. As we look back to historical records and film interpretations of the electricity war, we invariably arrive at one important conclusion: both men will forever be remembered for their revolutionary contributions to our modern culture.


“If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied. George Westinghouse

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” -  Thomas A. Edison



1) Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death by Mark Essig.

2) NPR Author Interview.

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