The Current Wars

The Current War dramatizes the conflict of ambitions, beliefs, and money that shaped the electrical future of the United States and the world. The movie fictionalizes the rivalry between Thomas Edison (the “Wizard of Menlo Park”) and industrialist George Westinghouse in the “War of the Currents” in the late 1880s and early 1890s. There was no such thing as an electrical “grid” then—service was limited to a patchwork of power stations serving select parts of American cities. Each side championed a different—and incompatible—system of distributing electric current: Edison for direct current (DC) and Westinghouse for alternating current (AC). Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla sold Westinghouse the rights to a motor that made AC useful for driving machinery, and he envisioned sending vast amounts of power over long distances using what became known as the polyphase alternating current system. The conflict played out in daily newspapers and caught the public’s attention.

The fight was between two stock companies (and their investors) with different strategies for carrying out the costly work of electrification: the Edison Electric Light Co. (and its successor, the Edison General Electric Co.) and the Westinghouse Electric Co. and its allies. But for Edison and Westinghouse, the rivalry was also personal. Westinghouse was cordial even as he sued to force his way into selling money-making electric lights like Edison’s. Edison initially gave his opponent a grudging respect, though he expressed concern that the AC system would eventually kill someone. He came to see Westinghouse as a “shyster” and even an accessory to cold-blooded killing in public streets.

Edison had mixed motives for fighting the “War,” some of them plainly self-serving. But two principled beliefs were also among them. One was that the reversing pulsations of AC were inherently more damaging to living cells than the straight-ahead energy of DC. The other was that high voltage of any kind did not belong in wires running through public streets. He knew that AC was more likely than DC to be distributed at high voltage, and he knew that accidents happen; New York City had a sad history of deaths from high-voltage lines (at least five in the last four months of 1889). Edison and his company played on public fear to brand the Westinghouse AC system as the “executioner’s current” and they supported municipal oversight of essentially unregulated local utilities. The technical and economic advantages of AC were not as obvious then as they would seem later, but Edison was not oblivious and tried to counter them by improving his system. He also made some attempts to develop his own AC components and to graft their features onto his DC system. But by then he was busy with other inventive projects, and his AC development work was too little and too late to catch Westinghouse.

The War of the Currents took place against the backdrop of efforts to find more humane methods of killing unwanted animals and executing criminals. The electrocution experiments with dogs (and a few larger animals) that took place at Edison’s laboratory in Orange, N.J., were prompted by inquiries from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and by a New York State commission on humane execution. These experiments were among the factors that led New York State to adopt electrocution as an alternative to hanging in capital cases. When William Kemmler was convicted of killing his common-law wife, he was the first person sentenced to die that way. The case led to a suit over electrocution’s constitutionality in which Edison was an important witness. After the court ruled against Kemmler, the Edison lighting interests (but not Edison himself) played a crucial role in obtaining the Westinghouse dynamo used for his electrocution in 1889.

Edison won the lamp lawsuit brought by Westinghouse but lost the “war.” Less expensive to build and operate, the AC system was increasingly favored by start-up utilities in the 1890s. Those choices led incrementally to the electrical infrastructure in the United States today: an interdependent grid of energy producers and consumers, large generating stations far from cities, long transmission lines carrying polyphase AC current, substations, transformers, and near-universal service for light and power. Edison himself left the lighting business in 1892 (a year before the Chicago World’s Fair) when the Edison General Electric Co. merged with another rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Co., to create the hugely successful General Electric Co.

There are many ways to learn about the actual events that inspired The Current War, including Jill Jonnes’s Empires of Light, Richard Moran’s Executioner’s Current, and Mark Essig’s Edison and the Electric Chair. For the principal figures you can turn to the authoritative biography by Edison scholar Paul Israel, a new Edison biography by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Edmund Morris, and historian Bernard Carlson’s Tesla. George Westinghouse has not gotten his due, though there are two dated biographies of him, and the Westinghouse entry in the American National Biography provides a brief overview of his life and work. See references below.

The digital edition of the Thomas Edison Papers offers easy online access to hundreds of primary documents concerning Westinghouse and Tesla (edison.rutgers.edu/digital). Look below for a brief selection of documents related directly to Westinghouse and the “War of the Currents.” Volumes 8 (New Beginnings) and 9 (Competing Interests) of the Edison Papers print edition present a small number of these documents in thorough detail; the volumes will be available online sometime in 2020 through Project Muse of the Johns Hopkins University Press (muse.jhu.edu).

Suggested reading:

  • W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  • Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death (Walker & Co., 2003).
  • Paul B. Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
    Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (Random House, 2003).
  • Francis E. Leupp, George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements (Little, Brown, & Co., 1918).
  • Richard Moran, Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).
  • Edmund Morris, Edison (Random House, 2019).
  • Henry G. Prout, A Life of George Westinghouse (American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1921 [and later reprint editions]).

Sample Edison Papers online documents:

Notebook Entry Concerning Alternating Current, October 1886.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/items/notebook/154954  p. 261.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to Edward Hibberd Johnson, November 1886.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/ME004

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to John H. Vail, November 28th, 1887.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/ME013

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to Alfred Porter Southwick, December 19th, 1887
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/LB026116

“A Warning from the Edison Electric Light Co.,” March, 1888.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/CA019B

Letter from Alfred Ord Tate to American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, May 2nd, 1888.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/D8818AJT

Letter from George Westinghouse, Jr. to Thomas Alva Edison, June 7th, 1888.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/D8828ABV

Publication of the Westinghouse Electric Co., July 3rd, 1888.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/D8828ABZ.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, July 13th, 1888.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/LB026273

Letter from George Westinghouse, Jr., to New York Post, December 10th, 1888.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/QE003A1016D

Letter from Harold P. Brown to George Westinghouse, Jr., April 4th, 1889.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/D8933ABA

Letter from Harold P. Brown to Samuel Insull, July 17th, 1889.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/D8933ABF

Legal Testimony of Thomas Alva Edison, July 23rd, 1889.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/SC89098a1

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to Edison General Electric Co, Jacob Hobart Herrick, October 30th, 1889.
http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/LB033319

[1]Document 3005  [document id N321261 works in legacy but not digital edition]

[2]Doc. 3379

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