Edison vs Westinghouse: The Ultimate PR Battle of the Titans

Nikola Tesla sitting next to his "magnifying transmitter", which will later be called a "Tesla coil", in Colorado Springs, CO in 1899. (Dickenson V. Alley, Wikipedia Commons)

The same technology that runs our lives is the same that powered the electric chair. Developed by Nikola Tesla in the late 1800s while working for Thomas Edison, AC generated electricity would be at the center of a battle that would become known as the War of the Currents.

But, before we start, a little back story….

Thomas Alva Edison, American inventor and businessman, invented many of the appliances that we use today, including the incandescent light bulb. (Louis Bachrach, Michel Vuijlsteke, Wikipedia Commons)

The battle of the energy titans begins when both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse developed different methods for providing electricity to consumers. Edison’s direct current (DC) was a much safer, more stable way to distribute electricity to homes and businesses, as the power ran continually in one direction, but it was less efficient. At the same time, Westinghouse was experimenting with alternating currents (AC), which was riskier but more efficient to power large areas than DC electricity.

In a strange twist, Tesla developed AC technology while working as an engineer at Edison Machine Works, but Edison passed on the technology. Eventually, Tesla left the company, and then Westinghouse approached him about the technology. Westinghouse, then, bought some of Tesla’s patents.

Westinghouse continued to develop the technology, even winning contracts and becoming serious competition for Edison. From this point, a war ensued.

What was at risk for Edison?

Edison stood to lose a fortune in royalties that his company would earn if he could find a way to harness more power. For this reason, Edison started a bare-knuckled fight with his competitor, which involved starting a smear campaign against Westinghouse’s ideas. He, in many ways, obstructed an advance in electricity technology.

In essence, if Westinghouse could prove that AC generated electricity was a safe, economic option to DC generators, Edison would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To avoid losing contracts and money, Edison scared away his competition by….

One of the ways that he scared the public away from wanting this new technology was by equating capital punishment to AC technology. He coined the word “Westinghoused” in reference to inmates being sent to the electric chair, as penal institutions began using AC generators to electrocute inmates. Immediately, unsophisticated, uneducated consumers conjured up images of this dangerous technology wreaking havoc in their homes and businesses.

To further scare the public away from using this form of electricity, he electrocuted stray animals to illustrate the dangers of AC technology, and much of this was done publicly!

In addition, Edison out and out misled the public by planting fake stories about fatalities that came about as a result of using AC powered generators.

'A Century of Progress' was a World's Fair held in Chicago. This poster, designed in Art Deco style, features the US federal building and Hall of States. (Weimer Pursell, Wikipedia Commons)

How did Westinghouse combat this bad press?

He continued to develop this technology. He did not address the possible dangers, but he was extremely angered by this smear campaign because he had already contracted with a number of businesses and cities around the country, including New Orleans, and Edison’s campaign threatened to destroy all he created! However, even with the bad press, he promoted this technology even when under fire.

In the end, Westinghouse managed to….

  • To secure a contract for The Chicago’s World Fair (1893) by offering the city a far more competitive price that could power the fair for far less than Edison’s DC technology.
  • Win a contract that would use Tesla’s AC electricity to power Niagara Falls in 1896.
  • That same year (1896) Westinghouse would power electricity all the way to Buffalo New York.

For consumers, this battle established….

That while DC powered generators were safer, it was impractical and costly to consumers, and over time, AC powered generators established an economically feasible system of carrying energy over a large power grid.

For you, a consumer….

This technology helped make electricity more affordable for you. Today, while DC generators power computers, LEDs, solar cells, and electric vehicles, everything else is powered by AC generators.

So, the next time you flip on that light switch….

Remember, that while most of our energy is powered through a number of sources including AC generators, one of the greatest modern inventions was born from one of the dirtiest, contentious battles in American history.


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