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Episode
258

The War Of The Currents

Apr 29, 2022
History
-
27
minutes

In the late 19th century there was fierce competition to provide electricity to the rapidly industrialising USA. The winner would be rewarded with huge wealth and fame.

But who would claim the prize, and how dirty would the fight get?

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the War of the Currents, an epic battle to standardise the electricity system in 19th century America.

[00:00:35] Now, you might not have woken up this morning and thought “I want to know about electrical currents”, but stick with me, this story is anything but boring. 

[00:00:46] We’ll encounter brilliant geniuses, vicious rivalries, huge fortunes, the creation of the electric chair and why you didn’t want to be a stray dog in 19th century America. 

[00:01:01] OK then, let’s plug ourselves in to the story of the War of the Currents.

[00:01:08] Before we get started with the story, I’d like to quickly go over DC and AC, as these are two terms that you’ll be hearing a lot, and are vital for an understanding of the story.

[00:01:23] DC stands for direct current. It's a unidirectional, one directional flow of electrical charge. 

[00:01:33] AC, on the other hand, stands for alternating current. AC changes directional multiple times every second. 

[00:01:44] Today, AC is what you get out of your power sockets at home, whereas DC is generally used for batteries and sensitive electronics. 

[00:01:56] To transform AC to DC, for example for smartphones and laptops, you need a transformer. You may not have noticed this before, but if you have a laptop, you might see that the wire goes through a box - in there is the transformer.

[00:02:15] Now, we don’t need to have a detailed knowledge about the science behind all of this, the important thing to remember is that AC and DC are fundamentally different ways of transporting electricity.

[00:02:32] With that clarification out of the way, we can get on with our story, which starts in 1870s America. 

[00:02:40] This period was known as the Gilded, or Golden Age - a period of economic boom and industrial and technological growth that took place after the end of the American Civil War in 1865. 

[00:02:57] While the Gilded Age was a period of prosperity, growing fortunes, leaps in technology and opportunity, it was also tainted by political corruption and the accumulation of huge amounts of wealth by a handful of industrialists, politicians and bankers at the expense of the working classes. 

[00:03:19] The War of the Currents was not just a battle to electrify America, it also pitted some of the century’s most excellent minds against one another and exposed the darker side of the Gilded Age - avoidable deaths, smear campaigns and political corruption. 

[00:03:39] So, let’s take a look at how the War of the Currents got started and find out more about the key figures involved.

[00:03:49] Now, before electricity, life was obviously very different. Perhaps one of the most visible differences, or you could say invisible differences, was how people would light the world.

[00:04:04] The options available to provide light were candles, oil and gas. Essentially, burning something to create light.

[00:04:14] After the discovery of electricity in the early 1800s, the race was on to find a way to channel this new, amazing technology.

[00:04:25] The first popular electric light was invented by an Englishman called Humphry Davy, a man who was from Cornwall, the county of Southwest England, which you may remember from our episode on smugglers

[00:04:40] Davy wasn’t a smuggler, but he did invent a form of lighting called “arc lighting”, which was very different from the light bulbs we think of today.

[00:04:51] Arc lighting uses a special bulb in which two carbon electrodes are placed close together. 

[00:04:59] When the bulb is supplied with electricity, the current passes through the air between the two electrodes creating an electric arc which gives off a very bright light.

[00:05:12] The problem was that arc lighting required a very high voltage, over 3,000 volts, to work properly, making it very dangerous to work with. 

[00:05:24] For reference, today’s standard supply voltage is between 220 and 240 volts for most of the world and 120 volts in the USA.

[00:05:36] To top it off, this arc lighting also required regular maintenance, it buzzed constantly and it was a major fire hazard

[00:05:47] Pretty scary stuff.

[00:05:49] As you can imagine, arc lighting was unsuitable for indoor use and was mainly used for street lighting and factory yards.

[00:06:01] Clearly, arc lighting was not going to replace indoor gas lights, oil lamps or candles anytime soon. 

[00:06:10] The race to invent and manufacture an electrical light bulb for indoor use had been ongoing for over 50 years. 

[00:06:18] While breakthroughs had been made, it wasn’t until 1789 that a 31-year-old inventor by the name of Thomas Edison found a practical solution, with his incandescent light bulb.

[00:06:32] Edison will appear a lot in this story, but if you’re interested in learning more about his life, our last member-only episode, number 257, goes into that in great detail.

[00:06:46] If you haven’t listened to that one, Edison was already a well-known inventor and a rich man by this time. He had already invented an almost magical-seeming device that could record and playback sound called the phonograph, but then he set his sights on something bigger. 

[00:07:05] The big, hairy, almost holy goal of lighting every house in America.

[00:07:12] He started with the actual light itself, and invented and patented an electric light bulb that was suitable for indoor use - the incandescent light bulb. 

[00:07:24] Incandescent, by the way, means something that emits, or gives out, light when it is heated.

[00:07:31] Edison’s light bulb was by no means the first incandescent light bulb but it was the most practical that had ever been made, as it was relatively inexpensive to produce and it had a long burn time of over 1,200 hours.

[00:07:49] It’s important to note that Edison’s light bulb ran at a low voltage of 110 volts on a direct current supply, the direct current part is very important for our story. 

[00:08:03] Now, a light bulb is great, but it’s pretty useless unless you have electricity to power it.

[00:08:10] So, Edison set himself the task of building the infrastructure to get electricity into people’s houses, so that they could buy and then power his light bulbs. 

[00:08:23] As his bulbs were made to run on DC current, he developed a DC supply system complete with electric meters to measure his clients’ usage. 

[00:08:35] Edison had a huge incentive to ensure that DC, not AC, was adopted as the standard current across the country. 

[00:08:46] Just think about the scale of things for one moment.

[00:08:50] Edison owned the patents for the incandescent light bulb that was initially designed to run on DC power. 

[00:08:57] He also sold his DC systems to cities to power these lights and he held all of the key patents for DC power distribution and he controlled all technical development.

[00:09:12] One word springs to mind: a monopoly. 

[00:09:15] Edison stood to make billions upon billions as the country, and indeed the entire world, began to electrify its houses, workplaces and streets. 

[00:09:28] And all of this money depended on his patented direct current system being standardised, being adopted as the standard current for electricity supply. 

[00:09:39] Imagine if there was one individual who would profit from every part of the creation of artificial light, and this gives you an idea of the scale of what Edison was on the cusp of achieving.

[00:09:53] This point is important to bear in mind as it will go some way to explaining the dishonourable tactics that Edison would later use to discredit his competitors.

[00:10:04] The reality was that DC, direct current, simply wasn’t up to the task, it wasn’t suitable.

[00:10:12] When transmitted over distances longer than one and half kilometres, substantial amounts of energy were lost. 

[00:10:20] And if you want to transmit power across the third largest country in the world, this is evidently a bit of a problem.

[00:10:28] For Edison’s dream to come true, there would need to be power stations in every town on every street corner, and this simply wasn’t a possibility.

[00:10:40] Another problem with DC, with direct current, was that it was not easily converted to higher or lower voltages. As DC ran at a constant rate, if another voltage supply was required, separate lines would need to be installed. 

[00:10:59] While Edison never lost faith, at least publicly, in the superiority of his DC power supply system, he did become aware of some of the limitations quite early on. 

[00:11:12] These faults inspired Edison to offer a substantial financial reward to any of his employees who could improve upon the performance of his DC machinery.

[00:11:24] And it’s here that we’ll meet another character whose name you may well have heard of, and one who will be central to our story.

[00:11:33] He was a young Serbian genius who had just moved to America, the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla. 

[00:11:42] By the way, our next member-only episode is going to be a deep dive on the life of Nikola Tesla, that’s going to be episode number 259, so do give that one a listen if you’d like to know more about this eccentric but brilliant man.

[00:11:58] Tesla had been fascinated with electricity since he was a child, and had long been working on a plan to improve the DC motors that he had studied at university. 

[00:12:10] He was a bit younger than Edison, 9 years younger to be precise, and had started working for Edison’s company first in Paris, and then when he emigrated to America as a 28-year-old.

[00:12:24] Tesla, as an Edison employee at the time, shared his plans for an AC motor that was far superior to Edison’s DC ones, and he was hopeful for the reward that Edison had promised.

[00:12:39] Unfortunately for Tesla, and you could say unfortunately for Edison, he wasn’t given the reward, and was instead told that the prize money was a joke, and he didn’t understand American humour. 

[00:12:53] Understandably annoyed at being turned down by Edison, Tesla promptly left Edison’s company and started up his own company.

[00:13:04] What Edison perhaps didn’t realise, though, is that Tesla was onto something with his ideas for an AC motor. 

[00:13:12] Alternating current, or AC, didn't have the same problems as DC. 

[00:13:18] AC could be transmitted over long distances then transformed with very little energy loss. 

[00:13:26] This meant fewer power plants would be needed, saving a huge amount of money. 

[00:13:33] What’s more, AC used thinner copper lines, saving even more money. 

[00:13:39] AC, put shortly, was far more efficient and cheaper.

[00:13:44] It could, in theory, supply rural areas and small towns, all of the places where it was just impossible to supply DC and still make a profit. 

[00:13:55] Plus AC could also be stepped up or down to other voltages as needed without the need for separate supply lines. 

[00:14:04] However, AC still needed some innovations and improvements to enable it to work as a functioning electrical supply and a direct competitor to DC.

[00:14:17] What’s more, Tesla may have been a genius, but at the time he was a young, unconnected immigrant without the funding or business knowledge to market and produce his AC motor.

[00:14:30] This is where we meet our third and final character, a certain George Westinghouse. 

[00:14:38] George Westinghouse was a Pittsburgh industrialist and a savvy businessman who had made his fortune in the railway industry but was now trying his hand at the next big thing: electricity. 

[00:14:52] He was quite a discrete character, unlike his soon-to-be rival Edison who enjoyed his time in the limelight, and his status as a celebrity inventor. 

[00:15:03] Westinghouse was a little bit of a latecomer to the electricity sector, but with his good business head, he soon realised the advantages of AC over DC for power supply. 

[00:15:18] Plus, with some modifications, incandescent lighting, Edison’s indoor lighting, could be made to run off either AC or DC.

[00:15:29] In short, Westinghouse realised that he could build a truly competitive AC system rather than simply copying Edison’s DC system. 

[00:15:40] Doing so would have been barely competitive and would have still needed various patents to get around Edison’s monopoly.

[00:15:49] What’s more, as Edison was struggling to build enough power plants and could only connect properties within a one-and-a-half kilometre radius from his plants, Westinghouse could easily supply all of Edison’s unsupplied city customers, as well as those in small towns and rural areas.

[00:16:10] It was a big and bold idea. 

[00:16:13] To make it come true, Westinghouse had the cash, investors and the business skills. 

[00:16:19] But to create and develop the AC motors and generators necessary to get his project off the drawing board and make it a reality, he needed Tesla’s AC motor.

[00:16:32] Tesla and Westinghouse came together after Tesla left Edison’s company, after he was refused the bonus

[00:16:40] Westinghouse went on to licence Tesla’s patents for his AC system, pitting him directly against Edison.

[00:16:50] In 1886 the Westinghouse Electrical Company had built the first commercial AC power system in America, in Buffalo, New York. 

[00:17:00] By the end of 1887, just one year later, Westinghouse had 68 AC power stations compared to Edison’s 121 DC stations.

[00:17:13] Remember, AC stations could supply many more customers over a greater area. To make matters worse for Edison, another electrical supply company, Thompson-Houston, had also muscled in on the scene with 22 power stations supplying both AC and DC. 

[00:17:35] Other smaller companies also got involved in supplying electricity, resulting in numerous legal battles with Edison over his patents.

[00:17:45] Mired in legal battles and struggling to make any significant improvements to his DC distribution system, Edison was losing out on power and profits. 

[00:17:57] However, having built up his lighting company and light bulbs to be mutually inclusive, he was understandably reluctant to admit defeat and switch to AC power.

[00:18:10] As the inventor of the light bulb that all of these other companies were vying to supply with power, as well as being considered a veritable “magician” by the public thanks to his inventions and research laboratory, Edison did not feel compelled to back down, to give in

[00:18:30] He firmly stood his ground, insisting that DC was better and safer than AC. 

[00:18:37] But, he was wrong.

[00:18:40] And as AC continued to grow in popularity, and Edison sensed he might not be able to win the battle if he competed fairly, he started to play dirty, his tactics becoming increasingly underhand.

[00:18:56] His primary tactic was to make the public think that AC, the electricity system proposed by Westinghouse, was so dangerous that it would kill you.

[00:19:09] In 1886, he publicly declared that Westinghouse would kill someone within six months due to the high voltages used in his AC power lines. 

[00:19:21] But not content with simply hoping that someone would eventually get electrocuted and killed, he wanted a way to demonstrate publicly how dangerous AC electricity was.

[00:19:35] And what better way to do this than getting the US government to kill someone with Westinghouse’s electricity?

[00:19:44] How Edison did this was both cunning, clever, and horrible at the same time. 

[00:19:50] He managed to persuade politicians that using electricity would be a more effective way of conducting the death sentence than hanging.

[00:20:00] There was already some knowledge that electricity could kill, because people working with electrical wires would sometimes die in an instant after touching a live wire.

[00:20:13] After reports of a drunken man being killed by a live electricity generator, a New York dentist called Alfred P. Southwick became interested in the idea of using electricity to kill, even publicly electrocuting hundreds of stray dogs to prove his point.

[00:20:33] So politicians thought that electricity could be an alternative to hanging, and wanted to explore this idea.

[00:20:42] Naturally, they consulted, they asked, the electricity experts of the day, including Westinghouse and Edison. 

[00:20:51] Westinghouse said that he wanted nothing to do with it, as he didn’t agree with capital punishment.

[00:20:58] Edison, on the other hand, recommended that Westinghouse’s AC system was used and even came up with the term “Westinghoused” to refer to a person who was intentionally or accidentally killed with electricity. 

[00:21:14] The government made up its mind, and it was decided to test using electricity as opposed to hanging as a way to conduct the death penalty.

[00:21:24] You probably know what I’m talking about: the electric chair.

[00:21:29] Westinghouse had refused to sell his AC generators to be used to kill, but Edison made sure that a Westinghouse AC generator was used when the first electric chair was being designed. 

[00:21:43] Edison was secretly paying an electrical engineer called Brown, who would organise the purchase of Westinghouse's generators specifically for use with the electric chair. 

[00:21:56] Horrified that his electrical machinery was going to be used to kill someone, Westinghouse even paid a substantial amount for the chosen convict’s, the criminal’s, appeal.

[00:22:09] This was all to no avail, it had no impact. 

[00:22:14] William Kremmler, a man convicted of killing his wife, became the first person executed by the electric chair in 1890. 

[00:22:24] Now, you probably know that even now an electric chair is considered to be a horrific and inhumane way to kill someone, but the first execution using it was even worse.

[00:22:37] I will spare you the worst details, but suffice it to say that it took ten minutes and Westinghouse later commented "They would have done better using an axe".

[00:22:50] While Edison was adamant that AC was more dangerous due to the high voltages used, both types of current can cause severe injury and death. 

[00:23:01] And although Westinghouse’s AC system was forever associated with the electric chair in the public’s mind, this didn’t really stop its ascent, stop its rise to the top.

[00:23:15] As AC continued to spread, Edison’s profits fell while his legal costs and the copper prices went up. 

[00:23:24] Remember DC lines needed more copper than AC ones. 

[00:23:29] Given the increasingly gloomy outlook, some of Edison’s investors and engineers attempted to convince him to consider AC. 

[00:23:40] However, their concerns fell upon deaf ears

[00:23:44] Edison, not used to being wrong, was adamant that his DC system was superior and he was determined to succeed even if it meant continuing to play even dirtier than before.

[00:23:58] He put out adverts and newspaper articles, blamed accidents where workmen were killed by electricity on Westinghouse, and did anything he could to discredit his rival’s system.

[00:24:12] Despite all of the bad publicity and attacks, the spread of AC couldn’t be stopped. It was more efficient and cheaper.

[00:24:21] Westinghouse, and his more cost-efficient AC, won the contract to supply electricity to the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, which provided an impressive showcase for Tesla and Westinghouse’s AC supply system. 

[00:24:38] This was one of the largest displays of electrical power ever created, with hundreds of lights illuminating, lighting up, the lake and the purpose-built neoclassical buildings, while brightly coloured searchlights dazzled across the night sky.

[00:24:55] That very same year the Niagara Falls Power Company awarded Westinghouse the contract to generate power from the Niagara Falls with Tesla’s AC induction motor. 

[00:25:07] This achievement was largely considered to represent the end of the War of the Currents and confirmed AC’s position as the dominant current in the electricity supply industry. 

[00:25:20] However, DC didn’t die out completely. 

[00:25:23] In fact, DC has been gaining ground in recent years, being better suited for use with batteries and other sensitive electronic appliances. 

[00:25:34] Today, DC is used for electric vehicles, computers, solar panels and LEDs, for example. 

[00:25:42] Methods have also been developed to enable us to more easily convert DC to higher and lower voltages

[00:25:51] Thanks to advances in high voltage DC, companies are finding new ways to transmit DC over long distances with less energy loss. 

[00:26:02] So, while AC may have been declared the winner of War of the Currents at the turn of the last century, it looks like DC is here to stay and perhaps it may go on to play an even more important role in the years to come. 

[00:26:21] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the War of the Currents

[00:26:26] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a little bit about the history of lighting and electricity, as well as some of the people whose inventions have changed the world. 

[00:26:37] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:26:41] Do you think Westinghouse was unfairly targeted by Edison? 

[00:26:46] Could you imagine living in a world without electricity?

[00:26:49] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:58] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:27:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the War of the Currents, an epic battle to standardise the electricity system in 19th century America.

[00:00:35] Now, you might not have woken up this morning and thought “I want to know about electrical currents”, but stick with me, this story is anything but boring. 

[00:00:46] We’ll encounter brilliant geniuses, vicious rivalries, huge fortunes, the creation of the electric chair and why you didn’t want to be a stray dog in 19th century America. 

[00:01:01] OK then, let’s plug ourselves in to the story of the War of the Currents.

[00:01:08] Before we get started with the story, I’d like to quickly go over DC and AC, as these are two terms that you’ll be hearing a lot, and are vital for an understanding of the story.

[00:01:23] DC stands for direct current. It's a unidirectional, one directional flow of electrical charge. 

[00:01:33] AC, on the other hand, stands for alternating current. AC changes directional multiple times every second. 

[00:01:44] Today, AC is what you get out of your power sockets at home, whereas DC is generally used for batteries and sensitive electronics. 

[00:01:56] To transform AC to DC, for example for smartphones and laptops, you need a transformer. You may not have noticed this before, but if you have a laptop, you might see that the wire goes through a box - in there is the transformer.

[00:02:15] Now, we don’t need to have a detailed knowledge about the science behind all of this, the important thing to remember is that AC and DC are fundamentally different ways of transporting electricity.

[00:02:32] With that clarification out of the way, we can get on with our story, which starts in 1870s America. 

[00:02:40] This period was known as the Gilded, or Golden Age - a period of economic boom and industrial and technological growth that took place after the end of the American Civil War in 1865. 

[00:02:57] While the Gilded Age was a period of prosperity, growing fortunes, leaps in technology and opportunity, it was also tainted by political corruption and the accumulation of huge amounts of wealth by a handful of industrialists, politicians and bankers at the expense of the working classes. 

[00:03:19] The War of the Currents was not just a battle to electrify America, it also pitted some of the century’s most excellent minds against one another and exposed the darker side of the Gilded Age - avoidable deaths, smear campaigns and political corruption. 

[00:03:39] So, let’s take a look at how the War of the Currents got started and find out more about the key figures involved.

[00:03:49] Now, before electricity, life was obviously very different. Perhaps one of the most visible differences, or you could say invisible differences, was how people would light the world.

[00:04:04] The options available to provide light were candles, oil and gas. Essentially, burning something to create light.

[00:04:14] After the discovery of electricity in the early 1800s, the race was on to find a way to channel this new, amazing technology.

[00:04:25] The first popular electric light was invented by an Englishman called Humphry Davy, a man who was from Cornwall, the county of Southwest England, which you may remember from our episode on smugglers

[00:04:40] Davy wasn’t a smuggler, but he did invent a form of lighting called “arc lighting”, which was very different from the light bulbs we think of today.

[00:04:51] Arc lighting uses a special bulb in which two carbon electrodes are placed close together. 

[00:04:59] When the bulb is supplied with electricity, the current passes through the air between the two electrodes creating an electric arc which gives off a very bright light.

[00:05:12] The problem was that arc lighting required a very high voltage, over 3,000 volts, to work properly, making it very dangerous to work with. 

[00:05:24] For reference, today’s standard supply voltage is between 220 and 240 volts for most of the world and 120 volts in the USA.

[00:05:36] To top it off, this arc lighting also required regular maintenance, it buzzed constantly and it was a major fire hazard

[00:05:47] Pretty scary stuff.

[00:05:49] As you can imagine, arc lighting was unsuitable for indoor use and was mainly used for street lighting and factory yards.

[00:06:01] Clearly, arc lighting was not going to replace indoor gas lights, oil lamps or candles anytime soon. 

[00:06:10] The race to invent and manufacture an electrical light bulb for indoor use had been ongoing for over 50 years. 

[00:06:18] While breakthroughs had been made, it wasn’t until 1789 that a 31-year-old inventor by the name of Thomas Edison found a practical solution, with his incandescent light bulb.

[00:06:32] Edison will appear a lot in this story, but if you’re interested in learning more about his life, our last member-only episode, number 257, goes into that in great detail.

[00:06:46] If you haven’t listened to that one, Edison was already a well-known inventor and a rich man by this time. He had already invented an almost magical-seeming device that could record and playback sound called the phonograph, but then he set his sights on something bigger. 

[00:07:05] The big, hairy, almost holy goal of lighting every house in America.

[00:07:12] He started with the actual light itself, and invented and patented an electric light bulb that was suitable for indoor use - the incandescent light bulb. 

[00:07:24] Incandescent, by the way, means something that emits, or gives out, light when it is heated.

[00:07:31] Edison’s light bulb was by no means the first incandescent light bulb but it was the most practical that had ever been made, as it was relatively inexpensive to produce and it had a long burn time of over 1,200 hours.

[00:07:49] It’s important to note that Edison’s light bulb ran at a low voltage of 110 volts on a direct current supply, the direct current part is very important for our story. 

[00:08:03] Now, a light bulb is great, but it’s pretty useless unless you have electricity to power it.

[00:08:10] So, Edison set himself the task of building the infrastructure to get electricity into people’s houses, so that they could buy and then power his light bulbs. 

[00:08:23] As his bulbs were made to run on DC current, he developed a DC supply system complete with electric meters to measure his clients’ usage. 

[00:08:35] Edison had a huge incentive to ensure that DC, not AC, was adopted as the standard current across the country. 

[00:08:46] Just think about the scale of things for one moment.

[00:08:50] Edison owned the patents for the incandescent light bulb that was initially designed to run on DC power. 

[00:08:57] He also sold his DC systems to cities to power these lights and he held all of the key patents for DC power distribution and he controlled all technical development.

[00:09:12] One word springs to mind: a monopoly. 

[00:09:15] Edison stood to make billions upon billions as the country, and indeed the entire world, began to electrify its houses, workplaces and streets. 

[00:09:28] And all of this money depended on his patented direct current system being standardised, being adopted as the standard current for electricity supply. 

[00:09:39] Imagine if there was one individual who would profit from every part of the creation of artificial light, and this gives you an idea of the scale of what Edison was on the cusp of achieving.

[00:09:53] This point is important to bear in mind as it will go some way to explaining the dishonourable tactics that Edison would later use to discredit his competitors.

[00:10:04] The reality was that DC, direct current, simply wasn’t up to the task, it wasn’t suitable.

[00:10:12] When transmitted over distances longer than one and half kilometres, substantial amounts of energy were lost. 

[00:10:20] And if you want to transmit power across the third largest country in the world, this is evidently a bit of a problem.

[00:10:28] For Edison’s dream to come true, there would need to be power stations in every town on every street corner, and this simply wasn’t a possibility.

[00:10:40] Another problem with DC, with direct current, was that it was not easily converted to higher or lower voltages. As DC ran at a constant rate, if another voltage supply was required, separate lines would need to be installed. 

[00:10:59] While Edison never lost faith, at least publicly, in the superiority of his DC power supply system, he did become aware of some of the limitations quite early on. 

[00:11:12] These faults inspired Edison to offer a substantial financial reward to any of his employees who could improve upon the performance of his DC machinery.

[00:11:24] And it’s here that we’ll meet another character whose name you may well have heard of, and one who will be central to our story.

[00:11:33] He was a young Serbian genius who had just moved to America, the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla. 

[00:11:42] By the way, our next member-only episode is going to be a deep dive on the life of Nikola Tesla, that’s going to be episode number 259, so do give that one a listen if you’d like to know more about this eccentric but brilliant man.

[00:11:58] Tesla had been fascinated with electricity since he was a child, and had long been working on a plan to improve the DC motors that he had studied at university. 

[00:12:10] He was a bit younger than Edison, 9 years younger to be precise, and had started working for Edison’s company first in Paris, and then when he emigrated to America as a 28-year-old.

[00:12:24] Tesla, as an Edison employee at the time, shared his plans for an AC motor that was far superior to Edison’s DC ones, and he was hopeful for the reward that Edison had promised.

[00:12:39] Unfortunately for Tesla, and you could say unfortunately for Edison, he wasn’t given the reward, and was instead told that the prize money was a joke, and he didn’t understand American humour. 

[00:12:53] Understandably annoyed at being turned down by Edison, Tesla promptly left Edison’s company and started up his own company.

[00:13:04] What Edison perhaps didn’t realise, though, is that Tesla was onto something with his ideas for an AC motor. 

[00:13:12] Alternating current, or AC, didn't have the same problems as DC. 

[00:13:18] AC could be transmitted over long distances then transformed with very little energy loss. 

[00:13:26] This meant fewer power plants would be needed, saving a huge amount of money. 

[00:13:33] What’s more, AC used thinner copper lines, saving even more money. 

[00:13:39] AC, put shortly, was far more efficient and cheaper.

[00:13:44] It could, in theory, supply rural areas and small towns, all of the places where it was just impossible to supply DC and still make a profit. 

[00:13:55] Plus AC could also be stepped up or down to other voltages as needed without the need for separate supply lines. 

[00:14:04] However, AC still needed some innovations and improvements to enable it to work as a functioning electrical supply and a direct competitor to DC.

[00:14:17] What’s more, Tesla may have been a genius, but at the time he was a young, unconnected immigrant without the funding or business knowledge to market and produce his AC motor.

[00:14:30] This is where we meet our third and final character, a certain George Westinghouse. 

[00:14:38] George Westinghouse was a Pittsburgh industrialist and a savvy businessman who had made his fortune in the railway industry but was now trying his hand at the next big thing: electricity. 

[00:14:52] He was quite a discrete character, unlike his soon-to-be rival Edison who enjoyed his time in the limelight, and his status as a celebrity inventor. 

[00:15:03] Westinghouse was a little bit of a latecomer to the electricity sector, but with his good business head, he soon realised the advantages of AC over DC for power supply. 

[00:15:18] Plus, with some modifications, incandescent lighting, Edison’s indoor lighting, could be made to run off either AC or DC.

[00:15:29] In short, Westinghouse realised that he could build a truly competitive AC system rather than simply copying Edison’s DC system. 

[00:15:40] Doing so would have been barely competitive and would have still needed various patents to get around Edison’s monopoly.

[00:15:49] What’s more, as Edison was struggling to build enough power plants and could only connect properties within a one-and-a-half kilometre radius from his plants, Westinghouse could easily supply all of Edison’s unsupplied city customers, as well as those in small towns and rural areas.

[00:16:10] It was a big and bold idea. 

[00:16:13] To make it come true, Westinghouse had the cash, investors and the business skills. 

[00:16:19] But to create and develop the AC motors and generators necessary to get his project off the drawing board and make it a reality, he needed Tesla’s AC motor.

[00:16:32] Tesla and Westinghouse came together after Tesla left Edison’s company, after he was refused the bonus

[00:16:40] Westinghouse went on to licence Tesla’s patents for his AC system, pitting him directly against Edison.

[00:16:50] In 1886 the Westinghouse Electrical Company had built the first commercial AC power system in America, in Buffalo, New York. 

[00:17:00] By the end of 1887, just one year later, Westinghouse had 68 AC power stations compared to Edison’s 121 DC stations.

[00:17:13] Remember, AC stations could supply many more customers over a greater area. To make matters worse for Edison, another electrical supply company, Thompson-Houston, had also muscled in on the scene with 22 power stations supplying both AC and DC. 

[00:17:35] Other smaller companies also got involved in supplying electricity, resulting in numerous legal battles with Edison over his patents.

[00:17:45] Mired in legal battles and struggling to make any significant improvements to his DC distribution system, Edison was losing out on power and profits. 

[00:17:57] However, having built up his lighting company and light bulbs to be mutually inclusive, he was understandably reluctant to admit defeat and switch to AC power.

[00:18:10] As the inventor of the light bulb that all of these other companies were vying to supply with power, as well as being considered a veritable “magician” by the public thanks to his inventions and research laboratory, Edison did not feel compelled to back down, to give in

[00:18:30] He firmly stood his ground, insisting that DC was better and safer than AC. 

[00:18:37] But, he was wrong.

[00:18:40] And as AC continued to grow in popularity, and Edison sensed he might not be able to win the battle if he competed fairly, he started to play dirty, his tactics becoming increasingly underhand.

[00:18:56] His primary tactic was to make the public think that AC, the electricity system proposed by Westinghouse, was so dangerous that it would kill you.

[00:19:09] In 1886, he publicly declared that Westinghouse would kill someone within six months due to the high voltages used in his AC power lines. 

[00:19:21] But not content with simply hoping that someone would eventually get electrocuted and killed, he wanted a way to demonstrate publicly how dangerous AC electricity was.

[00:19:35] And what better way to do this than getting the US government to kill someone with Westinghouse’s electricity?

[00:19:44] How Edison did this was both cunning, clever, and horrible at the same time. 

[00:19:50] He managed to persuade politicians that using electricity would be a more effective way of conducting the death sentence than hanging.

[00:20:00] There was already some knowledge that electricity could kill, because people working with electrical wires would sometimes die in an instant after touching a live wire.

[00:20:13] After reports of a drunken man being killed by a live electricity generator, a New York dentist called Alfred P. Southwick became interested in the idea of using electricity to kill, even publicly electrocuting hundreds of stray dogs to prove his point.

[00:20:33] So politicians thought that electricity could be an alternative to hanging, and wanted to explore this idea.

[00:20:42] Naturally, they consulted, they asked, the electricity experts of the day, including Westinghouse and Edison. 

[00:20:51] Westinghouse said that he wanted nothing to do with it, as he didn’t agree with capital punishment.

[00:20:58] Edison, on the other hand, recommended that Westinghouse’s AC system was used and even came up with the term “Westinghoused” to refer to a person who was intentionally or accidentally killed with electricity. 

[00:21:14] The government made up its mind, and it was decided to test using electricity as opposed to hanging as a way to conduct the death penalty.

[00:21:24] You probably know what I’m talking about: the electric chair.

[00:21:29] Westinghouse had refused to sell his AC generators to be used to kill, but Edison made sure that a Westinghouse AC generator was used when the first electric chair was being designed. 

[00:21:43] Edison was secretly paying an electrical engineer called Brown, who would organise the purchase of Westinghouse's generators specifically for use with the electric chair. 

[00:21:56] Horrified that his electrical machinery was going to be used to kill someone, Westinghouse even paid a substantial amount for the chosen convict’s, the criminal’s, appeal.

[00:22:09] This was all to no avail, it had no impact. 

[00:22:14] William Kremmler, a man convicted of killing his wife, became the first person executed by the electric chair in 1890. 

[00:22:24] Now, you probably know that even now an electric chair is considered to be a horrific and inhumane way to kill someone, but the first execution using it was even worse.

[00:22:37] I will spare you the worst details, but suffice it to say that it took ten minutes and Westinghouse later commented "They would have done better using an axe".

[00:22:50] While Edison was adamant that AC was more dangerous due to the high voltages used, both types of current can cause severe injury and death. 

[00:23:01] And although Westinghouse’s AC system was forever associated with the electric chair in the public’s mind, this didn’t really stop its ascent, stop its rise to the top.

[00:23:15] As AC continued to spread, Edison’s profits fell while his legal costs and the copper prices went up. 

[00:23:24] Remember DC lines needed more copper than AC ones. 

[00:23:29] Given the increasingly gloomy outlook, some of Edison’s investors and engineers attempted to convince him to consider AC. 

[00:23:40] However, their concerns fell upon deaf ears

[00:23:44] Edison, not used to being wrong, was adamant that his DC system was superior and he was determined to succeed even if it meant continuing to play even dirtier than before.

[00:23:58] He put out adverts and newspaper articles, blamed accidents where workmen were killed by electricity on Westinghouse, and did anything he could to discredit his rival’s system.

[00:24:12] Despite all of the bad publicity and attacks, the spread of AC couldn’t be stopped. It was more efficient and cheaper.

[00:24:21] Westinghouse, and his more cost-efficient AC, won the contract to supply electricity to the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, which provided an impressive showcase for Tesla and Westinghouse’s AC supply system. 

[00:24:38] This was one of the largest displays of electrical power ever created, with hundreds of lights illuminating, lighting up, the lake and the purpose-built neoclassical buildings, while brightly coloured searchlights dazzled across the night sky.

[00:24:55] That very same year the Niagara Falls Power Company awarded Westinghouse the contract to generate power from the Niagara Falls with Tesla’s AC induction motor. 

[00:25:07] This achievement was largely considered to represent the end of the War of the Currents and confirmed AC’s position as the dominant current in the electricity supply industry. 

[00:25:20] However, DC didn’t die out completely. 

[00:25:23] In fact, DC has been gaining ground in recent years, being better suited for use with batteries and other sensitive electronic appliances. 

[00:25:34] Today, DC is used for electric vehicles, computers, solar panels and LEDs, for example. 

[00:25:42] Methods have also been developed to enable us to more easily convert DC to higher and lower voltages

[00:25:51] Thanks to advances in high voltage DC, companies are finding new ways to transmit DC over long distances with less energy loss. 

[00:26:02] So, while AC may have been declared the winner of War of the Currents at the turn of the last century, it looks like DC is here to stay and perhaps it may go on to play an even more important role in the years to come. 

[00:26:21] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the War of the Currents

[00:26:26] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a little bit about the history of lighting and electricity, as well as some of the people whose inventions have changed the world. 

[00:26:37] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:26:41] Do you think Westinghouse was unfairly targeted by Edison? 

[00:26:46] Could you imagine living in a world without electricity?

[00:26:49] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:58] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:27:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the War of the Currents, an epic battle to standardise the electricity system in 19th century America.

[00:00:35] Now, you might not have woken up this morning and thought “I want to know about electrical currents”, but stick with me, this story is anything but boring. 

[00:00:46] We’ll encounter brilliant geniuses, vicious rivalries, huge fortunes, the creation of the electric chair and why you didn’t want to be a stray dog in 19th century America. 

[00:01:01] OK then, let’s plug ourselves in to the story of the War of the Currents.

[00:01:08] Before we get started with the story, I’d like to quickly go over DC and AC, as these are two terms that you’ll be hearing a lot, and are vital for an understanding of the story.

[00:01:23] DC stands for direct current. It's a unidirectional, one directional flow of electrical charge. 

[00:01:33] AC, on the other hand, stands for alternating current. AC changes directional multiple times every second. 

[00:01:44] Today, AC is what you get out of your power sockets at home, whereas DC is generally used for batteries and sensitive electronics. 

[00:01:56] To transform AC to DC, for example for smartphones and laptops, you need a transformer. You may not have noticed this before, but if you have a laptop, you might see that the wire goes through a box - in there is the transformer.

[00:02:15] Now, we don’t need to have a detailed knowledge about the science behind all of this, the important thing to remember is that AC and DC are fundamentally different ways of transporting electricity.

[00:02:32] With that clarification out of the way, we can get on with our story, which starts in 1870s America. 

[00:02:40] This period was known as the Gilded, or Golden Age - a period of economic boom and industrial and technological growth that took place after the end of the American Civil War in 1865. 

[00:02:57] While the Gilded Age was a period of prosperity, growing fortunes, leaps in technology and opportunity, it was also tainted by political corruption and the accumulation of huge amounts of wealth by a handful of industrialists, politicians and bankers at the expense of the working classes. 

[00:03:19] The War of the Currents was not just a battle to electrify America, it also pitted some of the century’s most excellent minds against one another and exposed the darker side of the Gilded Age - avoidable deaths, smear campaigns and political corruption. 

[00:03:39] So, let’s take a look at how the War of the Currents got started and find out more about the key figures involved.

[00:03:49] Now, before electricity, life was obviously very different. Perhaps one of the most visible differences, or you could say invisible differences, was how people would light the world.

[00:04:04] The options available to provide light were candles, oil and gas. Essentially, burning something to create light.

[00:04:14] After the discovery of electricity in the early 1800s, the race was on to find a way to channel this new, amazing technology.

[00:04:25] The first popular electric light was invented by an Englishman called Humphry Davy, a man who was from Cornwall, the county of Southwest England, which you may remember from our episode on smugglers

[00:04:40] Davy wasn’t a smuggler, but he did invent a form of lighting called “arc lighting”, which was very different from the light bulbs we think of today.

[00:04:51] Arc lighting uses a special bulb in which two carbon electrodes are placed close together. 

[00:04:59] When the bulb is supplied with electricity, the current passes through the air between the two electrodes creating an electric arc which gives off a very bright light.

[00:05:12] The problem was that arc lighting required a very high voltage, over 3,000 volts, to work properly, making it very dangerous to work with. 

[00:05:24] For reference, today’s standard supply voltage is between 220 and 240 volts for most of the world and 120 volts in the USA.

[00:05:36] To top it off, this arc lighting also required regular maintenance, it buzzed constantly and it was a major fire hazard

[00:05:47] Pretty scary stuff.

[00:05:49] As you can imagine, arc lighting was unsuitable for indoor use and was mainly used for street lighting and factory yards.

[00:06:01] Clearly, arc lighting was not going to replace indoor gas lights, oil lamps or candles anytime soon. 

[00:06:10] The race to invent and manufacture an electrical light bulb for indoor use had been ongoing for over 50 years. 

[00:06:18] While breakthroughs had been made, it wasn’t until 1789 that a 31-year-old inventor by the name of Thomas Edison found a practical solution, with his incandescent light bulb.

[00:06:32] Edison will appear a lot in this story, but if you’re interested in learning more about his life, our last member-only episode, number 257, goes into that in great detail.

[00:06:46] If you haven’t listened to that one, Edison was already a well-known inventor and a rich man by this time. He had already invented an almost magical-seeming device that could record and playback sound called the phonograph, but then he set his sights on something bigger. 

[00:07:05] The big, hairy, almost holy goal of lighting every house in America.

[00:07:12] He started with the actual light itself, and invented and patented an electric light bulb that was suitable for indoor use - the incandescent light bulb. 

[00:07:24] Incandescent, by the way, means something that emits, or gives out, light when it is heated.

[00:07:31] Edison’s light bulb was by no means the first incandescent light bulb but it was the most practical that had ever been made, as it was relatively inexpensive to produce and it had a long burn time of over 1,200 hours.

[00:07:49] It’s important to note that Edison’s light bulb ran at a low voltage of 110 volts on a direct current supply, the direct current part is very important for our story. 

[00:08:03] Now, a light bulb is great, but it’s pretty useless unless you have electricity to power it.

[00:08:10] So, Edison set himself the task of building the infrastructure to get electricity into people’s houses, so that they could buy and then power his light bulbs. 

[00:08:23] As his bulbs were made to run on DC current, he developed a DC supply system complete with electric meters to measure his clients’ usage. 

[00:08:35] Edison had a huge incentive to ensure that DC, not AC, was adopted as the standard current across the country. 

[00:08:46] Just think about the scale of things for one moment.

[00:08:50] Edison owned the patents for the incandescent light bulb that was initially designed to run on DC power. 

[00:08:57] He also sold his DC systems to cities to power these lights and he held all of the key patents for DC power distribution and he controlled all technical development.

[00:09:12] One word springs to mind: a monopoly. 

[00:09:15] Edison stood to make billions upon billions as the country, and indeed the entire world, began to electrify its houses, workplaces and streets. 

[00:09:28] And all of this money depended on his patented direct current system being standardised, being adopted as the standard current for electricity supply. 

[00:09:39] Imagine if there was one individual who would profit from every part of the creation of artificial light, and this gives you an idea of the scale of what Edison was on the cusp of achieving.

[00:09:53] This point is important to bear in mind as it will go some way to explaining the dishonourable tactics that Edison would later use to discredit his competitors.

[00:10:04] The reality was that DC, direct current, simply wasn’t up to the task, it wasn’t suitable.

[00:10:12] When transmitted over distances longer than one and half kilometres, substantial amounts of energy were lost. 

[00:10:20] And if you want to transmit power across the third largest country in the world, this is evidently a bit of a problem.

[00:10:28] For Edison’s dream to come true, there would need to be power stations in every town on every street corner, and this simply wasn’t a possibility.

[00:10:40] Another problem with DC, with direct current, was that it was not easily converted to higher or lower voltages. As DC ran at a constant rate, if another voltage supply was required, separate lines would need to be installed. 

[00:10:59] While Edison never lost faith, at least publicly, in the superiority of his DC power supply system, he did become aware of some of the limitations quite early on. 

[00:11:12] These faults inspired Edison to offer a substantial financial reward to any of his employees who could improve upon the performance of his DC machinery.

[00:11:24] And it’s here that we’ll meet another character whose name you may well have heard of, and one who will be central to our story.

[00:11:33] He was a young Serbian genius who had just moved to America, the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla. 

[00:11:42] By the way, our next member-only episode is going to be a deep dive on the life of Nikola Tesla, that’s going to be episode number 259, so do give that one a listen if you’d like to know more about this eccentric but brilliant man.

[00:11:58] Tesla had been fascinated with electricity since he was a child, and had long been working on a plan to improve the DC motors that he had studied at university. 

[00:12:10] He was a bit younger than Edison, 9 years younger to be precise, and had started working for Edison’s company first in Paris, and then when he emigrated to America as a 28-year-old.

[00:12:24] Tesla, as an Edison employee at the time, shared his plans for an AC motor that was far superior to Edison’s DC ones, and he was hopeful for the reward that Edison had promised.

[00:12:39] Unfortunately for Tesla, and you could say unfortunately for Edison, he wasn’t given the reward, and was instead told that the prize money was a joke, and he didn’t understand American humour. 

[00:12:53] Understandably annoyed at being turned down by Edison, Tesla promptly left Edison’s company and started up his own company.

[00:13:04] What Edison perhaps didn’t realise, though, is that Tesla was onto something with his ideas for an AC motor. 

[00:13:12] Alternating current, or AC, didn't have the same problems as DC. 

[00:13:18] AC could be transmitted over long distances then transformed with very little energy loss. 

[00:13:26] This meant fewer power plants would be needed, saving a huge amount of money. 

[00:13:33] What’s more, AC used thinner copper lines, saving even more money. 

[00:13:39] AC, put shortly, was far more efficient and cheaper.

[00:13:44] It could, in theory, supply rural areas and small towns, all of the places where it was just impossible to supply DC and still make a profit. 

[00:13:55] Plus AC could also be stepped up or down to other voltages as needed without the need for separate supply lines. 

[00:14:04] However, AC still needed some innovations and improvements to enable it to work as a functioning electrical supply and a direct competitor to DC.

[00:14:17] What’s more, Tesla may have been a genius, but at the time he was a young, unconnected immigrant without the funding or business knowledge to market and produce his AC motor.

[00:14:30] This is where we meet our third and final character, a certain George Westinghouse. 

[00:14:38] George Westinghouse was a Pittsburgh industrialist and a savvy businessman who had made his fortune in the railway industry but was now trying his hand at the next big thing: electricity. 

[00:14:52] He was quite a discrete character, unlike his soon-to-be rival Edison who enjoyed his time in the limelight, and his status as a celebrity inventor. 

[00:15:03] Westinghouse was a little bit of a latecomer to the electricity sector, but with his good business head, he soon realised the advantages of AC over DC for power supply. 

[00:15:18] Plus, with some modifications, incandescent lighting, Edison’s indoor lighting, could be made to run off either AC or DC.

[00:15:29] In short, Westinghouse realised that he could build a truly competitive AC system rather than simply copying Edison’s DC system. 

[00:15:40] Doing so would have been barely competitive and would have still needed various patents to get around Edison’s monopoly.

[00:15:49] What’s more, as Edison was struggling to build enough power plants and could only connect properties within a one-and-a-half kilometre radius from his plants, Westinghouse could easily supply all of Edison’s unsupplied city customers, as well as those in small towns and rural areas.

[00:16:10] It was a big and bold idea. 

[00:16:13] To make it come true, Westinghouse had the cash, investors and the business skills. 

[00:16:19] But to create and develop the AC motors and generators necessary to get his project off the drawing board and make it a reality, he needed Tesla’s AC motor.

[00:16:32] Tesla and Westinghouse came together after Tesla left Edison’s company, after he was refused the bonus

[00:16:40] Westinghouse went on to licence Tesla’s patents for his AC system, pitting him directly against Edison.

[00:16:50] In 1886 the Westinghouse Electrical Company had built the first commercial AC power system in America, in Buffalo, New York. 

[00:17:00] By the end of 1887, just one year later, Westinghouse had 68 AC power stations compared to Edison’s 121 DC stations.

[00:17:13] Remember, AC stations could supply many more customers over a greater area. To make matters worse for Edison, another electrical supply company, Thompson-Houston, had also muscled in on the scene with 22 power stations supplying both AC and DC. 

[00:17:35] Other smaller companies also got involved in supplying electricity, resulting in numerous legal battles with Edison over his patents.

[00:17:45] Mired in legal battles and struggling to make any significant improvements to his DC distribution system, Edison was losing out on power and profits. 

[00:17:57] However, having built up his lighting company and light bulbs to be mutually inclusive, he was understandably reluctant to admit defeat and switch to AC power.

[00:18:10] As the inventor of the light bulb that all of these other companies were vying to supply with power, as well as being considered a veritable “magician” by the public thanks to his inventions and research laboratory, Edison did not feel compelled to back down, to give in

[00:18:30] He firmly stood his ground, insisting that DC was better and safer than AC. 

[00:18:37] But, he was wrong.

[00:18:40] And as AC continued to grow in popularity, and Edison sensed he might not be able to win the battle if he competed fairly, he started to play dirty, his tactics becoming increasingly underhand.

[00:18:56] His primary tactic was to make the public think that AC, the electricity system proposed by Westinghouse, was so dangerous that it would kill you.

[00:19:09] In 1886, he publicly declared that Westinghouse would kill someone within six months due to the high voltages used in his AC power lines. 

[00:19:21] But not content with simply hoping that someone would eventually get electrocuted and killed, he wanted a way to demonstrate publicly how dangerous AC electricity was.

[00:19:35] And what better way to do this than getting the US government to kill someone with Westinghouse’s electricity?

[00:19:44] How Edison did this was both cunning, clever, and horrible at the same time. 

[00:19:50] He managed to persuade politicians that using electricity would be a more effective way of conducting the death sentence than hanging.

[00:20:00] There was already some knowledge that electricity could kill, because people working with electrical wires would sometimes die in an instant after touching a live wire.

[00:20:13] After reports of a drunken man being killed by a live electricity generator, a New York dentist called Alfred P. Southwick became interested in the idea of using electricity to kill, even publicly electrocuting hundreds of stray dogs to prove his point.

[00:20:33] So politicians thought that electricity could be an alternative to hanging, and wanted to explore this idea.

[00:20:42] Naturally, they consulted, they asked, the electricity experts of the day, including Westinghouse and Edison. 

[00:20:51] Westinghouse said that he wanted nothing to do with it, as he didn’t agree with capital punishment.

[00:20:58] Edison, on the other hand, recommended that Westinghouse’s AC system was used and even came up with the term “Westinghoused” to refer to a person who was intentionally or accidentally killed with electricity. 

[00:21:14] The government made up its mind, and it was decided to test using electricity as opposed to hanging as a way to conduct the death penalty.

[00:21:24] You probably know what I’m talking about: the electric chair.

[00:21:29] Westinghouse had refused to sell his AC generators to be used to kill, but Edison made sure that a Westinghouse AC generator was used when the first electric chair was being designed. 

[00:21:43] Edison was secretly paying an electrical engineer called Brown, who would organise the purchase of Westinghouse's generators specifically for use with the electric chair. 

[00:21:56] Horrified that his electrical machinery was going to be used to kill someone, Westinghouse even paid a substantial amount for the chosen convict’s, the criminal’s, appeal.

[00:22:09] This was all to no avail, it had no impact. 

[00:22:14] William Kremmler, a man convicted of killing his wife, became the first person executed by the electric chair in 1890. 

[00:22:24] Now, you probably know that even now an electric chair is considered to be a horrific and inhumane way to kill someone, but the first execution using it was even worse.

[00:22:37] I will spare you the worst details, but suffice it to say that it took ten minutes and Westinghouse later commented "They would have done better using an axe".

[00:22:50] While Edison was adamant that AC was more dangerous due to the high voltages used, both types of current can cause severe injury and death. 

[00:23:01] And although Westinghouse’s AC system was forever associated with the electric chair in the public’s mind, this didn’t really stop its ascent, stop its rise to the top.

[00:23:15] As AC continued to spread, Edison’s profits fell while his legal costs and the copper prices went up. 

[00:23:24] Remember DC lines needed more copper than AC ones. 

[00:23:29] Given the increasingly gloomy outlook, some of Edison’s investors and engineers attempted to convince him to consider AC. 

[00:23:40] However, their concerns fell upon deaf ears

[00:23:44] Edison, not used to being wrong, was adamant that his DC system was superior and he was determined to succeed even if it meant continuing to play even dirtier than before.

[00:23:58] He put out adverts and newspaper articles, blamed accidents where workmen were killed by electricity on Westinghouse, and did anything he could to discredit his rival’s system.

[00:24:12] Despite all of the bad publicity and attacks, the spread of AC couldn’t be stopped. It was more efficient and cheaper.

[00:24:21] Westinghouse, and his more cost-efficient AC, won the contract to supply electricity to the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, which provided an impressive showcase for Tesla and Westinghouse’s AC supply system. 

[00:24:38] This was one of the largest displays of electrical power ever created, with hundreds of lights illuminating, lighting up, the lake and the purpose-built neoclassical buildings, while brightly coloured searchlights dazzled across the night sky.

[00:24:55] That very same year the Niagara Falls Power Company awarded Westinghouse the contract to generate power from the Niagara Falls with Tesla’s AC induction motor. 

[00:25:07] This achievement was largely considered to represent the end of the War of the Currents and confirmed AC’s position as the dominant current in the electricity supply industry. 

[00:25:20] However, DC didn’t die out completely. 

[00:25:23] In fact, DC has been gaining ground in recent years, being better suited for use with batteries and other sensitive electronic appliances. 

[00:25:34] Today, DC is used for electric vehicles, computers, solar panels and LEDs, for example. 

[00:25:42] Methods have also been developed to enable us to more easily convert DC to higher and lower voltages

[00:25:51] Thanks to advances in high voltage DC, companies are finding new ways to transmit DC over long distances with less energy loss. 

[00:26:02] So, while AC may have been declared the winner of War of the Currents at the turn of the last century, it looks like DC is here to stay and perhaps it may go on to play an even more important role in the years to come. 

[00:26:21] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the War of the Currents

[00:26:26] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a little bit about the history of lighting and electricity, as well as some of the people whose inventions have changed the world. 

[00:26:37] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:26:41] Do you think Westinghouse was unfairly targeted by Edison? 

[00:26:46] Could you imagine living in a world without electricity?

[00:26:49] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:58] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:27:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]