Tuesday, September 13, 2022
Mankind has spent most of its 300,000 years of history lighting itself with campfires, fires, or candles. It was in 1863 when the British James Clerk Maxwell discovered the laws of electromagnetism that made it possible to know how this energy behaved. From then on, a race to domesticate it and put it at the service of humans was unleashed.
One of the first to take advantage of it was Thomas Alva Edison. This American, born in a town called Milan, Ohio, in 1847, had grown up with the instinct to ask questions about everything. For example, he once wanted to know how the hay would burn. Was it fast burning? How did it smell? Does the flame jump to neighboring objects, or does it extinguish itself? So little Edison decided to set fire to the hay in his father's barn. The fire spread so quickly that it destroyed the family barn.
As he grew older, Edison experimented with chemicals, machinery and telegraphy. In 1868 he invented an electric vote counter that made counting faster and less cumbersome in elections. It was his first patent in a long list. But politicians despised his invention because they could not manipulate elections. Edison would say many years later: "Never invent anything that is not necessary for the community at large."
His genius was fully applied to finding a public use for electricity, which is why he invented a long-lasting light bulb. He later founded the Edison Electric Light Company. If all citizens could have access to light by means of a light bulb, light had to be provided on a large scale.
His great dream was to illuminate New York, specifically Manhattan, and for this he chose direct current (DC). It was a safe current that worked very well over short distances: it only needed a dynamo to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. He set up a factory to build dynamos and managed to convince the city councilors to gut the streets, lay subway cables and send all the power of his machines through there. Finally, in September 1882, he pushed the button and illuminated much of Lower Manhattan.
Among his employees, there was one who stood out in particular. He was a young European of Croatian origin named Nikola Tesla. Like him, Tesla was passionate about technology. Tesla was born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia. He was a strange kid who had hallucinations. "I suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which distorted the appearance of real objects and interfered with my thought and action," Tesla went on to say.
Fond of machines and electricity, as a teenager he imagined a gigantic wheel moved by the falling waters of Niagara Falls in the distant American continent. He was viewing a hydroelectric power plant. When he was 26 years old, he invented the first alternating current induction motor. Shortly thereafter, in 1884, Tesla came into contact with Edison's company, which was setting up shop in Europe, specifically in Paris. One of the engineers was attracted to Tesla's ideas, and recommended him to Edison, who asked him to join the company in the USA. Tesla did not hesitate: he took a ship and traveled to New York.
To maintain his vast network of light throughout Manhattan, Edison had to plant dynamos around the city because direct current had the defect that power was lost with distance. Tesla realized that he could solve this problem with a simpler system: alternating current (AC). The difference was that in direct current the electrons travel in only one direction, while in alternating current they go back and forth in a circuit at a rate of 50 times per second. It required fewer power stations, fewer wires and had much more power available that could be distributed not only for lights but for any other electrical device.
Edison told him that alternating current "had no future and anyone dabbling in that field was wasting his time; and besides, it was a deadly current, whereas direct current was safe," Tesla would recall in his memoirs. Instead of listening to him, Edison awarded him the mission of improving the continuous power dynamos for which he would pay him $55,000. Within a few months, Tesla succeeded in designing dynamos that tripled the efficiency of Edison's dynamos, and when he went to show his result, and demand his reward, Edison mocked him by saying that the promise was just a joke based on the American sense of humor.
Tesla couldn't take anymore, left the company and managed to found his own company: Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. Western Union realized that Tesla's generators outperformed Edison's generators. He set up a laboratory where his inventions began to emerge: they were motors that produced alternating current electricity thanks to dynamos that used transformers. "The motors I built there," Tesla would say, "were exactly as I imagined them. I simply reproduced the images as they appeared in my vision, and the result was always as I expected." George Westinghouse, an entrepreneur who wanted to compete with Edison in the generation and distribution of light, bet on Tesla's energy and adapted his patents.
It was at this time that Edison began a campaign to discredit Tesla and his alternating current. He labeled it as dangerous energy. He said that Westinghouse would kill its customers with an electric current. Even when Edison was asked for advice on building the first electric chair to execute William Kemmler, Edison recommended Westinghouse and Tesla's alternative energy because it was deadly. And, indeed, the criminal was executed with an alternating current shock.
Tesla patented his motors and it gradually became apparent that alternating current was more efficient because once it was produced, it was easy to transport over long distances, and its power could be increased solely with the support of transformers. Once it entered homes, the alternating current was converted into the harmless direct current, which today is used by small household appliances.
In 1895, Westinghouse turned Tesla's teenage vision into reality: he used the power of Niagara Falls to build a giant alternating current electric motor to power the city of Buffalo. By then, it was clear who had won the so-called "electricity war": Nikola Tesla.
Today it is electricity that moves the world.
Mike Winchell. "The Electric War". Henry Holt and Company. New York, 2019.
Nikola Tesla. “Yo y la energía”. (Prepared by Miguel Delgado). Turner. Madrid. 2011.