The True Story Of The Industrial Feud That Inspired 'The Current War'

Before America was placed on the electrical grid, there was a fierce clash for the throne of electricity. On one end was Thomas Edison, the proud patent holder of direct current (DC) and the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. On the other end stood George Westinghouse, who owned Nikola Tesla's patents for alternating current (AC). The conflict - as depicted in the film The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison, Michael Shannon as Westinghouse, and Nicholas Hoult as Tesla - would define American power for the next century.

Though Edison pushed his DC system as the best option for electric power, he was aware of its drawbacks. Direct current could effectively deliver electricity to objects like his light bulb by giving them a constant stream of electrical charge, but it was not very powerful and its range was limited. Hired by Edison to refine direct current, mathematician and engineer Nikola Tesla developed a new, more powerful system that used an alternating stream of electricity to power large regions by switching the flow of charge along the way.

Edison initially dismissed Tesla's alternating current, but after Westinghouse purchased the AC patents of his former employee, the DC inventor retaliated. Staging a series of violent displays of public execution via AC electrocution, Edison intended to frighten the media and masses away from the competing current.

  • Edison Hired Tesla, Then Rejected His Suggestions To Move Toward AC

    After his invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879, Thomas Edison stood to gain a fortune from companies that wanted to use his DC electricity to power cities. DC, however, had a limited range and could not be transmitted over long distances without losing energy. To improve his DC system, Edison hired mathematician and engineer Nikola Tesla.

    Tesla's research concluded that alternating current was much more efficient than DC and could expand electrical reach much further. Edison dismissed his findings as sensational and impossible, then refused to pay their agreed upon compensation. Tesla parted ways with Edison to pursue his own electrical endeavors with Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing.

  • Westinghouse Bought Tesla’s AC Patents And Began Commercializing It Across The Nation 

    Edison tried to sweep Tesla under the rug, but others were keeping their eyes on AC electricity and its potential benefits. George Westinghouse, head of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing, purchased Tesla's patents for AC power and began installing it in every area he could reach - particularly in remote areas unreachable by DC.

    To cut into the competition, Westinghouse was ambitious in his power campaign - even losing money to undermine Edison in large cities such as New Orleans. The man was determined to storm the market and make electricity more than a luxury.

  • Alfred P. Southwick Began Development Of An Electricity-Based Execution Method

    After witnessing the fatal consequence of a drunken man stumbling into a generator, Buffalo dentist Alfred P. Southwick had an epiphany: Electricity could be the means to replace the cruelty of hanging as an execution method.

    Searching for educated advice, Southwick reached out to Edison.

  • Edison Joined Forces With Southwick To Demonstrate The Lethality Of AC Systems
    Photo: Giuseppe Primoli / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Edison Joined Forces With Southwick To Demonstrate The Lethality Of AC Systems

    Edison, not wanting to be associated with capital punishment, directed Southwick to the patents of his rival, George Westinghouse. 

    He proposed that electrical execution could be achieved via Westinghouse's "alternating machine" - a way to both satisfy the persistent dentist and defame AC electrical systems.