Science history: How George Westinghouse lit up the world


Success flowed from the epic Current War.


George Westinghouse secured more than 360 patents, but still had detractors.

By Jeff Glorfeld

“Three brilliant visionaries set off in a charged battle for the future in The Current War, the epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world.”

That’s how the online movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes introduces the 2017 film, which flopped, was withdrawn from circulation, then re-edited and released again in 2019.

The “three brilliant visionaries” were Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.

Edison was born on 11 February 1847, in Milan, Ohio, and, the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us, “held a world record 1093 patents. In addition, he created the world’s first industrial research laboratory.” He was, it says, “the most famous inventor in American history”.

On the other hand, says Casey Cep, writing in the 28 October 2019 edition of The New Yorker magazine, “Edison’s detractors insist that his greatest invention was his own fame, cultivated at the expense of collaborators and competitors alike.”

A 2012 article headlined “The story of Tesla and Westinghouse”, published by International Turbomachinery, which brands itself “the global journal of energy equipment”, proclaims “Nikola Tesla’s invention of the brushless polyphase alternating current (AC) induction motor and associated equipment … changed the whole world, industrially and domestically”.

It continues: “Together, these two great men [Westinghouse and Tesla] led the world on a path of AC which skyrocketed progress in what some call the great second industrial revolution.”

The article explains what it calls the “battle of the currents” and “the strong opposition of Thomas Edison, the inventor of direct current (DC)”, and how “AC won to give us all the vast AC electrical system we have today”.

A column titled “Ask an Engineer”, published by the prestigious US Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains the difference between AC and DC.

It describes electrical current as “the flow of charged particles, or specifically in the case of AC and DC, the flow of electrons”. DC is constant and flows in one direction, while AC moves in an oscillating pattern, positive to negative.

The article quotes Karl Berggren, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, who says AC’s wave-like motion “makes it an efficient traveller”.

“Berggren explains that AC became popular in the late nineteenth century because of its ability to efficiently distribute power at low voltages… The ability to transform voltages from AC meant that it was possible to transmit power much more efficiently across the country.”

A 2011 article by Gilbert King in Smithsonian magazine, “Edison vs Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry”, says mathematician and engineer Tesla, an ethnic Serb born in what is now Croatia on 10 July 1856, was 28 in 1884 when he went to work for Edison, tasked with redesigning Edison’s DC generators.

"The future of electric distribution, Tesla told Edison, was in alternating current… Edison dismissed Tesla’s ideas as ‘splendid’ but ‘utterly impractical’,” King says.

Tesla left Edison in 1885 and tried to form his own company but was bought out by George Westinghouse, who, through his Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, set out to commercialise Tesla’s AC system and, King says, make electric light “something more than an urban luxury service”.

Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York, on 6 October 1846. His father owned a machine shop where he serviced farm equipment and small steam engines.

Young George spent a brief time at university but left and went to work in his father's shop, where, in 1865, he developed and patented a rotary steam engine, and also invented a device for placing derailed railway cars back on their track.

Much as Edison was dogged by those who said his fame was the result of the work of others, Westinghouse is sometimes regarded as merely an entrepreneur. But his compressed-air powered brakes and signalling systems, which transformed railroad safety, were just some of his more than 360 patents.

Westinghouse died on 12 March 1914.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_current_war
  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Edison/Menlo-Park
  3. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/10/28/the-real-nature-of-thomas-edisons-genius
  4. https://www.turbomachinerymag.com/story-of-tesla-and-westinghouse/
  5. https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/whats-the-difference-between-ac-and-dc/
  6. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edison-vs-westinghouse-a-shocking-rivalry-102146036/
  7. http://www.westinghousenuclear.com/about/history
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