The birth of a rivalry
Nikola Tesla, of Serbian origin, was born in 1856 in a small village in what is now Croatia. With a brilliant mind, at the age of 25 years he got his first job as an engineer in Hungary. From there he moved to France, where he worked in a subsidiary of what would be his biggest rival, Thomas Edison. In 1883 his huge talent took him to the United States to work with Edison himself.
The American, six years his senior, was already a highly prestigious inventor. He had just perfected and patented the light bulb. These two geniuses soon clashed.
In those years, electricity was making qualitative and quantitative strides. Demand was growing, larger power plants were being built and more energy needed to be transmitted over increasingly long distances. The vast American West needed to power ever larger cities and industries.
Thomas Edison advocated direct current, a more expensive and inefficient system due to dissipation of part of the energy in the form of heat. Nikola Tesla, on the other hand, was in favour of alternating current. The war began.
The war of the currents
Tesla proved that Edison's direct current was more expensive and inefficient. The greater the distance, the more energy was lost along the way. Tesla presented his own system as an improvement: alternating current.
Tesla's idea meant that electricity generated in the power plants could be increased to high voltage and transmitted over huge distances with hardly any energy loss. Once it reached its destination, it would be easy and cheap to use transformers to distribute it at medium and low voltage. This is the system used today to deliver energy from a power station to your home.
The rivalry between Tesla and Edison was more than a battle of ideas. It was also a financial war between companies. Thomas Edison allied with J.P. Morgan, the most powerful banker in the United States, to electrify the entire country with direct current. This was the beginnings of the almighty General Electric. Nikola Tesla created the Tesla Electric Company and partnered with inventor and entrepreneur George Westinghouse Jr.
Edison knew that his system was less efficient, but it would have meant losing huge sums of money. The Tesla company started winning more and more contracts, since the advantages were clear. But he encountered a serious obstacle: there were several fatal accidents involving engineers and operators, due to the high voltages of alternating current. Edison's side used each death as an excuse to discredit Tesla and his alternating current with the help of several widely-read newspapers.
These dirty dealings included circus-style public demonstrations, with Edison's supporters first applying a mild continuous current to an animal, leaving it stunned. Then they applied high voltage alternating current and electrocuted it. The intention was to spread panic about the consequences of electrifying the country with alternating current. Edison himself stooped to writing alarmist articles in which he described alternating current as a "constant threat" to homes and people.