As a secondary energy source, electricity became essential to industrialization, as it afforded precise power application.
Electricity is really just organized lightning. ~ American comedian George Carlin
Electrical phenomena were appreciated in prehistory, but as late as the 18th century, electricity was nothing but a curiosity. Toward the end of that century, researchers flipped the switch of electricity’s status from parlor trick to scientific pursuit. While there was rapid progress in electrical science in the early 1800s, it was not until the late 19th century that scientific understanding began to have an economic impact.
American inventor Samuel Morse developed the electric telegraph 1832–1844, following on work by English scientist Michael Faraday, who discovered electromagnetic induction and other electrically related phenomena. Faraday’s work formed the foundation for electric motor technology and led to generating electricity on an industrial scale.
Replicating lightning on a small scale entranced many researchers. In 1800, Italian physicist and chemist Alessandro Volta invented the battery and made a wire glow.
British physicist and chemist Joseph Swan invented the incandescent light bulb, which he first demonstrated in 1878. American inventor Thomas Edison claimed credit the next year for inventing a practical light bulb, based upon work by his assistant, Serbian-American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla.
Also in 1879, German inventor and industrialist Werner von Siemens improved the telegraph by pointing to letters rather than requiring Morse code interpretation. Siemens had already invented the moving-coil transducer in the mid-1870s, which led to the loudspeaker. In 1880 Siemens invented the electric elevator. 2 years later he came up with the streetcar.
In 1882, Edison had an electrical generating station working in lower Manhattan. Streetlights sprouted there. But these small power stations, such as Edison’s DC system, could only distribute electricity short distances without severe power loss.
American entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse invented the rotary steam engine when he was 19 years old. It was the first of many innovations he made, several of which went to railway technology.
Westinghouse became interested in electrical power distribution. He investigated Edison’s scheme, but decided that it could not be scaled up.
Westinghouse went to work developing a practical AC electric power generation and distribution system. He began by importing the best technology at the time, including a Siemens AC generator, then went about making improvements as needed. In 1888, Tesla invented a practical multi-phase AC induction motor and transformer, which Westinghouse licensed.
Westinghouse built a few test generating systems. The first was in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1886. His systems used high-voltage distribution (3,000 volts), stepped down to 100 volts for lights.
Westinghouse’s promotion of AC power led him into bitter confrontation with Edison, who favored DC. The feud became known as the “War of Currents.”
Edison claimed that high-voltage AC systems were inherently dangerous. In 1903, Edison cruelly electrocuted an elephant to make the point, not bothering to note that high-voltage DC current could have done the same.
Edison pushed the absurdity of the war to an apex with another execution. Edison, who ostensibly opposed capital punishment, to humans at least, set out to discredit AC power by secretly paying for the first electric chair to be built for the state of New York. Edison told the state board that alternating current was so deadly that it could instantly kill.
30-year-old convicted murderer William Kemmler was the first to be executed by electrocution. Westinghouse had hired a top-drawer lawyer to defend Kemmler. The lawyer condemned electrocution as a “cruel and unusual punishment;” but the powerful tycoon J.P. Morgan, who was backing Edison, had more pull with the court.
In August 1890, Kemmler was electrified for 17 seconds and still survived. Jailers were horrified but turned the juice back on until the convict expired. Edison lied and Kemmler was fried until he died.
The electric chair went on to become a common American execution method for decades, even as its tortuous nature was apparent. Despite his success with barbarity, Edison was unable to popularize his pet slogan: “to be Westinghoused.”
Edison – a vicious, unscrupulous, sharp-tongued man – became celebrated as a “wizard.” In contrast, the fair-minded Westinghouse, comparably inventive and of upstanding character, but lacking Edison’s taste for grandstanding, garnered less renown.
By the end of the century Westinghouse had demonstrated a working hydroelectric station at Niagara Falls. The power commission there had rejected Edison’s proposal. General Electric, which absorbed Edison’s electric company, completed a 2nd AC station in 1904.
Though AC won the War of Currents worldwide, DC power continued in some cities, including Stockholm and parts of Boston, Massachusetts, into the 1960s. Consolidated Edison did not eliminate DC power provision in New York City until 2007.