Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Guten Abend, Salonistas.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Our speaker today is best known in the Salon for his annual and well-received presentations on many aspects of the nautical life, but today he brings us a different kind of current.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Admiral Wildstar Beaumont, welcome back.
Wildstar Beaumont: thank you 🙂
Wildstar Beaumont: Hello everyone and welcome to this month’s Salon
Wildstar Beaumont: Yes, I know. Me again! Sorry. I promise you won’t be seeing me again until September 😉
Wildstar Beaumont: The topic of this talk is electricity, and in particular electric ships, and how this electricity became the dominant source of propulsion for all those magnificent vessels that sail both the seas and the skies of our steam-diesel-vernian-punk world.
Wildstar Beaumont: No …
Wildstar Beaumont: This is wrong … this months is not about sailing … not even electric sailing …
Wildstar Beaumont: Oh well .. Sorry … I was looking at the notes for a future September Salon.
And I must be careful not to mix electric ships and electric sheep. That’s even another thing. Androids, High Castles and Flowing Tears included.
Wildstar Beaumont: No, no, no. Sorry about the mix-up. Anyway … Today’s topic is actually from the history of that mythical world called real life, and it concern a pivotal moment in the introduction of electricity: the so called War of the Currents
Wildstar Beaumont: In the late 19th century, three brilliant inventors, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, battled over which electricity system—direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)–would become standard.
Wildstar Beaumont: During their bitter dispute, dubbed the War of the Currents, Edison championed the direct-current system, in which electrical current flows steadily in one direction, while Tesla and Westinghouse promoted the alternating-current system, in which the current’s flow constantly alternates.
Wildstar Beaumont: Let us talk a bit about our contenders here and let us get to know them.
Wildstar Beaumont: Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor and even more a savvy businessman who acquired a record number of 1,093 patents (singly or jointly) and was the driving force behind such innovations as the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, the alkaline battery and one of the earliest motion picture cameras.
Wildstar Beaumont: One of the most famous men in the world by the time he was in his 30s, Edison, on top of his technical talents, was highly skilled at marketing his inventions—and himself—to the public.
Wildstar Beaumont: Born in 1847, Edison developed hearing loss by 12 and dropped out of school. When he was 13, he was already making 50$ per week (a substantial amount back then) by selling food and newspapers to train passengers.
Wildstar Beaumont: During the civil war he became interested in the telegraph, but since his hearing problems put him at a disadvantage with auditory signals, he started working on devices (such as a printer converting electrical signals to letters) to overcome his problem. By 1869 he left telegraphy to become a full time inventor
Wildstar Beaumont: Edison worked out of Newark, NJ, and despite some financial difficulties, by 1876 – with some help from his father – he was able to build a laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, NJ
Wildstar Beaumont: Some historians consider Edison’s “invention factory” the prototype of modern R&D labs, after which AT&T Bell labs, Xerox’ Palo Alto Research Center and others were modeled after.
Wildstar Beaumont: In following years Edison developed the carbon transmitter, to improve the quality of telephone calls, the phonograph, and the electric light bulb, inexpensive replacement to the gaslight, a challenge scientists had been after for the past 50 years.
Wildstar Beaumont: With the help of prominent investors, the Edison Electric Light Company was founded, which, eventually, after the events of the War of the Currents, merged with another company to become General Electric.
Wildstar Beaumont: In his later years he had the idea of linking the phonograph to a zoetrope, a device that strung together a series of photographs in such a way that the images appeared to be moving. This effort eventually led to the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera, and a viewing instrument, the Kinetoscope.
Wildstar Beaumont: He was in legal battles with his competitors in the raising motion-picture industry for several years, and by 1918 he had stopped working on the fields.
Wildstar Beaumont: In 1912, automaker Henry Ford asked Edison to design a battery for the self-starter, which would be introduced on the iconic Model T.
Wildstar Beaumont: Despite limited success of his later inventions, Edison kept working well into his 80s eventually dying in 1931
Wildstar Beaumont: Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1863 Tesla’s brother Daniel was killed in a riding accident. The shock of the loss unsettled the 7-year-old Tesla, who reported seeing visions—the first signs of his lifelong mental illnesses.
Wildstar Beaumont: He studied math and physics at the Technical University of Graz and philosophy at the University of Prague. In 1882, he had the idea for a brushless AC motor, making the first sketches of its rotating electromagnets in the sand.
Wildstar Beaumont: Later that year he moved to Paris and got a job repairing direct current (DC) power plants with the Continental Edison Company. Two years later he immigrated to the United States.
Wildstar Beaumont: Tesla arrived in New York in 1884 and was hired as an engineer at Thomas Edison’s Manhattan headquarters. He worked there for a year, impressing Edison with his diligence and ingenuity.
Wildstar Beaumont: At one point Edison told Tesla he would pay $50,000 for an improved design for his DC dynamos.
Wildstar Beaumont: After months of experimentation, Tesla presented a solution and asked for the money. Edison demurred, saying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Tesla quit soon after.
Wildstar Beaumont: After an unsuccessful attempt to start his own company and a stint digging ditches for $2 a day, Tesla found backers to support his research into alternating current.
Wildstar Beaumont: In 1887 and 1888 he was granted more than 30 patents and invited to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on his work. His lecture caught the attention of George Westinghouse, the inventor who had launched the first AC power system near Boston and was Edison’s major competitor in the “Battle of the Currents.”
Wildstar Beaumont: Tesla also experimented with X-rays, gave short-range demonstrations of radio communication and piloted a radio-controlled boat around a pool in Madison Square Garden. Together, Tesla and Westinghouse lit the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and partnered with General Electric to install AC generators at Niagara Falls, creating the first modern power station.
Wildstar Beaumont: In 1895 Tesla’s New York lab burned, destroying years’ worth of notes and equipment. Tesla relocated to Colorado Springs for two years, returning to New York in 1900.
Wildstar Beaumont: He secured backing from financier J.P. Morgan and began building a global communications network centered on a giant tower at Wardenclyffe, on Long Island. But funds ran out and Morgan balked at Tesla’s grandiose schemes.
Wildstar Beaumont: Tesla lived his last decades in a New York hotel, working on new inventions even as his energy and mental health faded.
Wildstar Beaumont: His obsession with the number three and fastidious washing were dismissed as the eccentricities of genius. He spent his final years feeding—and, he claimed, communicating with—the city’s pigeons.
Wildstar Beaumont: Tesla died in his room on January 7, 1943. The AC system he championed and improved remains the global standard for power transmission.
Wildstar Beaumont: Our third player is George Westinghouse.
Wildstar Beaumont: George Westinghouse was one of the most prolific inventors and businessmen of the Industrial Revolution. After serving in the Union Army and Navy, he patented several devices, particularly for railroads. He would eventually start the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company to improve alternating current (AC) power generators
Wildstar Beaumont: Born in 1846 in Central Bridge, New York, Westinghouse, when his father opened a machinery shop, a young George would spend his time there and develop a keen interest in steam engines.
Wildstar Beaumont: However, the Civil War forced George to put his experiments on hold, and he served in the Union Army and later, as an assistant engineer for the Navy.
Wildstar Beaumont: Although he enlisted in college, he dropped out just months later, when he received his first patent for a rotary steam engine invention.
Wildstar Beaumont: Westinghouse’s major contributions started with inventions revolving around railroad safety, most notably his compressed air brake system which eventually became a standard of safety not only in the US but also in Canada and Europe.
Wildstar Beaumont: Westinghouse’s interest in alternating current technology came after working on natural gas control and distribution projects, in which he invented a valve that helped take high-pressure gas and bring it down to low-pressure use. From that experience, he turned his attention to electricity, believing that a similar approach could distribute power for widespread use.
Wildstar Beaumont: Confident that developing alternating current (AC) technology — converting high voltage to low through a transformer — was the way of the future, Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886, entering fierce competition with Edison.
Wildstar Beaumont: Westinghouse’s business empire prospered for years. Within a decade of founding the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886, the inventor would accrue a company net worth of $120 million, 50,000 workers on his payroll and manufacturing entities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
Wildstar Beaumont: However, a disastrous financial panic in 1907 forced the inventor to cut all ties to it by 1911. It was then that his health took a turn for the worse. Suffering from heart problems, he died in 1914.
Wildstar Beaumont: Let me get technical for a second and let me try to explain is simple terms – also for those not adept in electro-technical themes – what the dispute was about (beside money, of course)
Wildstar Beaumont: Alternating current (AC) power is the standard electricity that today comes out of power outlets and is defined as a flow of charge that exhibits a periodic change in direction.
Wildstar Beaumont: Direct current (DC) power, as you may infer from the name, is a linear electrical current—it moves in a straight line, like in a battery or a fuel cell.
Wildstar Beaumont: There are many plus and minuses for either system, but what makes the big difference, and eventually led AC to become dominant on the grid is that AC, despite being more hazardous and complex, is much more suited for distribution of electrical power, efficiently and at lower costs.
Wildstar Beaumont: Despite their many other achievements, the war of the currents is probably the event for which our characters are remembered the most.
Wildstar Beaumont: In the late 19th century, Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse battled over which electricity system would become standard.
Wildstar Beaumont: During their dispute, Edison championed the direct-current system, while Tesla and Westinghouse promoted the alternating-current system,.
Wildstar Beaumont: After developing the world’s first practical light bulb in the late 1870s, Edison began building a system for producing and distributing electricity so businesses and homes could use his new invention. He opened his first power plant, in New York City, in 1882, and DC was the standard by then.
Wildstar Beaumont: DC has one problem though: It is not easily converted to higher or lower voltages. AC can be converted to different voltages relatively easily using a transformer.
Wildstar Beaumont: Tesla, as we already mentioned, went to work for Edison. Tesla helped improve Edison’s DC generators while also attempting to interest his boss in an AC motor he’d been developing; however, the inventor from Menlo Park, firmly supporting DC, claimed AC had no future.
Wildstar Beaumont: Tesla quit his job in 1885 and a few years later received a number of patents for his AC technology. In 1888, he sold his patents to George Westinghouse, whose Westinghouse Electric Company had quickly become an Edison competitor.
Wildstar Beaumont: Feeling threatened by the rise of AC, which could be distributed over long distances much more economically than DC, and not wanting to lose the royalties he was earning from his direct current patents, began a campaign to discredit alternating current, Edison launched a propaganda campaign to discredit AC and convince the public it was dangerous.
Wildstar Beaumont: As part of the campaign, animals were publicly electrocuted with AC, and when New York State sought a more humane alternative to hanging its death-penalty prisoners, Edison, once an opponent of capital punishment, recommended alternating current-powered electrocution as the fastest, deadliest option.
Wildstar Beaumont: In 1890, convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first person to die in the electric chair. The apparatus, designed by an electricity salesman secretly on Edison’s payroll, was powered by a Westinghouse AC generator.
Wildstar Beaumont: The fierce competition between Edison and Westinghouse over electricity spilled into a legal battle called The Seven Years War or the Currents War
Wildstar Beaumont: Ultimately, however, Edison failed in his efforts to discredit AC. The Chicago World’s Fair — also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition — took place in 1893, at the height of the Current War.
Wildstar Beaumont: General Electric which was formed in 1892 by a merger involving Edison’s company, bid to electrify the fair using Edison’s direct current for $554,000, but lost to George Westinghouse, who said he could power the fair for only $399,000 using Tesla’s alternating current.
Wildstar Beaumont: The expo became a dazzling showcase for Tesla’s AC system.
Wildstar Beaumont: Westinghouse also received an important contract to construct the AC generators for a hydro-electric power plant at Niagara Falls; in 1896, the plant started delivering electricity all the way to Buffalo, 26 miles away.
Wildstar Beaumont: By this time General Electric had decided to jump on the alternating current train, too and the Niagara Falls achievement was regarded as the unofficial end to the War of the Currents, and AC became dominant in the electric power industry.
Wildstar Beaumont: Today our electricity is still predominantly powered by alternating current, but computers, LEDs, solar cells and electric vehicles all run on DC power. And methods are now available for converting direct current to higher and lower voltages. Since direct current is more stable, companies are finding ways of using high voltage direct current (HVDC) to transport electricity long distances with less electricity loss.
Wildstar Beaumont: So, it appears the War of the Currents may not be over yet. But instead of continuing in a heated AC vs. DC battle, it looks like the two currents will end up working parallel to each other in a sort of hybrid armistice.
Wildstar Beaumont: I teased you in my opening with the concept of electric sheep … ahem … ships. Well, let me conclude with that as well.
Wildstar Beaumont: There has been recently another line of resurgence for a larger adoption of DC, that goes beyond its use on battery powered environments, like computers and cell phones.
Wildstar Beaumont: DC has been recently opening a new offensive in large industrial applications. Ship builders, for example, have started exploring DC for marine propulsion. Engineers are looking at using DC current to build better and more efficient “green” ships.
Wildstar Beaumont: The Royal Navy, for instance, is working on the development of the technology for next-next generation ships.
Wildstar Beaumont: But that’s the future. And any innovation that will lead us into new applications will be built on the experience started by those epic events that took place 130 years ago
Wildstar Beaumont: Thank you very much for you attention today and see you in September for my usual naval related salon
Bonus info shared during after-chatter:
Wildstar Beaumont: one little interesting fact
Wildstar Beaumont: why AC is dangerous ?
Wildstar Beaumont: first of all … all electricity is dangerous. DC can kill you as well if it finds a path through you body
Wildstar Beaumont: but
Wildstar Beaumont: while in most cases DC will give you a shock that will make you disconnect from whatever charged circuit you have touched
Wildstar Beaumont: AC, changing direction many times per second will basically trick your body in staying in contact … causing eventually much larger damage
Wildstar Beaumont: and interfering with your heart
Wildstar Beaumont: and now .. since we have past the top of the hour you may go 😉 grins