Contested Currents
The Race to Electrify America

Introduction/Site Map | Classroom Resources | Bibliography || Cover Page

Thomas Edison – (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931)
Thomas Edison worked as a telegraph opperator and became quite familiar with the design and manufacture of telegraphs. In 1875, he invented a "multiplex  telegraph", a system that allowed multiple telegraph signals to be sent over a single wire. He also invented an improved stock tape ticker, an invention he called the "Universal Stock Printer". By selling his patents for these inventions, Edison made enough money to create the world’s first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was there, in 1877, where Edison first won internation fame by inventing the phonograph. His fame and reputation increased even more in 1878, when Edison improved the incandescent light bulb.

To create an electrical power system for the whole nation, Edison realized he needed the help of wealthy industralists like JP Morgan and William Vanderbilt. On September 4th, 1882, Edison switched on the world's first DC electrical power distribution system, providing 110 volts direct current (DC) to lower Manhattan, including JP Morgan’s house and the offices of the New York Times.

To learn more about Thomas Edison try the following activities:

ACTIVITY – Recreate a telegraph




ACTIVITY – Recreate Edison’s electric light bulb

Edison's Light Bulb1.pdf

Edison's Light Bulb1.doc


Edison's Light Bulb2.pdf

Edison's Light Bulb2.doc


BACKGROUND - Who really invented the light bulb?

Edison vs Latimer.pdf

Edison vs Latimer.doc


George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse, Jr. was born in 1846 as the son of a machine shop owner. At the age of sixteen, George enlisted in the Navy. Throughout the United States Civil War, he served in both the Army and Navy.


Early in his life he witnessed a train wreck where two train engineers saw one another, but were unable to stop their trains in time using the existing brakes.


In 1869, at age 22, he invented a railroad braking system using compressed air. It was patented by Westinghouse on March 5, 1872. The Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO) was created to manufacture and sell Westinghouse's invention.


After making a small fortune selling his railroad air brakes, Westinghouse and his new wife moved to a house in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, that they called, “Solitude”. This was not only George Westinghouse’s home but also his private laboratory and a place of invention, creation, and experimentation. In 1884, after striking gas in his backyard, Westinghouse invented ways to control and transmit natural gas to both industrial and residential consumers. By 1886, Westinghouse invented a piping system, an automatic cut-off regulator and a gas meter and eventually distributed natural gas to his immediate neighborhood.


Because of Westinghouse's interest in gas distribution, he became interested in electrical power distribution and the key to electrical power distribution, was a power transformer developed by Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs in 1881. The Gaulard-Gibbs design was one of the first that could handle large amounts of power and was easily manufactured. In 1885, Westinghouse imported a number of Gaulard-Gibbs transformers and begin experimenting with AC networks at his home in Pittsburgh.


To learn more about George Westinghouse try the following activity:

ACTIVITY – Better understand Westinghouse's AC power.

AC LED Lasso.pdf

AC LED Lasso.doc


Both Westinghouse and Edison knew the incredible potential of electricity and wanted the power to control its distribution.

  1. What would you do if you were Westinghouse or Edison in this situation?
  2. What should scientists and business leaders do with new technologies?

The Race Heats Up

On September 4th, 1882, Edison switched on the world's first DC electrical power distribution system, providing 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan, around his Pearl Street laboratory.

In 1886, Westinghouse and William Stanley installed the first multiple-voltage AC power system in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The network was driven by a hydropower generator that produced 500 volts AC. The voltage was stepped up to 3,000 volts for transmission, and then stepped back down to 100 volts to power electric lights. That same year, Westinghouse formed the "Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company", renamed the "Westinghouse Electric Corporation" in 1889.

By 1889, Westinghouse's AC networks were winning market share and Edison saw his last opportunity to defeat his rival. Edison hired an outside engineer named Harold P. Brown, who pretended to be impartial, but performed public animal electrocutions with AC power.

In 1887, Edison told the state board that AC was so deadly that it would kill instantly, making it the ideal method of execution. His prestige was so great that his recommendation was adopted.  In August 1890, a convict named William Kemmler became the first person to be executed by electrocution. The execution was messy and protracted, and Westinghouse protested that they could have done better with an axe. Edison promoted the idea of AC electrocution, calling the new procedure "Westinghousing" which failed.


  1. Should scientists and engineers promote their ideas and inventions?

  2. Should they promote their ideas by discrediting others?

  3. Is the “progress” of science always positive?

In 1893, Westinghouse won a significant victory.  The Westinghouse company was awarded the contract to set up an AC network to power the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, giving the company and the technology widespread positive publicity. Westinghouse also received a contract to set up the first long-range power network, with AC generators at Niagara Falls producing electricity for distribution in Buffalo, New York, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

Introduction/Site Map | Classroom Resources | Bibliography || Cover Page