How often do we think about the electrical power we use each day in our lives? We flip on lights, charge our devices, control the heating and cooling of our homes and businesses, and so much more with electricity. The most common source of our electricity is alternating current or AC. Its sources are electrical generating plants powered by fossil fuels, nuclear energy, solar energy, or hydrological. The other type of useable electricity is direct current or DC. We commonly get DC from batteries and less popularly from brush and commutator generators or dynamos.
Until the late 1870s, the world was largely absent of electric power. This was all to change by the entry of titanic forces of science, technology, and commerce. Inventor Thomas Edison began his electricity business in the 1870s and was running some 1,500 generating stations. These small stations were used mainly for lighting and DC motor driven street-rail cars. There were also some manufacturing processes that used DC motor powered equipment.
There is one major problem with DC, and that is the difficulty of transmitting large scale power across significant distances. To transmit DC across long distances requires very high voltage, much too high for practical use in motors and lighting.
Meantime, AC is also transmitted at very high voltage, but has the advantage of the ability to utilize transformers for lowering or raising voltage. The magnetic phenomenon that led to the development of transformers was discovered by Hans Christian Oersted and Michael Faraday. Oersted noticed that electrical current produces magnetism around it. Faraday discovered that a wire cutting through a magnetic field causes current in the wire. By rotating a wire through a magnetic field, the electrical current continually changes direction.
These two forms of electricity were championed by different commercial interests. DC by Edison and AC largely by George Westinghouse. The competition between the two forms is commonly known as the “War of the Currents”. This conflict has been popularized by the telling of the story of Nikola Tesla. If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, I recommend watching one of the Tesla biographies on the Web.
Next we focus on “The Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Mining Company”. It was formed in 1853 to construct channels and canals which were to provide energy to generate DC power to illuminate the town of Niagara Falls and the Falls themselves.
In 1883, George Westinghouse was hired by the Niagara Falls power company to design a system to provide alternating current to the area utilizing conduits. With major backing from industrial investors like John Jacob Astor IV, the Vanderbilt family, and J.P. Morgan, the construction project proceded. The war of the titanic egos was about to reach its culmination.
George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla partnered in the design and construction of the power plant using the first hydro-turbine AC generators. It became the first commercially practical hydro-electric power plant to transmit power on November 30, 1886. Electrical power was sent as far as Buffalo, New York–approximately 20 miles away.
Once the practicality of AC transmission was proven, more AC power plants were planned and constructed. New industries that utilized electricity evolved. It didn’t take much longer until electric lighting spread across North America and the rest of
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Nikola Tesla. “The history of science shows that theories are perishable. With every new truth that is revealed we get a better understanding of Nature and our conceptions and views are modified.”