Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2010

Let There Be Light

On Sept. 8, 1878, Thomas Edison journeyed to the Connecticut workshop of the inventor William Wallace to examine Wallace's prototype for an electric light. A reporter from the New York Sun tagged along. Edison had begun thinking about the problem of electric light. What drew him to Connecticut was Wallace's "arc light" system, which consisted of a steam-powered electric dynamo that pulsed current through two tall carbon sticks to create an eye-searing beam.

"Edison was enraptured," reported the Sun. "He ran from the instruments to the lights and from the lights back to the instruments." The Wizard of Menlo Park recognized the immense possibilities in the new dynamo. He also understood the limited prospects of the arc lights it powered, which had been developed in the early 19th century but produced light so bright they were usable only outdoors or in large interiors.

Giddy with excitement, Edison turned to Wallace and made a bet: "I believe I can beat you making the electric light. I do not think you are working in the right direction." Edison rushed back to his "invention factory" in Menlo Park, N.J. The race was on.

Because he had a peerless inventive mind, it would be a race that Edison would win. He would do it by perfecting an alternative to harsh arc lighting, one that other inventors had struggled with — the incandescent bulb, which sends a mild electrical current through a thin filament that gives off a gentle glow. But Edison's triumph as an inventor would also demonstrate his perennial limitations when it came to fulfilling the market potential of his inventions.

A mere week after his visit to Wallace's workshop, Edison summoned the same Sun reporter to Menlo Park, where he proudly revealed an amazing breakthrough: the first practical incandescent bulb. (What he did not mention was that its filament burned out after an hour or two.) Moreover, he promised that his revolutionary light was but one component of a far larger dream: a whole system of electrical power. "I can light the entire lower part of New York City," he declared, "using a 500-horsepower engine."

But first he had to perfect that tricky bulb. It would take years of experimenting with platinum, paper and bamboo before Edison found his way to a durable filament, carbonized cardboard. And there remained the problem of developing a workable generator and a system of electrical transmission. So it would not be until Sept. 4, 1882, four years after announcing his discovery, that Edison finally stood before a crowd in the Manhattan offices of the investment firm Drexel, Morgan & Co. and threw a switch. All around him, 100 incandescent lights glowed to life, using power generated by the new station his team had built on nearby Pearl Street. In downtown offices and stores, another 300 new Edison bulbs shone softly.

To Edison and his Wall Street backers, this was but the beginning of a lucrative empire of light and power. But competitors were lining up. The most formidable was the industrialist George Westinghouse, who doubted the prospects of Edison's low-voltage direct-current (DC) system for the good reason that DC-generating plants could not transmit electricity economically more than half a mile. In 1885 he snapped up the patents for a radical new European technology that used alternating current (AC) to transmit high-voltage electricity over great distances. By late the following year, Westinghouse was showcasing his new system at a department store in Buffalo, N.Y. But the high voltage of AC carried risks. Edison wrote darkly to one of his top executives, "Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size." Moreover, DC systems could be used to power motors. No one had figured out how AC could do that.

Nikola Tesla, one of the world's true eccentric geniuses, hoped to solve that problem. A Serb from Croatia, Tesla had studied electricity in Austria, then went to work for the phone company in Budapest, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. Soon after, during a sunset stroll, he had an almost mystical vision of a working AC-motor design.

That was in February 1882. Two years later, after a stint in Edison's Paris office, Tesla was in New York working directly for his idol. But after Edison told him that there was no future in "deadly" AC, Tesla started his own arc-lighting company, hoping to earn money to develop the motor himself. By the end of 1887, Westinghouse and his AC system had become Edison's biggest competitor. Pressed on all sides by top associates, Edison reluctantly acquired patents for a European AC system. As for Tesla, in 1888 he finally unveiled his AC motor. By July, Westinghouse had purchased all of Tesla's AC patents and hired him to create a commercial version of his motor.

Over the next several years, there were rumors of a possible merger between Edison General Electric and another rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Co. Edison always dismissed these, but the matter was not truly in his hands, not so long as the bulk of his company's shares were controlled by the financier J.P. Morgan. On Feb. 5, 1892, Alfred O. Tate, Edison's personal secretary, was at his desk in the Edison Building in lower Manhattan when a reporter came in to tell him that Morgan was about to announce the merger — a development Edison knew nothing about. A few months earlier, Thomson-Houston president Charles Coffin had shown Morgan that his firm had almost twice the profits that Edison General Electric did. Convinced that the difference was due largely to superior management at Thomson-Houston, Morgan decided that Coffin would run the merged firms. Worse, Morgan erased Edison's name. The new company was to be called, simply, General Electric.

Later, Edison expressed his bitterness to Tate, vowing to do something "so much bigger ... people will forget that my name ever was connected with anything electrical." Of course, nothing of the sort happened. But though we live now in a mostly AC nation, it's Edison's name we revere. It was his genius that launched the electrical revolution, and his lightbulb illuminates our world to this day.

Jonnes is the author of Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World