AC/DC, The Savage Tale of the First Standards War

Nov. 10, 2006
By Tom McNichol
ISBN: 0-78798-267-9

Every day, we hear about another ongoing battle for supremacy in some field of electronics. Given my coverage of communications, I hear about the wireless standards battles that never seem to end, like Ultra-Wideband (UWB) and Wi-Fi 802.11n. It's just business as usual. In browsing my local bookstore recently, I ran across a book that describes the first ever standards battle. The book is AC/DC, The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol (Jossey-Bass, 2006).

I read lots of fiction. My wife and I cherry pick the fiction bestseller list, but rarely read non-fiction; at least, not cover to cover as I did this book. It reads like a novel with good characters, a plot, and an outcome.

The battle described in this story is that between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for ownership of the electrical power standard. Edison was the champion of dc since he had developed so much in that field thanks to his early telegraph experience. Westinghouse was the ac proponent thanks to the patents of well-known electrical eccentric Nikola Tesla. Methods for generating electrical power were well known in the 1870s and 1880s and large dc and ac generators had been built. The big question back then was what the "killer app" would be. After all, the light bulb had not been invented yet. Some motors had also been developed but these would in the beginning usually have their own generators. This was a minor application at the time.

The book has short bios on Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla, as well as Ben Franklin and some of the other early electrical pioneers. It is a quickie review of electrical inventions of the 19th century. Edison turns out to be a truly arrogant but brilliant inventor and a great businessman. You may recognize others you know or have heard about as modern-day Edisons.

A key section of the book details Edison's work on inventing the light bulb, as it turns out, concurrently with Joseph Swan of England. Electric arc lamps came first but were certainly not for home use. Light bulbs first emerged from the lab in the 1879-80 time frame. That produced the killer app for electrical power distribution. Edison moved fast to electrify New York City and built generating stations that operated lights in homes and businesses as well as powered the trolley system. Edison rolled out his dc systems to other cities, but they discovered quickly that line losses were enormous, and that resulted in shorter cable runs and the need for more generating stations. Electrical power was expensive.

Westinghouse took the ac route. With developments in transformers well along, Westinghouse and his company discovered you could step up the ac voltage for long-distance transmission with much less loss, then step it down closer to the load. With fewer generating stations, costs were much lower. It was a far more efficient system. Tesla worked with Westinghouse on generators and his ever-so-popular induction motors.

The book summarizes the war between Edison and Westinghouse for electrical power dominance. I won't give away the individual battles, but you will find the animal experiments and the electric chair affair particularly interesting if not a bit unsettling.

Needless to say, ac finally won out, but the details of the individual skirmishes are interesting. Edison eventually abandoned dc and moved on to invent many other items while still achieving lasting fame despite this loss. Westinghouse left a legacy, and so did Tesla, but legacies not nearly as great as that of Edison.

I literally read this book in two sittings. It's a great read for a non-fiction book. Recommended.


To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Electronic Design, create an account today!