Our modern age of convenience has had many contributors in its course of development. Although we often try to credit one man or another as the sole creator of a world-changing invention, he or she is usually the last in a long line of tinkerers who have slowly perfected the technology with trial and error. This is especially true of electricity and lighting.
For instance, it is Thomas Edison who typically receives the credit of inventing the lightbulb when in fact, he was working off the scientific efforts of more than 20 predecessors. With that being said, we can certainly give him credit for testing more than 3,000 lightbulb filament designs before finding the one that worked best at the time. We can also attribute the successful commercialization of lighting to Edison’s entrepreneurial American spirit.
However, lighting as we know it would not be possible without the distribution of electricity and for that, we can thank Nikola Tesla.
Tesla was born on this day in 1856 and legend has it, his arrival was marked by an electrical storm of terrifying proportions. It seems an ominous foreshadowing for the birth of a man who helped give rise to our modern understanding of electricity. Even more fateful, upon arrival to America, Tesla’s only connection was a letter from a friend introducing him to Thomas Edison. The two inventors would work together for several years before a business disagreement led them to part ways.
Edison always favored Direct Current (DC) as the best way to power his inventions but Tesla’s opinion differed. Tesla experimented with Alternating Current (AC), which could be distributed over long distances while DC would require a power plant every two miles to be distributed sufficiently. Tesla eventually created an induction motor that used AC power to generate a magnetic field to turn the motor. The device caught the attention of George Westinghouse, another supporter of AC and Edison’s biggest rival in “the Current Wars”.
Tesla and Westinghouse demonstrated the usefulness of AC power by using it to light the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Two years later, Tesla designed the first AC hydroelectric power plant in the US—Niagara Falls. The plant was installed and used to power major cities such as Buffalo, New York. The installation is said to mark the beginning of the “electrification” of the world.
Today, the works of all these great men are used together to support our technological infrastructure. Tesla’s AC power is distributed throughout the world across huge distances, and it is stepped down to DC power and used to power the many devices and lights in our homes.