Today we have the smartphone patent wars but 130 years ago it was the Current Wars – AC versus DC, Tesla versus Edison. There could be only one winner and, unfortunately for an elephant named Topsy, Edison was willing to play dirty.
In the 1880s a battle was fought to see which electricity delivery system – direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) – would become the standard system for the supply of electricity.
DC was backed by Edison and was, in the early years of the war, the standard in the US. Edison had patent protection for aspects of DC delivery and received patent royalties from his licensees. AC was backed by George Westinghouse who licensed Nikola Tesla’s patents.
DC had a major disadvantage in that energy was lost quickly in the transmission wires. As a consequence DC transmission systems could not extend over large distances without a large number of power generators. AC did not suffer from this drawback and power could be sent over large distances through AC transmission lines.
Edison carried out a large campaign against AC to the extent that he would publicly electrocute animals using an AC system. And this is where poor old Topsy comes in.
Topsy was a cranky old elephant from Coney Island’s Luna Park. After killing a number of people over the years Topsy’s owners decided she had to go. This presented Edison with an opportunity to demonstrate the menace of AC power delivery systems and on 4th January 1903 Topsy was killed by electrocution. Edison captured the event on film and showed the footage around the US in his desire to prove DC was the better system. It didn’t work of course and, apart from a number of specific applications, AC is now the standard around the world.
More on poor Topsy here.
More on the Current War here.