100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Engineers Award Westinghouse And Alternating Current

Direct Current (DC) is when an electric charge flows in a constant direction. Alternating Current (AC) is when the movement of an electric charge periodically reverses direction. With DC an electrical distribution system operated at the same voltage level throughout – a 100 volt light bulb received electricity from a 100 volts generator. The drawbacks were varying voltage demands – you couldn’t run a huge engine and a light bulb on the same wire – and voltage drop between conductors made it necessary to build generators within 1 mile of the receiver. With AC a transformer is between the generator and the receiver which allows AC to be transmitted over long distances at high voltages using lower current and thus lower energy loss and greater transmission efficiency. Devices using different levels of electricity could be supplied from one source.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison developed a DC power distribution network in the late 1870’s and had a vested interest in using the system despite its disadvantages.

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse started to develop an improved AC distribution system using step up and step down transformers of a new design in 1886.

Nikola Tesla

In 1888 Nikola Tesla partnered with Westinghouse Electric to commercialize Tesla’s AC system. Tesla had worked for Edison but felt slighted and cheated out of $50,000 Edison had promised him. Edison felt Tesla’s AC ideas were “utterly impractical”. By 1891 the electrical engineers of the world realized the advantage of AC as a superior power source. But Edison persisted and paid lobbyists in state legislatures as well as carrying out a publicity campaign against AC to show it as dangerous going so far as to electrocute animal in public using AC. After the first use of the electric chair for execution in 1890, Edison used the fact that it was powered by AC as an example of it lethal potential. In 1903 he film an elephant being killed by AC electricity.

The American Institute of Electrical Engineers was founded in 1884 “to promote the Arts and Sciences connected with the production and utilization of electricity and the welfare of those employed in these Industries: by means of social intercourse, the reading and discussion of professional papers and the circulation by means of publication among members and associates of information thus obtained.” In 1904 the Edison Medal was given by a private group for achievements in electrical engineering. In 1908 the AIEE entered into an agreement with the group to present the medal as its highest award. The medal is presented by a committee of 24 members and Edison has nothing to do with the award.

On June 27, 1912 in Boston, Massachusetts the AIEE presented the 1911 Edison Medal to George Westinghouse for his work on developing the AC power system. This is seen as a victory and a vindication for Westinghouse and Tesla against Thomas Edison’s many disparaging assertions about AC.

The AIEE Edison Medal


The Edison Medal

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