Okay. So, first things first, clever people are utterly mental.
I don’t mean ‘living in a world of brain power and logic’ either. I mean completely barmy.
I don’t have the time to do a proper research job on this question, so this may be a little bit patchy, but basically, I can find no evidence that alternating power isn’t generally better than direct, particularly because of the efficiency (low current equals less energy lost to resistance in the wires) of transmitting power over long distances.
Edison thought differently. In order to advertise his thought processes to the world, he sent people around America killing animals (largely dogs and cats, but also ‘unwanted’ cows and horses) publicly with AC to show how dangerous it was.
I mean, that’s kinda horrid (makes me feel fairly sick), but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Despite being opposed to the death penalty, Edison got someone to design an AC electric chair. They misjudged the voltage on the first execution, and ended up basically torturing some guy brutally. Electrocuting but not killing, again and again, until he died.
And he didn’t think the death penalty was okay. Anything to prove a point, right? (And let us not forget, this was a war over finances, both sides of the War of Currents had a shit load of money invested here, I doubt it can be painted as much of a moral crusade on either side, although there were some personal issues).
Anyway, killing people inefficiently wasn’t even the most ridiculous thing Edison did to try and defend Direct Current. The most absurd bit was long after the war had been largely settled. Pretty much everywhere was going AC.
So he killed an elephant.
Actually killed an elephant, after he’d lost the war.
Thomas Edison was a dick.
Also, it’s a solid gold plated fact that Nikolai Tesla was sexier. You don’t even have to look at his wikipedia page, you can see it in his name.
The same goes for Alternating current, actually. I’d totally rather do a sine wave than a straight line.
As is usually the case, it all comes down to the transformers. The stepping up and down of alternating current is mathematically fiddly (Edison was shit at maths (I’m paraphrasing)) but practically nice and simple. No moving parts, just loads of copper coils. This means energy can easily be transported at high voltage (with inversely proportional low current; power is lost from resistance in a square to current, so this is useful) and then shifted down easily to fit local supply (and the same by devices). It can also be done by stuff that doesn’t break down that often.
You see how technical that all sounded? Didn’t it sound impressive? Isn’t it slightly more convincing than killing a fucking elephant?
That’s how the War of the Currents played out, as far as I can tell. Mathematics versus animal cruelty.
It may have gone differently today.
There’s no accounting for taste.
Illustration by Henry