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What Caused the War on Currents
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

For those in the electrical engineering industry, the difference between alternating current and direct current and their individual applications is commonly known. However, for those who may simply know that Thomas Edison was a promoter of direct current, knowledge about the two electric charges may not be as strong. If you’ve ever wondered why the U.S. used direct current initially or wanted to know what exactly is the difference between the two, read on to learn more about these two charges.

To make it simple, direct current is the unidirectional flow of an electric charge, while alternating current is a flow that intermittently reverses direction. Batteries, power plants, solar cells, etc. all have an electric charge. During the late 1800s, when electricity became prevalent in the United States, a dispute arose between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla on which current should be used.

Edison promoted direct current (DC) while Tesla promoted alternating current (AC). At the time, Edison was winning the dispute (unfairly) as he claimed AC was more dangerous and that DC could be transmitted more easily than AC. None of these claims Edison endorsed was true. DC was used to power homes in the late 1800s as it used the same voltage the new electronics did. However, though DC actually became the standard current used in the United States for a time, it wasn’t necessarily the smart choice.

While the U.S. continued to use DC, the benefits weren’t outweighing the limitations. Direct current could only deliver to people within close range of power plants. Plus, with the invention of the transformer, AC could be delivered over long distances, for a much lower price than DC. These transformers were also used to reduce the high voltage of AC to a lower voltage for people to use in their homes. This was a blow to direct current, as it could not be easily converted from a high voltage to a low voltage at the time. When these factors were brought to light, Edison, who had many patents for DC, was instantly upset and decided to wage a war against AC. This war began with Edison showing how “dangerous” AC was for people to use, when in fact, this was not the case. This war became known as the War on Currents.

Edison began his war by demonstrating the dangers of alternating current as it was the current used in the electric chair, which in part, was developed by Edison. As he was losing the fight for direct current, Edison tried to smear the name of alternating current and Tesla by killing animals by electrocution with AC and by showing that AC could be fatal; he had technicians use alternating current during the development of the electric chair. These attempts did not help Edison and direct current, however, as the lower cost of distributing alternating current won out in the end.

Today, alternating current is the electric charge used in plants that is distributed to homes and businesses across the U.S.  Though DC is not the norm in homes now, it does still have a niche. Direct current is used in electronic systems, high-voltage direct current has been developed for long distances, and direct current is even used in undersea cables, such as the NorNed power cable, to transmit electricity over a long distance.

Though both alternating current and direct current have their own distinct applications today, initially the two were pitted against each other because of one man wanting his approach to rule over what would be beneficial to a large population.


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