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AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War - Tom McNichol

Electricity and magnetism have always possessed a certain “wow” factor. Science often inspires a state of awe and wonder, but (to date) the likes of thermodynamics and/or stoichiometry have yet to inspire a Bar Mitzvah dance craze (though I'd definitely be down for learning the Thermodynamic Slide if it comes up).


Almost two centuries after Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell extended unified theories of electromagnetism, the applications thereof continue to excite and boggle minds. The magical allure of electricity is what drew crowds to the shows of Dr. Archibald Spencer—a crowd which included (in 1743) one Benjamin Franklin.

Yeah Bitch Magnets


Fast Forward to the Edison Era

Though the book contains interesting anecdotes on (and clears up some misconceptions about) Franklin, Faraday and the early electromagnetic pioneers, the players in the titular standards wars really begin with Thomas Alva Edison. The Edison family had way of landing on the wrong side of history: Grandfather John Edison was a staunch supporter of the crown during the American Revolution, resulting in a quick getaway to Nova Scotia when things didn't pan out too well for Loyalists;  Edison's father, Samuel, was exiled back to America after participating in the Mackenzie Rebellion against the government of Ottawa.


In the years to come, little Tommy Edison would proudly carry on this heritage of stubbornness in the years to come. Edison was brilliant, obsessive, and also kind of a jerk. He was deaf(ish) which was used to excuse some of his abstruseness, but still… Edison's rise from homespun tinkerer to “Wizard of Menlo Park” had several contributing factors including his acute sense of the power of the press—what it all came down to, though, was that Edison was a shrewd businessman.  

Thomas Edison in his laboratory 1904

The Business of Electricity

Thomas Edison was all about patenting his inventions (over 1,000 of them during his lifetime).  He also knew that meaningful adoption of a new technology was about more than just selling a piece of equipment. The lightbulb was meaningless without a power source, and it just so happened that Edison invented and patented the direct current (DC) power network. But, before the “War of the Currents” could begin, Edison had to contest with the existing competition—gas lighting.


I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the currents and technologies themselves—pretty much all you need to know was that alternating current (AC) was soon fighting for the same market as Edison and his DC setup.


Cast of Characters:

Edison Tesla Brown Westinghouse

Edison (far left) you've met. The thoughtful looking fellow to Edison's right is Nikola Tesla. Though Tesla was decidedly more scientist than businessman (just one of the many things that made his brief stint working for Edison a bad fit), he knew enough to get eager financial backers excited about his patented AC induction motor and transformer (both of which were licensed to the fellow on the far right, George Westinghouse). If there's a super-villain in this lineup, however, it's definitely DC-advocate Harold Pitney Brown.


Sparks Fly!

Once Westinghouse established his first large AC power plant (the type that's most likely powering your lights today), the advantages of AC in traversing long distances posed a real threat to the DC market. So, the Edison team (though they would make sure that technically Brown was not in Edison's official employ) turned to the tried and true tactic of fear mongering!


Though I've accepted the fact that, yes, sometimes the life of an animal must be sacrificed in the name of public health, Harold Pitney Brown's experiments were far from scientifically sound. The 40 or-so dogs rounded up and enlisted in Brown's desired demonstrations of the dangers of AC varied in shape, color, health and size– none of which were noted with sufficient detail (“Saint Bernard puppy” doesn't give us enough data to leverage lessons learned).  The first of these experiments took place with only DC-loving colleagues present, but even they became reluctant witnesses as Brown subjected the dogs to consecutive shocks of varying voltages and increments of time in between (one man present actually adopted one of the dogs in order to spare it from any more pain). 


Electrocuting dogs and horses in public (always in scenarios sufficiently manipulated to make AC seem the more dangerous of the currents), however, just wasn't enough. So, when the states were looking to avoid the easily botched hangings of condemned prisoners by finding a new lethal replacement, Brown was all too happy to offer up his assistance in making AC the current of death.

Early Electric Chair

Aww-Topsy at Her Autopsy:

Early electrocutions did not always go as planned. While Brown was usually on-hand, Edison stayed in the background (though he did suggest the act of death by electric chair being “Westinghoused”). However, when a former circus favorite in her baby elephant days, Topsy, sent a few too many handlers to meet their makers, Edison was ready and willing to be on hand.


Conveniently enough, Edison had recently invented a contraption that could take many pictures in quick succession, the Kinetographic Camera, so real footage of Topsy's execution exists to this very day. However, the version from the Topsy episode of Bob's Burgers is just so much more fun.  


Topsy Youtube


In case that didn't do it for you, here's a clip from the “musical re-imagenactment of the very uplifting story of Thomas Edison and Topsy the elephant” starring one Tina Belcher.


Tina as Topsy


Parting Thoughts:

This book was fun—a lighthearted behind the scenes look at a scientific battle that merits an easy 3.5/5 stars. Also, for those of you who are planning on reading Stephen King's latest book, Revival, the two books pair quite nicely (like a Burgundy Pinot Noir with an earthy Bison Rib Eye). Also, don't electrocute animals. Who knows—they might be able to give you some really good advice.


Topsy gives Tina some advice