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

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War - Tom McNichol It's a tale we've heard so many times before. Kindle vs ePub, HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray, VHS vs Betamax.  Before all of those, there was Alternating Current vs. Direct Current and the battle was bloody. Literally.Direct current got in early, thanks to Edison's tenacity and business acumen. For the first three years he was producing them, he sold lightbulbs as a signficant loss. As demand grew, he was able cut the cost of production and recouped the money in a fraction of the time. All of those bulbs were powered by direct current generators.The drawback to direct current was that it could not travel long distances without high voltages and prohibitively expensive, thick wires. Alternating current, however, could travel long distances at high voltages through thin wires, then be stepped down for household use.Alternating current was made possible by the induction motor that came from the mind of the posthumously famous Nikola Tesla. The real name behind AC, however, was Westinghouse.Edison rejected the idea of AC, calling it impractical. That did not stop him from creating a smear campaign against alternating current, claiming among other things that anyone who put in an AC system, however small, would be dead within six months. He provided resources for horrendously unscientific experiences that involved shocking dogs and horses with DC, and then allowing a shock of AC deliver to the killing blow, "proving" its deadliness.When William Kemmler was the first man executed by electricity, it was with AC, and, reading the horror of his death, one wonders why the electic chair was ever adopted.  It's unsurprising that it has declined for the very reason it was originally adopted: to avoid excessive cruelty in state-sanctioned executions.Despite all this the advantages of AC couldn't be denied. By the time Westinghouse won the bid to power the Chicago World's Fair, the battle was nearly over. And in a sweet irony, even exhibits by the General Electric Company, which had recently stripped "Edison" from its name, were powered by alternating current.Though it's AC that powers our homes, DC had its comeback.  It's the power behind every battery we use.The story behind those little outlets in the wall and inside the little boxes that magically power the gadgets of our lives is a fascinating one. One is left wondering what might have happened if Edison and Westinghouse had collaborated rather than battling it out. Our present might have been all the more marvellous.This review also appears at Boxes of Paper