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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

ISBN: 978-1-118-04702-6

Jan 2011, Jossey-Bass

208 pages



AC/DC tells the little-known story of how Thomas Edison wrongly bet in the fierce war between supporters of alternating current and direct current. The savagery of this electrical battle can hardly be imagined today. The showdown between AC and DC began as a rather straightforward conflict between technical standards, a battle of competing methods to deliver essentially the same product, electricity. But the skirmish soon metastasized into something bigger and darker. In the AC/DC battle, the worst aspects of human nature somehow got caught up in the wires; a silent, deadly flow of arrogance, vanity, and cruelty. Following the path of least resistance, the war of currents soon settled around that most primal of human emotions: fear. AC/DC serves as an object lesson in bad business strategy and poor decision making. Edison's inability to see his mistake was a key factor in his loss of control over the ?operating system? for his future inventions?not to mention the company he founded, General Electric.

Prologue Negative and Positive 1

1 First Sparks 5

2 Lightning in a Bottle 13

3 Enter the Wizard 25

4 Let There Be Light 41

5 Electrifying the Big Apple 55

6 Tesla 69

7 The Animal Experiments 87

8 Old Sparky 107

9 Pulse of the World 129

10 Killing an Elephant 143

11 Twilight by Battery Power 155

12 DC’s Revenge 173

Epilogue Standards Wars: Past, Present, and Future 181

Further Readings in Electricity 187

The Author 191

Index 193

A little more than 100 years ago, two titans of industry faced off in one of the most vicious battles the marketplace had ever seen. On one side, Thomas Edison, inventor extraordinaire, the creator of the phonograph and the electric light; on the other, George Westinghouse, tycoon and titan, backing the mysterious eastern European inventor Nikola Tesla. They fought over the very nature of the electrical system in America: would it be built on alternating current (as Westinghouse proposed), or direct currentà la Edison- Though a battle over electrical standards sounds dry, this tale is anything but. McNichol's solid if brief survey of this relatively unknown moment in the history of technology ranges from macabre electrocutions of hapless animals (and eventually prison inmates) as demonstrations of the "Death Current" to the gleaming "electrical wonderland" of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Though the author focuses on when it's wise to fight a standards battle and when to give in, some might wish that he had another 200 pages in which to flesh out the story. His book tantalizingly scratches the surface of Edison's ingenuity and force of will, Westinghouse's shrewd business sense, and most of all the sheer eccentricity of Nikola Tesla.(Sept.) (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006)