The War of the Currents
By Laurie Lewis
In the late nineteenth century, a nearly bloodless war played out across the country. It was a war that would change life forever, just as the invention of the wheel did in ancient times and computers and the internet have done in modern times. On one side of the battle were Thomas Edison and his direct current (DC) electrical power. His opponents were George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and alternating current (AC). The battle between advocates of AC and DC was similar to the twentieth-century VHS versus Betamax or Mac versus PC contests: which would take over the world?
The first skirmish was in 1881, when Edison installed his recently developed incandescent bulbs throughout the New York City home of mogul J. P. Morgan and put a steam engine and dynamo in the yard to power them with DC. When this and other small-scale, single-customer experiments proved successful, Edison was ready to roll out a power system that would generate electricity for multiple homes and businesses. The geographic reach of the DC system was rather small, however, only about a mile from the power source. To maximize his customer base, Edison chose an area of New York City that was packed with residences and businesses. The inventor and his crew built a steam-powered station in two adjacent buildings, at 255 and 257 Pearl Street. When it opened for business on September 4, 1882—137 years ago this month—the Pearl Street Station was the first central power plant in the world.
One of the 85 original customers was The New York Times, which was then located on Park Row in Lower Manhattan. Amazingly, the life-changing significance of the electric power station escaped the newspaper editors. Although the paper did report on the opening of the power plant, the story was buried on an inside page under miscellaneous city news.
Those in the catchment area who saw how much better lit the world was with electricity quickly connected to the power grid. In about a year, the Pearl Street Station boasted more than 500 customers with a total of some 10,000 lamps. Edison’s company started to build electric power systems in other areas of the country.
Meanwhile, other inventors were working to perfect an AC system. Inventor-industrialist Westinghouse bought several patents for electrical gizmos that a former Edison employee, Nikola Tesla, had invented in his own Lower Manhattan laboratories; among them were patents for the devices that made AC practical. Westinghouse built power plants in rural areas that could not be covered by the small range of DC power transmission. The war was turning in favor of AC.
Edison loudly declared that AC, which carried higher voltages, was not safe and would cause many horrible deaths. He decided to prove it by supporting inventors who were working on the electric chair and insisting that they use his rivals’ power source, AC. A convicted murderer, William Kemmler, was strapped into the brand-new electric chair on August 6, 1890. More than a dozen witnesses watched as the initial jolt failed to kill him. After the second jolt, they smelled burning flesh and saw Kemmler bleeding (hence the “nearly bloodless war” mentioned at the beginning of this story).
Earlier that year, a fire had severely damaged the Pearl Street Station. It was rebuilt but served only a few more years. By then, the advantages of AC, the electric chair incident notwithstanding, had become clear. It could deliver electricity to larger areas at lower cost. The apparent victor of the war of the currents: AC.
But the war did not completely destroy DC, and in fact it has proven essential for modern life. Although homes and businesses in most countries are wired for AC, DC is used in batteries and electronic equipment such as computers and mobile phones, as well as in electric cars. Life wouldn't be the same without both forms of electric current.
Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
When I was researching the title of the article above, which I wrote to commemorate the anniversary of the first power station, I realized it was timely for another reason. The battle between Edison and his opponents Westinghouse and Tesla has been immortalized in a movie called The Current War.
The story of this film is almost as dramatic as the events it portrays. The movie was poorly received when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. Then the film, a property of the Weinstein Company, nearly died amidst the brouhaha about sexual misconduct of the company cofounder Harvey Weinstein. Now the film is in new hands, and editing has improved it to the point of release next month.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Fort Tryon Park
The high ground in Upper Manhattan that appealed to the new American army for a defensive fort later attracted millionaires who wanted to build castles on the Hudson. We’ll walk from the site of Fort Washington to Fort Tryon Park, exploring vestiges of a Gilded Age estate. We’ll take in the Heather Garden and the park’s extraordinary Hudson River views. You’ll hear about a fearless woman who was a good shot with a cannon, a self-indulgent tycoon, and a very generous Rockefeller. We’ll end at the Cloisters Museum, which you may want to visit on your own.
Alan gives this tour on Wednesday, September 4, at 10 AM. Email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve your place and to learn the meeting location.
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
You can still find magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago on the Upper East Side. These freestanding and rowhouse mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings—mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them—New York City’s own rich and famous.
Laurie offers this tour on Sunday, September 8, at 1 PM. To reserve a place on the tour and to learn the meeting location, email the guide at email@example.com.
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city’s most surprising landscapes. Take a hike in the woods, and you’ll feel as though you’ve left the city. Discover New York’s own Secret Garden. If history rather than nature is your thing, fear not. You’ll learn about the role this area played in early American wars.
Join Alan on Wednesday, September 11, at 11 AM to explore the northern part of Central Park. To reserve a place on this tour and to learn where to meet, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. On this tour, you’ll meander through charming Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs as you learn where some famous writers—including Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Edward Albee—lived. Maybe the Village aura will spark your own creativity!
Laurie gives this tour on Saturday, September 14, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at email@example.com.
Lower Washington Heights
Washington Heights is a microcosm of New York, steeped in history from the American Revolution to the assassination of Malcolm X and beyond. Discover the Hamilton connection in northern Manhattan. This vibrant residential neighborhood boasts beautiful brownstones, a brick-lined street with three-story wood-frame homes, and the oldest house in Manhattan.
Join Alan on Wednesday, September 18, at 10 AM to take a walk through Lower Washington Heights. Please email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a space and to learn the meeting location.
Green Spaces and Great Places on 42nd Street
Walking from Bryant Park all the way to the East River, you’ll discover parks among famous Midtown buildings. Learn why so many “pocket parks” occupy prime Manhattan real estate. Make a brief visit to great places, including the public library, Grand Central, and the Chrysler Building. End by discovering Tudor City, a residential skyscraper complex, which offers both green spaces and interesting architecture.
Laurie leads this walk on Friday, September 20, at 1 PM. To make a reservation and to learn the exact meeting place, email her at email@example.com.