Aug 27 2012

Westinghouse > Tesla > Edison

Hired female engineers, paid living wages, and he has that super fine mustache? Come on!

Why, in all this Tesla > Edison stuff, does no one ever mention the late great Westinghouse?!??!?  Don’t get me wrong, Tesla was a super cool dude and being played by David Bowie automatically gives you serious awesome points, but for all of his awesomeness, it wasn’t Tesla that got shit done.  And it definitely wasn’t Tesla who made sure people got treated right.  No, that distinction belongs to this BAMF who always gets left out of *his* story: George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse is why there even *is* a Tesla.  FFS people!!  Y’all should listen up because Westinghouse was a baller for reals.  And by that I mean he ensured that every one of his employees made a living wage and was well-treated, even when the rest of the industry refused to do so.

A brief intro to Westinghouse:

The son of a New York agricultural machinery maker, the 21-year-old inventor came to Pittsburgh in 1868 in search of steel for a new tool he designed to guide derailed train cars back onto the track. Before he died 46 years later, he gave the world safer rail transportation, steam turbines, gas lighting and heating, and, of course, electricity.

Westinghouse didn’t invent alternating current; he acquired the patent rights from two European scientists. He had a knack for spotting good ideas and people and bringing them into his fold. And he knew AC was a good idea.

In his lifetime, he received 361 patents for his inventions, and founded 60 companies.

To critics who questioned his management acumen, George Westinghouse would say: “Look at all these jobs I created. Does that mean I’m a bad manager?”

He paid Tesla an absurd amount of money for Tesla’s design for an A/C motor.  Westinghouse was already running A/C power long-distance and had A/C generators that worked.  In fact, it took them years to make Tesla’s motor work.  Tesla, genius that he was, was not great at practical application.  I’m not saying that to knock Tesla, but to point out that Westinghouse had to put in a lot of work to make that Tesla invention actually work, yet Tesla gets all the credit.

Westinghouse was also just a good guy, for real:

Westinghouse Air Brake, now called Wabtec (WAB), was among the first companies to offer pensions to employees. And when the worker died, the pension went to the employee’s spouse and orphans — an uncommon practice in the 1880s.

Westinghouse was one of the first to hire female engineers. And Saturdays were half-days at his firm when most workers toiled six days a week.

The War of the Currents

Empires of Light Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jones is both a history of the rise of electricity in the US and a character study of three of the men responsible for that rise.  The story is a fascinating one, not least of all because it examines the same forces that still dominate the market today.  Innovation and creating new markets for those innovations are the keys to technological advances in society, but innovations do not always come with the market.  A market without the innovation is not as successful as one with it.  Another key aspect of success seems to be marketing, but marketing cannot change the fundamentals of the economic landscape.  The better product may not win, but the most convenient product probably will.  The final lesson is that losing or winning a battle over one product, however important, does not dictate the future success or failure of the companies or inventors.

The three men who are profiled in the book demonstrate this perfectly and compellingly. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla were a trio of self-made, intelligent, inventive, entrepreneurial, and incredibly hard working men, but their personalities and approach to the market were completely different.  Tesla was a genius immigrant who was meticulous about his fashion and probably autistic; he was not a businessman and had no interest in being one, he simply wanted enough money to do his research.  Edison, like Tesla, had a gift for invention, but his gift came less from theoretical work than from simply trying everything he could think of until a best solution appeared and “borrowing” other people’s ideas and improving them.

Edison also felt that the market side of things was incredibly important and took an active role in creating and running his companies.  His lab was considered the invention of the modern research and development lab.  Westinghouse started as an inventor, but his real gift was in finding other people’s innovations and creating the market for them.  He would buy patents and then find ways to make them commercially viable.  Unlike Edison, he was not personally invested in the inventions, just in their implementation and profits.

It is incredible the role that personality plays in the success of an invention.  Though Tesla was undoubtedly the most visionary and honest of the three men, he was not commercially minded.  This allowed him to be taken advantage of and to fail to be recognized for his many contributions.  Innovation is not enough, someone has to create the market – this is an important lesson, regardless of the century.

Tesla was a bit of a mad genius with no real interest in commercial viability or practicality, he was only a player in the game thanks to Westinghouse buying his patent.  The real useful comparison in terms of market creation and implementation, and the rivalry that was the primary focus of the book, was Westinghouse and Edison.  They were two men with very different ethics and very different goals.

Westinghouse insisted on paying his men high wages and paying people for their inventions.  He was ridiculed for being too generous.  On the other hand, he was incredibly tenacious and litigious, fighting any perceived patent infringement with as much force as he could muster. Edison was much more pragmatic.  He did not pay his men well and refused to negotiate when they had a strike and would not allow a union.  He did not give recognition to those who invented for him and he was also very litigious, even in fights he could not win.  He could afford more lawsuits than any small competitor could.

Edison refused to use other people’s inventions but Westinghouse was very quick to buy patents and rights as soon as something was invented.  Although Edison had created the initial market, he ceased to introduce new, practical innovations.  This allowed Westinghouse to take over the market completely through Tesla’s new generator and the ability to send electricity over long distances.  Edison stubbornly held onto DC even when it was failing, and it would ultimately cost him his electric company.

This brings the second lesson, having a market is not enough, you have to continue to innovate in order to stay competitive.  Had Edison pursued AC power, he would have completely controlled the market.  Tesla came to him first but was mistreated and Edison refused to take any interest in AC power.  Edison was hugely popular and an excellent marketer, which allowed him to stay somewhat competitive for a few years, but his stubborn denial of forward progress lead inevitably to the failure of his company.

The primary difference between AC and DC power is that DC offers much less power and therefore is less dangerous but is also much more difficult to send long distance.  AC power is much more convenient because it can be generated miles from the user and, from one centralized location, it will distribute power to many people.  It was clear almost immediately that AC was the only practical solution, but Edison fought desperately against this.  Edison held demonstrations where animals were electrocuted to death and his company invented the electric chair to execute prisoners in order to make AC power look dangerous.  He lobbied to have the electric chair introduced as a method of state execution in New York.  He made AC power out to be horrific and, because of his fame and fortune and favorable media coverage, it slowed progress of AC, but not for very long.

Westinghouse was just as proactive on the marketing front and took the lead on powering Chicago’s World Fair and the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls by bidding lower than Edison for the contracts, knowing that the publicity would be better than any advertising he could buy.  Edison’s company should have easily won those contests, being the only established electrical company at the time, but they acted as though they had a monopoly on power and therefore bid far higher than they needed to.  In both cases, Edison’s was the company that was approached first and, because they gave such outrageous estimates, bidding from other contractors was sought.  Here again we see that having the market does not make you a success when others are able to be more competitive and innovative.

Westinghouse ultimately won the war of the currents and AC is now what powers America.  Edison, because of his obstinacy, lost not only that war but also control over his electric company to J.P. Morgan.  Tesla continued to run experiments, funded by J.P. Morgan.  These immediate fates, however, did not dictate their futures.  Tesla, in particular, soon found himself low on funding and interest from others because he was not pursuing commercial ideas.  He did not even have the money to file a patent lawsuit when Marconi stole his radio design.

As for Westinghouse and Edison’s companies, ultimately Edison ended up winning.  After he took control, J.P. Morgan merged Edison’s company with another electric company to form General Electric, which became the powerhouse in electricity.  Edison lost the war of currents, but the company he started ultimately had market dominance and the money he made from this company would fund his research for the rest of his life.  He left electricity behind and created the motion picture industry with great success.  Westinghouse, on the other hand, ultimately lost control of his business when it went bankrupt and new shareholders, who did not share his vision, ran it for the rest of his life.  The market is constantly moving; a successful innovation depends on companies that move with it, which means either new companies or flexibility from old ones.

PS Help build a goddamn Tesla museum.


Skip to comment form

  1. 1

    Not familiar with this case, but an AC generator and an AC motor are very similar (although there are special motors). If he had working generators, it should have been easy to make motors.

  2. 2

    From those who are familiar with Westinghouse, it seems to be because of the way Westinghouse is perceived. He was an engineer/inventor as well, but he mostly gets credited as a businessman (One of the, if not the, most noble of the era; as you mention).

    It’s also due to what happened to Tesla; Westinghouse, after losing the company and leaving American industry in 1907, his health declined and he died in 1914, hopefully enjoying his retirement along the way.

    Tesla died completely penniless, and as mentioned, was scoffed at for his non-commercially oriented research, and even further, his ideas were stolen. Tesla is perceived as a historical underdog, and we love our underdogs.

  3. 3
    lactose fermenter

    Westinghouse? Edison?


    Of the three men in question, only one has an 80′s era hair metal band named after them.

    Point, set, match, Tesla.

  4. 4
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Why? I don’t know. It makes far more sense to compare Edison to Westinghouse than Tesla. In fact, Edison’s propaganda campaigns were run against the name of Westinghouse.(And, for which, you can thank Edison for the fucking electric chair.)

  5. 5


  6. 6

    Thanks for an interesting post. I’ve added that Jill Jones book to my to-read list.

  7. 7
    Skip White

    Westinghouse also gets fairly freqent mention in Margaret Cheney’s biography Tesla: Man Out of Time, especially in the chapters on the War of the Currents.

  8. 8

    Let’s not forget Westinghouse invented the railway air brake, making America’s trains safer and more reliable than ever. Also, capable of carrying bigger loads. (greetings from Pittsburgh, where something named after Westinghouse is around every corner.)

  9. 9

    The primary difference between AC and DC power is that DC offers much less power and therefore is less dangerous but is also much more difficult to send long distance.

    With the technology of the time DC voltage could only go down with distance from the generator, whereas the reason AC won was because of transformers. They work only on AC and can raise and lower line voltage wherever needed. Transformers are no harder to construct than generators. High voltage is better for distance transmission than low voltage, low voltage AC works as well as low voltage DC for many appliances like lights and heating elements.
    Nowadays DC is making a comeback due to modern technology as it is excellent for long distance and undersea cables.

  10. 10

    According to at least one account I’ve read Edison was limited in his mathematical skills, he didn’t understand the more difficult mathematics of AC circuits. You can calculate DC circuits with basic math.

    AC was primarily an advantage because you can change voltages simply and reliably through the use of transformers. Keeping watts constant you can increase the voltage and drop the amperage to allow small cables carry huge loads without melting. AC is the only way to go for long distance transmission of power. Superconducting power lines may change this in the future.

    Edison was essentially the inventor, and manufacturer, of retail electrical use and consumer appliances. In an age when having light meant burning something and a dim and dangerous flame the miraculous aspects of electric lights cannot be overestimated. Edison didn’t need to be a marketing genius because everyone wanted cheap, safe, bright, instantaneous lighting. He ruled the market for a time but failed to keep up as the technology advanced.

    He resorted to smearing alternating current, the alternative to Edison’s direct current, as wildly dangerous to defend his shrinking empire. He put on spectacles of killing animals with alternating current, including at least one elephant. He pushed for the adoption of the electric chair, and coined the term electrocution, to help magnify the dangers of alternating current.

    Tesla was a researcher with a flare for showmanship that he exploited to fund his projects. He pushed big, often grandiose, ideas and tapped into a wild visions of a limitless future.

    Westinghouse was essentially a modern businessman. With many liberal ideas. He made money by running with, often perfecting, other people’s ideas and developing practical applications for electricity that substituted electric power for manual labor. Once he developed a device it got re-engineered and improved.

  11. 11
    Corvus illustris

    @8 Lofty says “transformers are no harder to construct than generators.” In fact they’re absurdly simple: the basic object is a piece of iron with an input coil and an output coil wrapped around it. No moving parts. Anything more sophisticated just involves how the iron is configured and how the coils are wound.

    @9 Lorn says “AC is the only way to go for long distance transmission of power. Superconducting power lines may change this in the future.” In fact, very high voltage DC has some advantages over AC for long lines: only two conductors are needed (AC is usually shipped in 3-phase form, requiring at least 3 conductors) and DC does not create changing electromagnetic fields around the conductors. Those fields become particularly troublesome if the conductors (insulated, of course) run long distances under water (e.g., supplying power to an island). Huge improvements in the technology of changing AC to DC and vice versa already make it possible to use high-voltage, low-amperage DC now; the Scandanavians are doing quite a bit of this.

  12. 12

    AC is the only way to go for long distance transmission of power.

    This information is outdated and incorrect, as both the comments above and below yours point out.

    High-voltage direct current (HVDC) is becoming increasingly common and is very efficient. There’s an HVDC line in China that runs over 1200 miles, and one is being constructed in Brazil that will run ~1600 miles. There’s also quite a few connecting countries in Europe via undersea lines.

    The key component which makes this usable with the preexisting AC power grid is called a thyristor. No superconductivity is involved; rather it is ordinary semiconductor electronics. It was invented back in the 1950s, but as with any new invention took a while to perfect and deploy. Ultimately, it’s a remarkably simple device with only four layers, three terminals (anode, cathode, and gate) and three states.

  13. 13
    John Q Public

    Meh, in 110 years they will say that Bill Gates & Steve Jobs invented the Computer.

    Did they, of course not.. but they were the head of their companies. Much like Edison was of his, granted Edison still invented 1000′s of things on his own.

  14. 14
    Bennett Hink

    Appreciate it for this post, I am a big big fan of this web site

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>