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Lunch » Tags » Untagged » AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War » User review

A part of history you don't hear much about...

  • Sep 17, 2013
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As I get old(er), I realize that most history we know about is highly sanitized, and what we remember and/or know about the details of how it happened are glossed over or forgotten in time. That's why the book AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol appealed to me when I saw it at the library. I do know there was friction between Thomas Edision (DC - Direct Current) and George Westinghouse (AC - Alternating Current) as to which was better and which electrical standard would end up dominating the market. What I wasn't fully aware of was the levels of cruelty that Edison and his team would descend to in order to try and persuade the public. It wasn't pretty, but one hundred years later, it's not something that's often talked about in the race to electrify the world.

McNichol focuses on Edison's determination and blindered focus on making DC power the North American standard. He knows that with the advent of the light bulb, there will be an entire industry built up around the creation of a power grid. Westinghouse also understands that there's big money to be made in generating and supplying power, but he knows that the DC market is already established and dominated by Edison. He decides to focus on AC power with Telsa's help, and it's at that point that things get ugly.

Edison was ruthless in trying to quash any rival to his DC infrastructure, and AC power was the biggest threat. The key element was that DC power would only transmit for about one mile, while AC power had a far greater reach. Edison started using media to warn about the "dangers" of AC power and the higher voltage involved. The rhetoric continued to escalate, due primarily to one Harold P. Brown, who was calling himself an "electrical engineer." He took it upon himself to start running experiments on animals to show that DC power could be tolerated, while AC power would kill almost instantly. However, the experiments were far from "scientific", and the cruelty involved is beyond anything we'd ever imagine in today's time. Edison went so far as to get New York to deem the use of AC power to execute prisoners a "humane" way to carry out death sentences. But even with all the killing and graphic attempts to scare the public into shunning AC power, the market chose AC as the power grid of choice, and Edison's DC power empire slowly crumbled away.

While it's easy to get completely absorbed in the story of the battle between Edison and Westinghouse, the point that the book is trying to make is that the process of creating a standard when there are competing options (think VHS vs. Betamax or HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray) is messy and not always logical. The superior technology does not always win, and the reasons why you'd think one standard would win out are not always the reasons that the market chooses. Edison failed to see the benefits of AC and held on to his DC technology as he was completely and emotionally invested in it. That inability to view the market with an open mind (as well as constantly re-evaluate where you're going) is nearly always a recipe for doom.

AC/DC is an interesting read on a number of levels, especially if you don't know anything about Edison's and Westinghouse's battle to establish the preferred power grid for a nation (and largely the world). The analysis of how competing standards battle it out is a bit more implied than spelled out in great detail, but it's there. Oh, and if you hate thinking about cruelty to animals, be warned that the descriptions of the experiments are somewhat detailed...

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Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

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About the reviewer
Thomas Duff ()
Ranked #46
Thomas Duff, aka "Duffbert", is a long-time member of the Lotus community. He's primarily focused on the development side of the Notes/Domino environment, currently working for a large insurance … more
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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 current à 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.)
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