Thomas Edison, American inventor and businessman, known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park", pushed for the development of a DC power network.
George Westinghouse, American entrepreneur and engineer, financially backed the development of a practical AC power network.
Nikola Tesla, inventor, physicist, and electro-mechanical engineer, was known as "The Wizard of the West" and was instrumental in developing AC networks.
In the "War of Currents" era (sometimes, "War of the Currents" or "Battle of Currents") in the late 1880s, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison became adversaries due to Edison's promotion of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution over alternating current (AC) advocated by Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.
During the initial years of electricity distribution, Edison's direct current was the standard for the United States and Edison did not want to lose all his patent royalties. Direct current worked well with incandescent lamps that were the principal load of the day, and with motors. Direct-current systems could be directly used with storage batteries, providing valuable load-leveling and backup power during interruptions of generator operation. Direct-current generators could be easily paralleled, allowing economical operation by using smaller machines during periods of light load and improving reliability. At the introduction of Edison's system, no practical AC motor was available. Edison had invented a meter to allow customers to be billed for energy proportional to consumption, but this meter worked with only direct current. As of 1882 these were all significant technical advantages of direct current.
From his work with rotary magnetic fields, Tesla devised a system for generation, transmission, and use of AC power. He partnered with George Westinghouse to commercialize this system. Westinghouse had previously bought the rights to Tesla's polyphase system patents and other patents for AC transformers from Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs.
Several undercurrents lay beneath this rivalry. Edison was a brute-force experimenter, but was no mathematician. AC cannot be properly understood or exploited without a substantial understanding of mathematics and mathematical physics (see AC power), which Tesla possessed. Tesla had worked for Edison but was undervalued (for example, when Edison first learned of Tesla's idea of alternating-current power transmission, he dismissed it: "[Tesla's] ideas are splendid, but they are utterly impractical."). Bad feelings were exacerbated because Tesla had been cheated by Edison of promised compensation for his work. Edison later came to regret that he had not listened to Tesla and used alternating current.
Electric power transmission
The competing systems
Edison's DC distribution system consisted of generating plants feeding heavy distribution conductors, with customer loads (lighting and motors) tapped off them. The system operated at the same voltage level throughout; for example, 100 volt lamps at the customer's location would be connected to a generator supplying 110 volts, to allow for some voltage drop in the wires between the generator and load. The voltage level was chosen for convenience in lamp manufacture; high-resistance carbon filament lamps could be constructed to withstand 100 volts, and to provide lighting performance economically competitive with gas lighting. At the time it was felt that 100 volts was not likely to present a severe hazard of fatal electric shock.
To save on the cost of copper conductors, a three-wire distribution system was used. The three wires were at +110 volts, 0 volts and −110 volts relative potential. 100-volt lamps could be operated between either the +110 or −110 volt legs of the system and the 0-volt "neutral" conductor, which carried only the unbalanced current between the + and − sources. The resulting three-wire system used less copper wire for a given quantity of electric power transmitted, while still maintaining (relatively) low voltages. However, even with this innovation, the voltage drop due to the resistance of the system conductors was so high that generating plants had to be located within a mile (1–2 km) or so of the load. Higher voltages could not so easily be used with the DC system because there was no efficient low-cost technology that would allow reduction of a high transmission voltage to a low utilization voltage.
Westinghouse Early AC System 1887 (U.S. Patent 373,035)
In the alternating current system, a transformer was used between the (relatively) high voltage distribution system and the customer loads. Lamps and small motors could still be operated at some convenient low voltage. However, the transformer would allow power to be transmitted at much higher voltages, say, ten times that of the loads. For a given quantity of power transmitted, the wire diameter would be inversely proportional to the voltage used. Alternatively, the allowable length of a circuit, given a wire size and allowable voltage drop, would increase approximately as the square of the distribution voltage. This had the practical significance that fewer, larger generating plants could serve the load in a given area. Large loads, such as industrial motors or converters for electric railway power, could be served by the same distribution network that fed lighting, by using a transformer with a suitable secondary voltage.