Direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)?

That was the question at the center of the “current war” in the 1880s/1890s when competing electric power transmission systems were introduced to the world.


The major players in the war were Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla.

Thomas Edison

On February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, Samuel Ogden Edison and Nancy Matthews Elliott gave birth to their seventh and final child: Thomas Alva Edison. Around the age of seven, Thomas was kicked out of school because his teacher supposedly did not like him. Homeschooled by his mother until he was 12, he then went to work as a “candy butcher” on the Grand Trunk Railroad.

Thomas’ father Samuel was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, but he and Nancy moved to the United States after the insurgents lost their cause in the Rebellion of 1837 and the country became a bit too “hot” for Samuel’s liking.  A man of high intelligence and great energy of character, he was involved in a number of businesses in the grain, commission, lumber, nursery and land industries. Perhaps Thomas inherited his propensity for business from his father.

Edison is often called “America’s greatest inventor” for creations such as the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the practical electric light bulb.

George Westinghouse

Just a few months prior to Edison’s birth, George Westinghouse, Jr., was born October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York. George was named for his father who was a machine shop owner. George worked there before and after his time in the Union Army. Westinghouse was a thinker and a doer and was constantly starting companies to support his innovations. George’s ancestors came from Westphalia in Germany. They first moved to England and then emigrated to the US.

Westinghouse was 19 when he created his first invention, the rotary steam engine.

Nikola Tesla

About the same time that Edison was being kicked out of school, Nikola Tesla was born on July 9, 1856, across the world in Smiljan, Austrian Empire. The son of Serbian parents, Milutin Tesla and Georgina Mandić, Nikola was named after both his grandfathers. His paternal grandfather, also Nikola Tesla, was a professor of mathematics at the Austrian Military Academy. Grandfather Tesla helped finance young Nikola’s education. Georgina’s father, Nikola Mandić, was an Orthodox priest as was Nikola’s father, Milutin.

In 1862, the Tesla family moved to Gospić, Austrian Empire. There, Tesla excelled in school and could do calculus in his head. He graduated in three years. The dean of the technical faculty wrote a letter to his father, which stated, “Your son is a star of first rank.”

Tesla was an inventor, electrical and mechanical engineer and futurist.

The War

By the early 1880s, two lighting systems had been developed: arc light street lamp lighting that ran on high voltage alternating current (AC) and large scale low voltage direct current (DC) indoor incandescent lighting. The latter was marketed by the Thomas Edison’s company.

In 1886, new competition entered the market when George Westinghouse’s company introduced an alternating current system that used transformers to step down from a high voltage so that AC could be used for indoor lighting. Westinghouse paid a substantial amount of money to license Nikola Tesla’s poly-phase AC induction motor which made his new alternating system possible. As the use of AC began to spread, Edison’s company claimed that the high voltages used in AC were dangerous and that the design was inferior to their DC system.

What followed is what we refer to as the war of currents, a back and forth grapple for who would power the nation and one of the greatest corporate feuds in American history!

To learn more about the feud, check out the movie “The Current War” that comes out October 25.

The Connections

Now, the cool part. On WikiTree, we have a Connection Finder.  Each week we feature a different notable as well as a member of our community where you can check and see how you are connected to them. It shows the connection trail between you and that person via blood lines and marriages. This week we are featuring these three great notables: Westinghouse, Edison and Tesla. Given their partnerships and rivalries we thought it would be interesting to see how they are connected to each other.

Westinghouse and Tesla were partners so let’s start with them.

George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla: 27 Steps

There are 27 steps between Westinghouse and Tesla. They connect through Tesla’s father’s line and Westinghouse’s wife, Margaret Walker. In their connection path, you’ll see Sally Miller. She is the great-grandmother of U.S. President Gerald Ford.

Westinghouse and Edison were huge rivals but how close is their connection?

George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison: 16 Steps

They’re only 16 steps apart! They connect via Thomas Edison’s father’s family and again through George’s wife, Margaret Walker. In their connection path is Joseph Husted, who served as a private in the 6th Regiment of Dutchess County, New York. One wonders what any of these individuals would have thought if they’d known their future family would literally light up the world!

Lastly, let’s look at Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison – 25 steps

Nikola and Thomas are 25 steps apart, connecting to each other through their father’s lines.

Fun Forest Elf fact: In their connection path is Elizabeth Conway, who happens to be the second wife of my seventh great-grandfather, Thomas Babb.

Pretty cool that the biggest rivalry has the closet connection! It just goes to show that despite our differences, we are all connected in one way or another.

So which side are you on? AC? Or DC?  How many steps are you from each of these mighty inventors?

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  10 Responses to ““Current War” Connections: DC or AC?”

  1. This is really great! Thanks for taking the time to enLIGHTen us. 😀

  2. Which side am I on? Sort of a silly question. Regardless of who I like or who I’m related to, you can’t change the physics. AC incurs much smaller losses in long distance transmission, so it had to win. Recent developments in renewable energy generation are shifting the supply closer to the source in some cases, but we still need long distance transmission, and thus AC.

    • DC actually has much smaller losses than AC for long distance transmission (over 30% more efficient for the same voltage). The main advantage of AC is it can easily be stepped up in voltage with a cheap standard transformer. The power electronics necessary for DC conversion are expensive, but for many transmission lines the gain in efficiency more than outweighs the cost of the DC conversion hardware. Google “HVDC”.

  3. 18 Degrees to Edison and 20 to Westinghouse, 27 to Telsa. I also share a cousin connection to Sally Miller and President Ford. Shocking! I know!

  4. Sorry, I didn’t format the link correctly and don’t see where I can edit.

  5. Tesla was a great man. Eccentric, but great. He held 711 patents to his own name. Edison was a Businessman and an Opportunist. He mostly took fledgling Engineers and Scientists, stole their ideas and capitalized on them. Marconi stole his ideas and infringed on his Patents.

  6. I’m 18 degrees from Edison; 22 degrees from Westinghouse and 29 degrees from Tesla. All from my Hamlin side. Who knew,

  7. Wait, holy cow. I’m related to all three of them on my father’s side of the family!!!

    Thomas Edison is 20 Degrees from Jennifer Holland
    George Westinghouse is 20 Degrees from Jennifer Holland
    Nikola Tesla is 29 Degrees from Jennifer Holland

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