HOTEL EDISON: The Hotel Edison in Sunbury, Pa., stands today as a tribute to Thomas Edison’s presence in the Commonwealth as he constructed generation stations to bring light to the homes of Central Pennsylvania.
War of the currents
Commonwealth served as battleground in development of electricity
By Michael T. Crawford
From the moment Benjamin Franklin flew a kite beneath a stormy sky in 1752, Pennsylvania’s history has been intertwined with the flow of electricity. In the same year he proved lightning was electricity, our founding-father-to-be established the first known cooperative in the United States, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Pennsylvania would host a series of events that would open a new world of possibilities for both electricity and cooperatives.
A little more than a century after Franklin performed his famous experiment, another inventor was born who would leave his mark on electric history. Edward Goodrich Acheson, born in Washington, Pa., dropped out of school at 16, according to the Science History Institute, but frequently conducted his own electrical experiments. One such experiment – a battery of his own invention — landed him a job working for Thomas Edison at the age of 24.
While Acheson was experimenting with lightbulb filaments for Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park (N.J.) took up residence in Pennsylvania to supervise the construction of a new electrical power station in 1882 to bring direct-current (DC) lighting systems to the town of Shamokin, according to a collection of articles published by the Northumberland County Historical Society.
A year later, the nearby town of Sunbury would not only receive its own power station but become host to the world’s first three-wire electric light system, which allowed current to travel from its source to its destination more efficiently.
“Edison built the Sunbury Central Station in 1883 for experimental and commercial purposes,” the collection reads from an excerpt dated May 17, 1946. “The several central stations which had been built prior to the one at Sunbury were of the two-wire type. … Edison’s experiment had convinced him that a three-wire system would be more practical and economical.”
Meanwhile, Acheson was preparing to take his experiments to a revolutionary level. In 1884, Acheson left Edison’s employ to begin developing methods to produce artificial diamonds. In the process, he wound up synthesizing silicon carbide, a rare semiconductor that has been used in lightning arrestors and even LEDs, as well as non-electrical applications such as steel production.
DIRECT CURRENT: An engineer operates a dynamo that would generate direct-current electricity for the town of Shamokin, Pa. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park)
Northeast of Acheson’s birthplace, Pittsburgh held its own advances that would change the world’s relationship with electricity. In 1885, inventor and businessman George Westinghouse began working with transformers developed in Europe that were able to convert electricity to different voltages through use of an alternating current (AC).
“The reason that AC held sway was because … it’s convertible,” explains Fred Light, power delivery engineer for Allegheny Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Allegheny), the wholesale power provider for 13 electric cooperatives in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey. “When that current goes into a transformer … it changes the proportion of current to voltage. The higher the current flow, the more losses you tend to have in a given wire. With DC, you don’t have that conversion capability.”
The inflexible voltage of DC meant power supply had to be local to the end user, forcing the Edison Illuminating Company to set up generation stations in every town it sought to power.
“DC didn’t work a long time ago for a reason,” explains Amy DeWoody, field services engineer for Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative (REC), based in Cambridge Springs, Pa. “It is not practical for a utility to use DC because the larger conductors and additional power stations needed to carry the proper voltage would be too expensive for the membership. AC has made it more convenient to efficiently transform to different voltages based on what the members need.”
By comparison, the Westinghouse Company was able to provide power miles away to more rural areas.
THE WIZARD: Thomas Edison, also known as the Wizard of Menlo Park for his nearly magical inventions, holds an incandescent lightbulb he designed. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park)
“Had Edison’s system prevailed, it definitely would have delayed rural electrification,” explains Steve Allabaugh, director of engineering for Wysox-based Claverack REC. “You’re not going to situate a power station on every rural road within 1,000 feet of [a customer].”
The high, convertible voltage used to deliver AC granted Westinghouse a competitive edge, and by the end of 1887, Westinghouse had 68 AC power stations to Edison’s 121 DC-based stations. As AC continued to spread, Edison unleashed a brutal propaganda campaign, captured — perhaps most infamously — by his involvement in the development of the electric chair.
Despite being morally opposed to capital punishment, Edison wrote in support of the use of electricity as a means of swift and certain death — electricity produced by Westinghouse, specifically.
“This, I believe, can be accomplished by the use of electricity, and the most suitable apparatus … employs intermittent currents,” reads a letter penned by Edison on Dec. 19, 1887. “The most effective of these are … manufactured principally in this country by Geo. Westinghouse. … The passage of the current from these machines through the human body, even by the slightest contacts, produces instantaneous death.”
As Edison sought to shock the public with the notion of electric executions, the deaths of lineworkers fanned actual public resentment to AC. In 1889, New York lineworker John Feeks became a public display of the lethal potential of AC.
“The man appeared to be on fire,” reads an archived New York Times article. “A great crowd of people collected and stood awestricken and fascinated by the fearful sight.”
INFLUENCIAL INNOVATOR: George Westinghouse, founder of what is today the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, developed an alternating-current transformer with the help of Nikola Tesla, an engineer formerly in Thomas Edison’s employ.
Despite major public relations defeats, Westinghouse won the contract to develop an AC hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls in 1893. Edison announced his departure from the energy business soon after, and his former business partners appeared quick to adopt AC.
The infamous feud between Edison and Westinghouse is set to play out on the big screen in the upcoming 101 Studios film, The Current War, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, which is scheduled to hit theaters nationwide this month.
As the dust settled, at least one thing had been made clear: you didn’t need to live in a city to have electricity.
This idea was so strong that in the early 1920s, Gov. Gifford Pinchot campaigned on bringing electricity to rural Pennsylvania.
What came next, as they say, is history.