#83 Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

Summary Notes


In "Empires of Light," Jill Jonnes chronicles the electrification of the world, focusing on the pivotal figures of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse. These titans of the Gilded Age, driven by dreams of grandeur and progress, battled to harness electricity's potential, laying the groundwork for the modern electric power industry. Edison's stubborn commitment to direct current (DC) technology, despite the advantages of Tesla's alternating current (AC), led to the "War of the Electric Currents," with Westinghouse emerging as a key player for championing and commercializing AC. Tesla, the visionary inventor, forfeited royalties that could have made him a millionaire, prioritizing the advancement of AC for the betterment of society. Ultimately, AC prevailed, and Edison's name was erased from corporate existence as his company merged into General Electric. Westinghouse, known for his integrity and innovation, faced financial turmoil but remained optimistic, while Edison found success in the burgeoning entertainment industry. Tesla, despite his monumental contributions, died without reaping the financial rewards of his work. Their intertwined narratives reveal the tumultuous early years of electric power and the indelible impact of their ambitions on the world.

Summary Notes

The Power of Electricity and the Visionary Titans

  • The late 19th century saw visionaries dreaming of harnessing electricity's potential.
  • Three American titans aimed to build empires of light and energy on a monumental scale.
  • They envisioned a world illuminated by electric light, reducing the burden of labor.

"Each titan was determined to master this mysterious fluid. Each vied to construct an empire of light and energy on a new and monumental scale."

The quote emphasizes the ambition and competitive spirit of the key figures in the early electricity industry, each striving to dominate and transform society with electric power.

The Transformation of Communication and Transportation

  • The Atlantic Cable revolutionized communication, allowing telegrams to cross oceans in minutes.
  • Railroads expanded rapidly, laying 10,000 miles of track in a year and creating new cities.
  • J.P. Morgan admired the bold and ambitious, financing electrical companies and adopting electricity in his own home.

"Now telegrams pulsed through in mere minutes."

This quote highlights the drastic reduction in communication time due to the advent of the telegraph, illustrating a significant technological leap.

The Early Challenges of Electric Lighting

  • Electric lighting in its infancy required expert engineers to operate generators.
  • The inconvenience of early electric lighting included abrupt outages and the need to revert to candles and kerosene lamps.
  • Despite issues like fires from buried electrical lines, J.P. Morgan promoted electric lighting's superiority over gas and candles.

"The generator had to be run by an expert engineer who came on duty at 03:00 p.m."

The quote underscores the complex and labor-intensive nature of early electric lighting systems before the widespread availability of electricity.

Influencer Marketing in the Early Electrical Industry

  • J.P. Morgan's electrified home served as a showcase, convincing others to adopt the technology.
  • Influential figures like Darius Ogan Mills and Whitelaw Reed were persuaded to electrify their homes after attending Morgan's reception.

"Morgan was subsequently so delighted with his electricity that he gave a reception."

This quote illustrates how personal endorsements and demonstrations played a crucial role in the adoption of new technologies, akin to modern influencer marketing.

The Rivalry of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse

  • The book "Empires of Light" details the intertwined stories of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse.
  • The "War of Electric Currents" refers to the competition between Edison's direct current and the alternating current technologies of Westinghouse and Tesla.

"The war of electric currents would be so fiercely waged."

The quote captures the intense competition between the main players in the electric power industry, each fighting to establish their technology as the standard.

The Influence of Faraday and the Legacy of Inventors

  • Early electrical inventors were inspired by predecessors like Michael Faraday.
  • Faraday and others paved the way for practical applications of electricity.
  • The book connects historical figures, showing the chain of inspiration and progress in the electrical field.

"Faraday liked to quote Benjamin Franklin, who had famously replied, what is the use of an infant?"

The quote reflects the mindset of innovators who see the potential in new discoveries and strive to make them useful, demonstrating the forward-thinking attitude necessary for progress.

Thomas Edison's Early Years and Motivation

  • Edison's early career included telegraphy and technical reading.
  • His quadruplex telegraph system sale for $30,000 marked his initial success.
  • Edison's partial deafness was seen as an advantage, allowing him to concentrate without distractions.

"Edison had received very little formal education, being taught mainly by his mother."

This quote emphasizes Edison's self-taught nature and his mother's role in his education, highlighting the importance of nurturing curiosity and learning outside of formal institutions.

Edison's Approach to Work and Invention

  • Edison was driven by competition and a desire to improve existing technologies.
  • His work ethic often came at the expense of his family life.
  • Edison's focus on practical and useful inventions led to his work on the electric light.

"Ever the competitor, he turned to his host, William Wallace, and said, I believe I can beat you making the electric light."

The quote exemplifies Edison's competitive spirit and confidence in his ability to innovate and outperform others in the field of electric lighting.

Decision Making and Commitment

  • Jim Clark demonstrates decisive action by self-funding his project to overcome investor hesitation.
  • Commitment can shift the perspective of others and create a sense of urgency (FOMO - fear of missing out).
  • Jim's upbringing in Texas influenced his straightforward thinking and approach to risk-taking.

"Forget it. I'll put up the money myself. I'll do it."

This quote exemplifies Jim's willingness to take on risk and move forward with his plans without waiting for others, showcasing his commitment.

"If you're going to do anything worth doing, you need a lot of pigs."

Jim uses the metaphor of pigs versus chickens to describe the level of commitment required to achieve great things, with pigs representing full commitment.

Risk-Taking Metaphor: Pigs vs. Chickens

  • Jim Clark categorizes people into two types based on their approach to risk: pigs (fully committed) and chickens (merely interested).
  • The metaphor is drawn from the contribution of each animal to a ham and eggs breakfast.
  • Thomas Edison's experience mirrors Jim Clark's philosophy on commitment and risk-taking.

"The difference between these two kinds of people is the difference between the pig and the chicken. In the ham and eggs breakfast, the chicken is interested, the pig is committed."

This quote from Jim Clark clarifies the metaphor, highlighting the difference in the level of commitment between those who are merely interested and those who are fully invested.

Thomas Edison's Commitment to Manufacturing

  • Edison faced reluctance from his company's directors to enter manufacturing.
  • He decided to take matters into his own hands and manufacture the necessary items for his electrical system.
  • Edison's actions demonstrate the same level of commitment and risk-taking as Jim Clark (being a "pig").

"Since capital is timid, I will raise and supply it."

Edison's willingness to provide the necessary capital for manufacturing showcases his determination and commitment to his vision, similar to Jim Clark's self-funding decision.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities and Improvement

  • Entrepreneurs should focus on continuous improvement rather than settling for "good enough."
  • The historical context of New York City's reliance on horses illustrates the potential for improvement and innovation.
  • Entrepreneurs like Henry Ford revolutionized transportation, showing that there is always room for improvement.

"There's always opportunities for entrepreneurs that are always focused on improvement."

This statement emphasizes the importance of striving for better solutions and the entrepreneurial potential in addressing everyday problems.

Edison's Patience and Persistence

  • Edison worked for over four years to perfect the light bulb, demonstrating patience and persistence.
  • His primary motivation was the freedom to innovate and work without financial constraints.

"Persistence overcomes all."

Edison's quote underlines the importance of perseverance in achieving significant breakthroughs, as evidenced by his long-term commitment to developing the light bulb.

Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse's Motivations

  • Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse were driven by the desire to create products for the betterment of humanity, not just for profit.
  • Their approach to business was to use profits to fund further innovation and product development.
  • Steve Jobs, influenced by the HP way, shared similar values regarding profit and product development.

"I want none of the rich man's usual toys. I want... the perfect workshop."

Edison's quote reveals his true aspiration: the ability to innovate freely, which aligns with the philosophies of other great inventors and entrepreneurs.

Nikola Tesla's Passion and Peculiarities

  • Tesla was deeply passionate about electricity and its potential to change the world.
  • He had a strict and peculiar daily routine, along with various phobias and habits.
  • Tesla's drive and unique perspective were both a source of his genius and his alienation from others.

"I would go from where I resided to a bathing house on the river Seine, plunge into the water, loop the circuit 27 times and then walk an hour to reach the factory where the company was located."

Tesla's meticulous and eccentric daily routine reflects his intense focus and the unique way he approached his work and life.

Tesla's Innovations and Challenges

  • Tesla's ideas were revolutionary but often met with skepticism and resistance.
  • He faced public criticism and was told by a professor that his idea for an AC motor was impossible.
  • Despite the challenges, Tesla persisted and ultimately succeeded in developing the AC motor.

"Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it sublime? Isn't it simple? I have solved the problem."

Tesla's triumphant declaration after solving the AC motor problem illustrates his dedication and the joy he found in his work.

Public Perception of Electricity

  • In the early days of electricity, there was widespread skepticism and a lack of understanding.
  • Edison and his team had to educate the public and create demand for electric power.
  • The challenges of establishing a new industry included creating manufacturing methods, distribution systems, and convincing customers of the value of electricity.

"Customers did not exist. They had to be created."

This quote underscores the pioneering nature of the electrical industry and the need for innovation not just in products, but also in market creation and customer education.

Edison and Tesla's Divergent Approaches

  • Edison and Tesla had fundamentally different methods and philosophies regarding science and invention.
  • Their conflicting views led to a parting of ways, with Tesla eventually leaving Edison's employment to pursue his own path.
  • Both men were successful but had distinct approaches to problem-solving and innovation.

"If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search."

Tesla's critique of Edison's methodical, trial-and-error approach contrasts with his own theoretical and calculated strategy, highlighting the diversity of successful approaches in science and invention.

George Westinghouse's Business Acumen

  • Westinghouse was a successful entrepreneur with a background in railroads before entering the electrical industry.
  • He was protective of his patents and inventions, ensuring control over their production and distribution.
  • His strategic business decisions were influenced by past experiences and a desire to maintain ownership and profit from his innovations.

"He introduced his most momentumous invention, a revolutionary air brake that allowed the engineers of a passenger train, for the first time, to quickly and safely stop all the cars."

This quote illustrates Westinghouse's ingenuity and the impact of his invention on the railroad industry, reflecting his entrepreneurial mindset.

Demand for Edison's System and Westinghouse's Advantage

  • In the 1880s, there was an increasing demand for small, direct current (DC) central stations.
  • Edison's system was successful in urban areas like New York City but was not suitable for rural America.
  • Alternating current (AC) was identified by Westinghouse as the future for widespread electrical distribution.
  • Westinghouse saw his experience with machinery and military discipline as his greatest capital.

"The future foretold an insatiable demand for small, direct current central stations serving miles, square areas and individual isolated plants."

This quote highlights the anticipated high demand for Edison's DC electrical system, which was not suitable for rural America, unlike AC technology.

Westinghouse's Background and Approach

  • Westinghouse had a childhood filled with exposure to machinery and the discipline of a soldier.
  • He founded four successful companies and was open to adopting and improving other inventors' ideas.
  • Unlike Edison, Westinghouse valued privacy and refused public exposure to focus on his work.
  • He was known for his compelling private personality and for being helpful and inspiring to his employees.

"My early greatest capital was the experience and skill acquired from the opportunity given me when I was young to work with all kinds of machinery, coupled later with the lessons in that discipline to which a soldier is required to submit."

Westinghouse attributes his success to his early experiences with machinery and the discipline he learned as a soldier, which shaped his approach to business and innovation.

Westinghouse's Philosophy and Business Model

  • Westinghouse aimed to create businesses that provided employment and paid living wages above the market rate.
  • He viewed money as a tool for expanding his ability to serve others through his businesses.
  • Westinghouse believed in the power of deep conviction and the impact of one person's belief in an idea.

"My ambition is to give as many persons as possible an opportunity to earn money by their own efforts."

Westinghouse's quote reflects his desire to create opportunities for others to earn a living and his commitment to paying fair wages, which aligns with his service-oriented business philosophy.

Westinghouse's Belief in AC and Invention of the Transformer

  • Westinghouse faced opposition within his own company for his support of AC technology.
  • He recognized the potential of AC and the transformer, which could step down high voltages for safe use.
  • Westinghouse's determination to pursue AC against internal resistance highlights the importance of conviction in entrepreneurship.

"The opposition by all the electric part of the Westinghouse organization was such that it was only Mr. George Westinghouse's personal will that put it through."

This quote illustrates Westinghouse's unwavering belief in AC technology and his personal determination to overcome opposition and push for the adoption of the transformer.

Edison's View on Westinghouse and the War of the Currents

  • Edison recognized Westinghouse as a formidable rival with immense achievements and access to capital.
  • The competition between Edison's DC and Westinghouse's AC systems marked the beginning of the "War of the Currents."
  • Edison's stubbornness in sticking with DC despite its limitations was puzzling, and he feared poorly designed AC systems.

"Westinghouse was altogether another matter. A formidable rival with immense achievement and access to major capital, he was not a man to scoff at, deride, or dismiss."

Edison's quote acknowledges Westinghouse as a significant and respected competitor in the electrical industry, setting the stage for the intense rivalry known as the War of the Currents.

Tesla's Innovations and Westinghouse's Recognition

  • Tesla's public demonstrations of AC motors were groundbreaking and attracted Westinghouse's attention.
  • Tesla admired Westinghouse's qualities as a businessman and his ability to overcome adversity.
  • Westinghouse was seen as the only one capable of successfully championing Tesla's AC system against prevailing doubts.

"Had he been transferred to another planet with everything against him, he would have worked out his salvation."

Tesla's admiration for Westinghouse is evident in this quote, highlighting Westinghouse's resilience and capability to succeed despite challenges, akin to a "wolf" that can thrive anywhere.

Westinghouse's Attempt at Reconciliation with Edison

  • Westinghouse sought to resolve the conflict with Edison by proposing peace, emphasizing the potential for collaboration.
  • Edison rejected Westinghouse's offer, possibly due to AC's growing success over DC.

"I believe there has been a systematic attempt on the part of some people to do a great deal of mischief and create as great a difference as possible between the Edison company and the Westinghouse electric company, where there ought to be an entirely different condition of affairs."

Westinghouse's letter to Edison shows his desire to end the rivalry and suggests that external forces may have exacerbated their conflict.

Public Relations Strategies in the War of the Currents

  • Westinghouse hired a PR expert, Henrik, to focus on positive publicity rather than attacking competitors.
  • Edison created fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about AC, claiming it was deadly.
  • Westinghouse's PR strategy was to not engage in negative campaigning and maintain a focus on the company's success.

"The quickest, most painless death can be accomplished by the use of electricity."

Edison's quote is part of his FUD campaign against AC, directly targeting Westinghouse's technology and using public fear as a competitive strategy.

The Rise of General Electric and the End of the War of the Currents

  • The emergence of the Thomas Houston company, which would later merge with Edison's company to form General Electric, was a significant development in the electrical industry.
  • The leader of Thomas Houston, who previously sold shoes, illustrates the potential for dramatic career changes and success.

"Had he been transferred to another planet with everything against him, he would have worked out his salvation."

This quote is repeated to emphasize Westinghouse's adaptability and resilience, likening him to a wolf capable of surviving in any environment, which serves as an inspiration for entrepreneurs and individuals facing challenges.

George Westinghouse's Philosophy and Business Tactics

  • Westinghouse believed in the value of free publicity, even if it came from criticism.
  • He maintained a focus on the superiority of his alternating current (AC) system over direct current (DC).
  • Westinghouse held the view that progress could not be stopped by opposition and that moral and business reputation would prevail over personal attacks.
  • He chose not to engage directly with his detractors, believing that silence would ultimately win more friends.

"Now, seriously speaking, all this opposition to the alternating current is doing our business a great deal of good... We are getting an invaluable amount of free advertising."

This quote indicates Westinghouse's understanding of the paradoxical benefit of opposition to his business, as it resulted in free advertising for his AC system.

"By keeping up this agitation about the deadly alternating current, they are playing our game and we are taking the tricks."

Westinghouse is explaining how the controversy stirred by his opponents is inadvertently promoting his business and helping him succeed.

"As to the attacks made against me personally, of course they hurt, but my self respect and conscience do not allow me to fight with such weapons."

Westinghouse expresses that while personal attacks are painful, he refuses to stoop to the level of his attackers, relying on his self-respect and conscience instead.

The Electric Chair and Its Unintended Consequences

  • The use of Westinghouse's machines in the electric chair was seen as negative publicity but ultimately served as more free advertising.
  • The first botched electrocution was a public spectacle that made news, yet Westinghouse Electric Company saw a significant increase in sales.
  • Westinghouse's business grew rapidly in sales but also accumulated substantial debt during economic downturns.

"And this is more evidence that there's no such thing as bad publicity because they're using those machines now to kill people."

The speaker is pointing out that even the association of Westinghouse's machines with the electric chair served as publicity that could ultimately benefit the company.

"In four short years since it was established, total annual sales soared from $150,000 a year to more than $4 million."

This quote highlights the rapid growth of Westinghouse Electric Company, despite the controversies and challenges it faced.

Financial Struggles and Westinghouse's Resolve

  • Westinghouse faced financial difficulties due to recessions and the need to pay off debt.
  • Bankers attempted to take advantage of Westinghouse's situation by demanding a voice in management.
  • Westinghouse refused to relinquish control of his company, demonstrating his unwavering commitment to his business principles.

"Mr. Westinghouse weighs so much on experimentation... we are taking a pretty large risk."

A banker criticizes Westinghouse's management style, highlighting the tension between Westinghouse's innovative approach and the bankers' focus on financial risk.

"He had always run his own companies... and he had no intention of being second guessed or told what to do."

Westinghouse asserts his independence and his unwillingness to be controlled by the bankers, emphasizing his entrepreneurial spirit.

Tesla's Sacrifice for Westinghouse's Company

  • Nikola Tesla agreed to forgo his royalties to save Westinghouse's company during its financial crisis.
  • Tesla's decision cost him a significant amount of money but demonstrated his dedication to the advancement of AC technology and his loyalty to Westinghouse.

"Your decision, said Westinghouse, determines the fate of the Westinghouse company."

Westinghouse acknowledges the critical role Tesla's decision will play in the future of his company.

"Mr. Westinghouse, you will save your company so you can develop my inventions. Here's your contract. And here is my contract. I will tear both of them to pieces..."

Tesla demonstrates his commitment to the broader vision of electrification and his friendship with Westinghouse by sacrificing his own financial interests.

The Merger of Edison's Company and the Birth of General Electric

  • Thomas Edison's company faced similar financial struggles to Westinghouse's.
  • Despite Edison's reluctance, his company was merged without his knowledge, resulting in the creation of General Electric.
  • Edison's name was removed from the new entity, marking the end of the "war of the currents."

"They dropped Edison's name and they just call it General Electric."

The speaker describes the outcome of the merger and the erasure of Edison's name from the resulting company, General Electric.

"AC had won the war and Edison was refusing to give up."

This quote summarizes the conclusion of the competition between AC and DC, with AC emerging as the dominant form of electrical current.

Post-War Lives of Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla

  • Westinghouse continued to innovate and support other inventors after the "war of the currents."
  • Edison transitioned to the entertainment industry, creating significant patents and companies in motion pictures.
  • Tesla lived to see his AC system adopted worldwide but did not achieve financial success commensurate with his contributions.

"A corporation can have a soul."

Westinghouse reflects on the idea that a company can be more than just a profit-making entity; it can contribute positively to society and have a set of values.

"Electricity had created many, many millionaires, but Tesla, who made possible the electric age, was never one of them."

The speaker laments the financial outcome for Tesla, contrasting his contributions to the electric age with his lack of financial reward.

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The host encourages listeners to support the podcast by subscribing to the misfit feed, which provides additional content and benefits.

"You click that link and buy the book using that link, Amazon sends me a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you."

The host explains the affiliate link system that supports the podcast when listeners purchase the book through the provided link.

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