It was a war between two very different people.

On one side was Thomas Edison, the millionaire and prolific inventor from the U.S. who had never finished high school or attended a university.

On the other was Nikola Tesla, who was born in Croatia to Serbian parents and lived on the edge of bankruptcy despite being a genius who had studied at three respected universities in central and eastern Europe before immigrating to America

Their fight was over nothing less than whose idea would power the world, and in thisLearning Nugget you can learn what their ideas were, which one likely charged the device you’re reading this on, and the fates of these two giant figures of modern history

The feud begins

If you know anything about Thomas Edison, it’s probably that he’s the inventor of the lightbulb. What you might not know is that he also started companies around the world that powered those lightbulbs.

Before starting a feud with Edison, Tesla worked at branches of Edison’s businesses in France and, eventually, in the United States. While working in Europe, Tesla earned a reputation for being able to fix almost any problem having to do with Edison’s electricity generators as well as his ability to improve their designs. Doing this work made him certain that Edison’s preferred type of electricity – called direct current (DC) – wasn’t the most efficient.

Tesla believed that alternating current (AC), which travels in waves of positive and negative energy, was a better solution. It could be transmitted over long distances without much energy loss (meaning you needed fewer power plants), could be changed to different voltages with transformers, and was fairly cheap to produce. DC, which flows constantly at the same voltage in one direction, didn’t offer any of those advantages.

Tesla first pitched AC power to his bosses in Europe, but they weren’t interested. He got the same reaction after he moved to the U.S. and started working for Edison directly.

Eventually, Tesla quit Edison’s company and began looking for an investor to back his dreams of lighting up the world with AC power.


Big money & electrocuted elephants

Tesla found a backer in millionaire and fellow inventor Geroge Westinghouse, who not only hired Tesla but also bought his patents for AC technology for large sums. Though Edison’s DC power plants were the first on the market and the standard at the time, Westinghouse and Tesla believed the advantages of AC power – especially its lower price point – would help it defeat Edison and DC.

Edison was afraid they were right, and he and his company tried many methods to make AC seem dangerous and frightening.

For example, Edison advised the inventor of the electric chair to power it with AC current, secretly intending that consumers would link AC power with death. Similarly, Edison’s movie company filmed an elephant that had killed three people being executed by a Coney Island zoo using boots that sent deadly amounts of AC power through the giant animal’s body.

Despite these scare tactics, AC power kept spreading. An important victory was Westinghosue winning the contract over Edison to power the World’s Columbian Exhibition (AKA the World’s Fair) in Chicago in 1893. There, Westinghouse and Tesla’s technology successfully lit up exhibits seen by an estimated 27 million visitors.


The winner doesn’t prosper

Westinghouse and Tesla won another contract to use their technology to turn the power of Niagara Falls into AC electicity that would power Buffalo, New York. Edison very publicly stated that the venture could never work.

When it did, the winner of the Current War was clear, and AC power soon took over as the standard across the U.S. and world. Even Edison’s companies eventually paid for the right to use Westinghouse’s AC power patents in their projects.

Despite the victory of his ideas, Tesla didn’t go on to wealth and fame – even after he invented the Tesla coil, which is still used in radios and wireless transmitters today. Hopeless with finances and turning increasingly eccentric with age, he died alone with almost no money in a New York hotel.

Edison, however, was rich and respected until the end of his days.



war – Krieg

prolific inventor – produktiver Erfinder

attend a university – eine Universität besuchen

live on the edge of – am Rande leben

respected – angesehen, respektiert

immigrate – einwandern

charge the device – Gerät aufladen

fate – Schicksal

feud – Fehde, Kleinkrieg

lightbulb – Glühbirne

power st. – etwas mit Energie versorgen

branch – Niederlassung

earn reputation – Reputation aufbauen

electricity generator – Stromerzeuger

ability – Fähigkeit

improve – verbessern

make him certain – sich gewiss sein

prefer – bevorzugen

direct current – Gleichstrom

alternating current– Wechselstrom

transmit – weiterleiten

power plant – Kraftwerk

advantages – Vorteile 

pitch sth. to s.bVerkaufsgespräch führen 

back dreams – Träume unterstützen 

electrocuted – durch Stromschlag getötet

buy patent – Patent kaufen 

defeat – bezwingen

electric chair– Elektrischer Stuhl

despite sth. – trotz 

scare tactic – Panikmache

keep spreading – sich weiterhin ausbreiten

victory – Sieg

light-(lit-lit ) exhibits – Ausstellungsstücke beleuchten 

prosper – reich werden

venture – Unternehmen, Unternehmung

wealth and fame – Reichtum und Ruhm 

coil – Spule, Wicklung

turn eccentric with age –im Alter exzentrisch werden 

Excite Your Senses

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