Thomas Edison, Patents, Intellectual Property Rights, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, DC, AC and the War of Currents

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 27th, 2012

History 101

Thomas Edison protected his Intellectual Property Rights with over 1,000 Patents

Thomas Edison was a great inventor.  A great entrepreneur.  But he wasn’t a great scientist or engineer.  He was home-schooled by his mom.  And didn’t go to college.  But he read a lot.  And loved to tinker.  He grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.  At one end of the train line that ran between Port Huron and Detroit.  Where he sold newspapers and other things to commuters during the Civil War.  Then he saved the life of some kid.  Pulled him out of the way of a runaway boxcar.  The kid’s dad ran the train station.  Out of gratitude for saving his son’s life he taught the young Edison Morse Code.  And trained him to be a telegraph operator.  He mastered it so well that Edison invented a better telegraph machine.  The Quadruplex telegraph.  Because he liked to tinker.

What made him a great entrepreneur and not a great scientist or engineer is that his inventions had a commercial purpose.  He didn’t invent to solve life’s great mysteries.  He invented to make money.  By creating things so great that people would want them.  And pay money for them.  He also had an eye on production costs.  So he could build these things the people wanted at affordable prices.  For if they were too expensive the people couldn’t buy them.  And make him rich.  So his inventions used technology to keep production costs down while keeping consumer interest high.  Because of the profit incentive.  But the POSSIBILITY of profits wasn’t enough to push Edison to set up his invention lab.  Where he employed a team of inventors to work full time inventing things.  And figuring out how to mass-produce inventions that made everyone’s life better.  He needed something else.  Something that GUARANTEED Edison could profit from his inventions.  The patent.  That gave the patent holder exclusive rights to profit from their invention.

Inventors and entrepreneurs spend a lot of money inventing things.  They do this because they know that they can file a patent when they invent something that people will buy.  Protecting their intellectual property rights.  So they alone can profit from the fruit of all their labors.  And Edison was one of these inventors.  One of the most prolific inventors of all time.  Filing over 1,000 patents.  Including one on the incandescent light bulb.  Which was going to replace gas lamps and candles.  And provided a need for another new invention.  Electric power distribution.  Something else he spent a lot of time tinkering with.  Producing electrical generators.  And an electric power distribution system.  Which was going to make him an even richer man.  As he held the patents for a lot of the technology involved.  However, he was not to become as rich as he had hoped on his electric power distribution system.  Not for any patent infringements.  But because of a mistreated former employee who had a better idea.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battled each other in the War of Currents

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant electrical engineer.  But not a great entrepreneur.  So he worked for someone who was.  Thomas Edison.  Until Edison broke a promise.  He offered a substantial bonus to Tesla if he could improve Edison’s electric power generating plants.  He did.  And when he asked for his bonus Edison reneged on his promise.  Telling the immigrant Tesla that he didn’t understand American humor.  Angry, Tesla resigned and eventually began working for George Westinghouse.  An Edison competitor.  Who appreciated the genius of Tesla.  And his work.  Especially his work on polyphase electrical systems.  Using an alternating current (AC).  Unlike Edison’s direct current (DC).  Bringing Edison and Tesla back together again.  In war.

Direct current had some limitations.  The chief being that DC didn’t work with transformers.  While AC did.  With transformers you could change the voltage of AC systems.  You could step the voltage up.  And step it back down.  This gave AC a huge advantage over DC.  Because power equals current multiplied by voltage (P=I*E).  To distribute large amounts of power you needed to generate a high current.  Or a high voltage.  Something both DC and AC power can do.  However, there is an advantage to using high voltages instead of high currents.  Because high currents need thicker wires.  And we make wires out of copper or aluminum.  Which are expensive.  And the DC wires have to get thicker the farther away they get from the generator plant.  Meaning that a DC generating plant could only serve a small area.  Requiring numerous DC power plants to meet the power requirements of a single city.  Whereas AC power could travel across states.  Making AC the current of choice for anyone paying the bill to install an electric distribution system.

So the ability to change voltages is very beneficial.  And that’s something DC power just couldn’t do.  What the generator generated is what you got.  Not the case with AC power.  You can step it up to a higher voltage for distribution.  Then you can step it down for use inside your house.  Which meant a big problem for Edison.  For anyone basing their decision on price alone would choose AC.  So he declared war on AC power.  Saying that it was too dangerous to bring inside anyone’s house.  And he proved it by electrocuting animals.  Including an elephant.  And to show just how lethal it was Edison pushed for its use to replace the hangman’s noose.  Saying that anything as deadly as what states used to put prisoners to death was just too deadly to bring into anyone’s house.  But not even the electric chair could save Edison’s DC power.  And he lost the War of Currents.  For Tesla’s AC power was just too superior to Edison’s DC power not to use. 

Nikola Tesla was a Brilliant Engineer who Preferred Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe over Business

George Westinghouse would get rich on electrical distribution.  Thanks to Nikola Tesla.  And the patents for the inventions he could have created for Thomas Edison.  If he only recognized his genius.  Which he lamented near death as his greatest mistake.  Not appreciating Tesla.  Or his work.  But Edison did well.  As did Westinghouse.  They both died rich.  Unlike Tesla.

Westinghouse could have made Tesla a very rich man.  But his work in high voltage, high frequency, wireless power led him away from Westinghouse.  For he wanted to provide the world with free electric power.  By creating power transmitters.  That could transmit power wirelessly.  Where an electric device would have an antenna to receive this wireless power.  He demonstrated it to some potential investors.  He impressed them.  But lost their funding when they asked one question.  Where does the electric meter go?  Free electric power was a noble idea.  But nothing is truly free.  Even free power.  Because someone had to generate that power.  And if you didn’t charge those using that power how were you going to pay those generating that power?

Edison and Westinghouse were great entrepreneurs.  Whereas Tesla was a brilliant engineer.  He preferred unraveling the mysteries of the universe over business.  Tesla probably suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Think of the character Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory television sitcom.  He was a lot like that character.  Brilliant.  Odd.  And interested in little else but his work.  He lived alone.  And died alone.  A bachelor.  Living in a two-room hotel room in the last decade of his life.  Despite his inventions that changed the world.  And the fortunes he made for others.  Sadly, Tesla did not die a rich man.  Like Edison and Westinghouse.  But he did live a long life.  And few men or women changed the world like he did.  A brilliant mind that comes around but once in a millennium.


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