In 1831, when Michael Faraday, a physicist, succeeded in creating electricity using electromagnetic energy from moving conductors on a magnet, people who knew only of the existence of electricity at the time, became surprised that there were “types” of electricity. The movie, “The Current War (2017)” then illuminates the fierce competition afterwards of whether to use direct current electricity or alternating current among the three brightest minds at the time. Thus, the Argus closely looks at two types of electricity competing back and forth in the film, and furthermore, provides a diachronic view of the development of direct current and alternating current through science philosophies: Karl Popper’s falsifiability and Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory, and denotes the prospect of electricity.
“The Current War (2017),” seesaw of two forms of electricity
The movie sheds light on Thomas Edison, an inventor and a businessman who lit up modern civilization, and his competitors: George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Direct current, which was first distributed in the 1880s by Thomas Edison, began to gain popularity, while alternating current, was shunned by people as its current was less stable. However, the game changes by the outstanding entrepreneurship and brilliant thinking of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. The movie begins in the 1880’s United States, when many talented immigrants flocked to the U.S. at the time contributed to make the U.S. the leading technological powerhouse. At that time, most American electronic companies were fostered under funds from big financiers such as J.P. Morgan.
What is Direct current and Alternating current?
Direct current (DC) is a current that does not change its direction, which flows from high to low voltage. DC is generally used for electronic circuits or batteries in equipment. For example, a portable battery is a typical device using DC function, which is charged when outer high voltage flows in through the device.
Alternating current (AC) is an electric current in which the direction of flow changes periodically. AC fundamentally derives from Michael Faraday’s “law of electromagnetic induction” principle which generates electricity by moving wires back and forth on a magnet. AC electricity forms by moving wires (rotor) on a large magnet (fixed magnet). Today, AC is commonly used over DC, as it is easier to control the voltage.
Thomas Edison desires to create DC empire
The film “The Current War (2017)” begins in 1879, with investors getting off a train in search of Edison. While they were walking on a dark night road, they become awed by the bright light coming out of the “bulbs” invented by Thomas Edison. Edison’s light bulb, obtained through as many as 3,000 trials and errors, surprised the world by staying on for 13.5 hours in October 1879; others previously stayed on for only less than a minute. Afterward, he continues his experiment and in 1880 invented the ultimate light bulb, which stayed on as long as 1,200 hours, by discovering that a burnt bamboo could minimize the resistance to current flow. Successfully pulling it off, Edison founded “Edison General Electric” under the auspices of several financiers, such as JP Morgan, to dominate the U.S. electricity supply market in earnest. Then, “Edison General Electric” developed the “Dynamo,” a generator that provides DC electricity, and used to transmit electricity to more than 1,093 of his inventions.
Since then, the Edison General Electric business quickly flourished, building 5,000 power plants in the U.S. in two years and 2,000 more within the next five years. But soon after, with the emergence of a rival company called “Westinghouse Electric” in 1886, he gradually felt threatened. He did not think much of Westinghouse at first, as AC at that time was dismissed as an unruly current, with its inconsistency in direction and intensity. Edison even worried that AC’s high-current at one point could threaten mankind. In the movie, he tells reporters, “Did I tell you AC can kill people?” But as the situation does not happen even after he says this confidently to the public, he commits unethical experiments like electrocuting a horse with AC to prove the danger of AC. What is worse is that he even suggests that the Prison Service made an electric chair using AC and performed electrocutions. However, in the latter part of the movie, people adopt AC which can be used across great distances at a lower price. In 1892, Edison was ousted when “Edison General Electric” was merged into the “General Electric Company.”
Ironically, however, the film ends with Thomas Edison smiling triumphantly, watching Niagara Falls in the cinema. This strangeness can be solved in two explanations: first, Edison established a Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908 through his later invention, the Kinetoscope, which succeeded in the film business. Secondly, “Westinghouse Electric” succeeds in building a power plant in Niagara Falls and generating electricity through Tesla’s hydroelectric generator, but borrows Edison’s transmission system to bring electricity to the U.S as there are not any transformers needed in sending electricity over very long distances. In fact, according to the Korea Electric Power Corp.’s “Channel KEPCO,” installing a DC transmission system is cheaper, as the electrical resistance (voltage) of the DC is 30 percent lower than that of the AC. DC transmission causes fewer short circuits and thus reduces the amount of insulation needed, like an agitator.
George Westinghouse paves the road of AC
From the beginning of the movie, George Westinghouse appears as a rival (but a very generous one) of Edison, who uses the AC transmission system. He was already a successful businessman, founding the “Air Brake Company” in 1869, producing various car- related inventions. But in 1886, when Edison was moving ahead with DC transmission, Westinghouse spots the drawback of the DC power plant, as too many lift statins had to be built over a city-area for it to be cost-effective. Therefore, he invests a huge sum of money and establishes the “Westinghouse Electric Company,” which provides AC transmission. He even imports a generator from an Italian scientist named Werner von Siemen for US$ 25,000, but his wife and colleagues all try to stop him by saying, “You made a big mistake.” as there were many flaws in the AC system. But as the story unfolds, “Westinghouse Electric” grows as much as Edison’s business through alternators, and transformers successfully made by his friend, William Stanley. AC steadily gains in popularity as it complements the short and thick copper wire used in Edison’s DC transmission process, and made electricity last longer, and less expensive.
However, in 1888, one day during a cold winter, several people were electrocuted due to malfunctioning AC transformers emitting high voltage. After this event, people quickly lost faith in AC. But with the help of Nikola Tesla, Westinghouse succeeds in creating “Tesla’s Transformer,” and wins the current war. Regarding his success, Dr. Kim Seok-hwan of Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute, Superconductivity Research Center said, “Edison’s business was to set up and supply direct current power plants in nearby neighborhoods, but he knew that as the business would flourish, the loss of electricity would increase, but at the time he had no transformer to control the voltage of direct current, so he had no other choice than to build more alternators. On the other hand, Westinghouse and Tesla were successful through the use of Tesla’s AC transformer, thus increasing and decreasing the voltage freely.”
Nikola Tesla makes ideality into reality with AC
At the height of the competition between the two inventors, Nikola Tesla appears while measuring the distance from Edison’s DC generator to Edison’s laboratory, then knocks on Edison’s doorsteps. Tesla comes from a small town in Croatia. He studied engineering at Graz University in Austria, but he dropped out of school after he strongly disagreed with his professor’s claim that electricity flows only through a rectifier. Tesla believed that instead of using commutators limiting the movement of rotors ― which inhibit the voltage it could generate, steering rotors continuously would create magnetic fields on the stator much more quickly and with much more voltage, producing more electricity. His idea later becomes a fundamental model for his AC inventions.
Tesla was certain that Edison, the largest DC electric company owner of the time, would agree with his ideas, and immigrated to the U.S in 1884 to convey his thoughts to Edison.
But in the movie, Edison ignores him by saying, “I’ll give you $50,000, if you can fix the broken generator now.” Regarding his response, Song Sung-soo, a physics professor at Pusan National University, said, “It may have been because Edison knew that AC electricity was more productive and economical, but he didn’t want his efforts to go to waste.” Over the next six months, Tesla repairs bulb failures at the Edison Company, where many of the problems were caused by the low current not reaching far enough, and a failure of inventing the right type of transmission. In the film, Tesla constantly insists upon Edison to shift to the AC system to overcome the limitations of DC, but Edison says, “What can you do? You’re just an immigrant.” Consequently, Tesla leaves Edison and sets up his own company, but due to financial difficulty his company becomes troubled.
After these instances, Tesla introduces a new alternator that uses induction motors while giving lectures on his thesis “A New System of International Current Motors and Transformers” at Columbia University in 1888. Westinghouse, who received a patent infringement report from Edison for the use of DC electric motors, promises to help Tesla to develop his invention by signing a contract for the use of induction motors after hearing Tesla’s lecture. Hence, George Westinghouse secures the stability of the AC system through an induction motor and brightens the night at the Chicago World Expo, thereby captivating judges with an offer of providing electricity at half the price that Edison charges.
Tesla also previously invented a disk-type turbine with less air resistance and more rotating power in 1883 to create an alternating motor which can convert kinetic energy into electrical energy more powerfully. In 1893, after the Expo, Tesla built the first electric motor-based hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, which had been a childhood goal of his with the support of “Westinghouse Electric,” enabling it to provide AC to more people. Tesla always had a goal of allowing everyone to use the current for free, but in the film, when he tells an investor, Rudolph Young his dream, he sneers and ignores him, saying, “This isn’t about AC, DC; what matters the most is currency.” However, in the end, Tesla succeeds in developing a hydroelectric power plant using AC, and proves his dream a reality.
The philosoply of science in “The Current War,” the current crisis and prospect of electricity
“The Current War (2017)” does not just deal with a quarrel between three scientists, but also implies how the science of technology develops. Therefore, the story could be interpreted through Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” which suggests that science develops by disproving, and Thomas Kuhn’s “Paradigm theory” that calls for a widening of the conceptual scheme of science. Moreover, based on these philosophies, accumulating AC drawbacks like a power outage and energy waste, and the rising use of alternate energy sources, illustrate that the science of technology still continues.
Proving falsification and accepting mistakes
With the spirit of “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” after countless experiments, Thomas Edison was able to light up a city with DC. However, he did not listen to the advice of switching to AC because he harbored the ambition of building “Edison Empire”. But his “thought” lost its value eventually when Westinghouse’s AC electricity, instead of DC electricity, was recognized in 1893, at the Chicago World Expo. But Edison was not totally frustrated at this point, and he continued to pioneer new inventions. This is in accordance with Karl Popper’s falsification, which scientific object must always be proved to be false through observation, and it is the true scientist’s obligation to accept new theory as a member of an open society. The movie reflects that science technology is not absolute. As Karl Popper says in the book, “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”, no matter how great a theory is, as there may be “black swan” among “the swans,” usage of DC was to be refuted and proved to be false through new evidence. Regarding “The Current War (2017),” professor Song Sung-soo said, “As Karl Popper asserted, when modern analytical philosophy was prevalent, scientists did many experiments and observations as part of efforts to counter the other side, just like Edison and Westinghouse.”
Piling limits of AC and shifting towards DC
In 1888, Nikola Tesla worked for “Edison General Electric” and observes limitations in the DC system. In the beginning, Thomas Edison’s DC system dominates the country, but as DC started to reveal its limitations, Tesla turned the tables of electricity in 1893, with an efficient AC system which compensates defects of DC. This phenomenon can also be thought of as Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm: within the scope of normal science, scientists accumulate research results that do not blemish the theoretical basis of the system, but sometimes anomalous and unfamiliar results pile up to reach a point of crisis, whereupon the paradigm shifts and the new theoretical framework replaces the existing system. “If we look at Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory as a concept that is widely used by scholars and the public besides natural science, Edison is the representative of the DC view of the world, and the representative of the AC view is Westinghouse,” said a philosophy professor Lee Sang-wook, at Hanyang University.
Growing problems, and two currents yet to be settled
Surprisingly however, researchers identify that the era of DC is returning, due to several reasons. First, AC increases the risk of blackouts. Because voltage and current are not constant during transmission, there are many losses due to difficulty in adjusting electric resistance. In contrast, DC resistance is constant with a stable voltage and current, in which there is less risk of thermal loss. Therefore, DC could prevent power outages that previously occurred if electricity demand is not met. Second, renewable energy is receiving attention as an alternative energy source. According to a report [Electricity, Electric Industry, Past and Present] published by the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute, the use of renewable energy will increase as the gradual shutdown of nuclear power plants decreases electricity supply. “POSTECH Review,” however, noted renewable energy produces direct current, thus producing DC, but transmitting into AC and then transferring back to DC in electronics causes inefficient power loss. Likewise, it seems that DC would become prevalent over AC after the perseverance of losing its current. But it cannot simply be justified as Edison’s victory, because, as Thomas Kuhn demonstrates, technology develops based on its significance and limitation.
“Automation, transportation, and communication. And the man that controls that current controls that future,” as Edison says in the movie, electricity changed the way we live and became an indispensable necessity. However, unlike how the movie unravels electricity as being an intense war, in reality, DC and AC were both developed to improve people’s lives. Thus, the Argus hopes that through the article, readers have a clearer understanding of how electricity, at its center, evolves through science philosophy.
By Mun Ji-hyun
Staff Reporter of Theory & Critique Section