DAVID McCULLOUGH, Host: Good evening and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.
"Sleep," Thomas Edison told his associates, "is like a drug. Take too much at a time and it makes you dopey. You lose time and opportunities." Few Americans ever made more of their time or of the opportunities of the age in which he lived than Edison, who got by on less than four hours of sleep. The observation he's best remembered for is exactly the code he lived by–"Genius is one-percent inspiration and ninety-nine-percent perspiration." His creative productions changed so much about American life that it is all but impossible to gauge their ripple effect. There was hardly a man or woman, hardly an American family anywhere not affected by what he did. My own family's experience, while not the average, makes the point.
My great-grandfather was a Pennsylvania harness maker, a sturdy example of horse-and-buggy days industry, but in the wake of Edison, he decided to invest in a new family enterprise, an electrical supply business started by my grandfather. The W.T. McCullough Electric Company opened for business in Pittsburgh in 1904 selling, yes, lightbulbs, and in the house where I grew up, Edison was a name spoken with reverence. In a closet in the living room reserved for old photographs and other family treasures was a replica of Edison's first lightbulb that my father, who had also entered the business, would take out and demonstrate with great pride. For a long time, not understanding the meaning of the word "replica," I thought it was actually Edison's first lightbulb.
Heroes like Thomas Edison have been out of fashion for quite a while, which is too bad. By any measure, he is an amazing story, and very American– "Edison's Miracle of Light.
NARRATOR: September 1878–a group of New York City reporters takes the hour-long train ride to Menlo Park, New Jersey. Their destination–the laboratory of the world's most famous inventor. His name is Thomas Alva Edison. He is thirty-one years old.
NEIL BALDWIN, Edison Biographer: By this time, he had reporters swarming to his lab every day, you know, crowds of them coming up to Menlo Park to get a glimpse of the wizard.
DAVID NYE, Historian and Edison Biographer: He would look very, very serious when he heard a reporter was coming into the office, and as soon as the reporter appeared, all the people in the office would act very serious and say, "Don't say anything. He's been sitting like that for hours." And suddenly he would break out of this reverie and make some stupendous announcement, in which case the reporter would race back and write this story up in the New York papers.
NARRATOR: On this historic day –September 15th –Thomas Edison surprises reporters by announcing his biggest project yet. He says he has solved a problem that has confounded the greatest scientific minds of the nineteenth century –a practical electric lightbulb. As if that were not enough, he says he will also invent a new industry to provide electric power –mysterious invisible energy to run machines and trains. He will harness Niagara Falls to light up America and change the world. incredibly, he tells the reporters he will have it done in only six weeks. "When I'm through, only the rich will be able to afford candles," says Edison.
So great is the inventor's reputation that the very next day, stocks in the gas-lighting industry plummet. Several investors, including J.P. Morgan, quickly put up money for Edison's scheme, despite the fact that Edison has nothing concrete to show them yet. All he has is the idea and his reputation as a worker of miracles.
Thomas Edison was entirely self-taught. Everything he knew about science he had learned from books and by tinkering with chemicals and telegraph equipment. At age fourteen, he had used the telegraph to gather information for his own small newspaper.
PAUL ISRAEL, Editor, "Edison's Notebook": He'd been a press wire operator when he was a telegraph operator, which meant he worked at night, sending the AP news wire. We know that he spent time in the offices of newspapers in the towns where he worked and met with journalists, and so Edison appreciated the press and knew what they were interested in in a way that a lot of other inventors never did.
NARRATOR: By age twenty-three, Edison was working for the telegraph industry. He had become one of the most sophisticated electrical experimenters in the world, with dozens of patents for his own inventions. He set up a shop in Newark to manufacture these inventions, including a ticker-tape machine, and the quadriplex telegraph. Working in his shop was a sixteen-year-old local girl named Mary Stillwell . He married her within months of their first meeting.
PAUL ISRAEL: His first wife was a young woman clearly without a lot of experience in the world and didn't really appreciate the kind of work he was doing. He tried to interest her in it, and we see in his notebooks he had a nickname that he called her, "Popsy-Wopsy." And in a couple of entries in his notebook, he describes how "Popsy-Wopsy, dearly beloved, can't invent worth a damn."
NARRATOR: Young Mary Edison soon found that inventing would always be her husband's first love. It seemed his every moment was spent in the lab, creating, and every penny earned from one invention was then spent on the next one. Tom had come from a poor family, like his wife, but as a man in his twenties he had few aspirations for the comforts of middle class life. Money was just a tool to buy more tools to turn his visions into reality.
In 1876, Edison bought some inexpensive farmland in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Here he established the world's first research laboratory, a self-contained community devoted to his own ideas. He brought along his young wife, his two children named Dot and Dash, and a small group of dedicated employees from the shop in Newark.
PAUL ISRAEL: The crew was essentially a small group of experimenters that worked with Edison, experimenting on the different technologies that he was working on. And then the other crucial element of the inventive team were the machinists in the little machine shop that he had at the laboratory. And so, in a sense, what he set up was an invention factory, and he boasted that what he would do was have a small invention every week and a large one every–every six months or so. And pretty much that's what he did at Menlo Park.
NARRATOR: In the first two years of this state-of-the-art lab, Edison and his team patented seventy-five different inventions, including an early battery-powered mimeograph, the first microphone, and his own improved version of the telephone. In July of 1877, he discovered a way to record sound using scratches in tinfoil. He called it "the phonograph," an amazing talking machine.
PHONOGRAPH RECORDING: Good evening, gentlemen and ladies. I am the phonograph. What do you think of me?
JOHN STAUDENMAIER, Editor and Historian: The phonograph dazzled people. I think even the idea that this very evanescent reality –speech –could somehow be contained in a physical object and reproduced–I think it just stunned people, and that's when he got the nickname, "the wizard of Menlo Park."
NARRATOR: The phonograph made Edison famous around the world. Reporters began making daily trips to his lab. They found a young man with dozens of amazing inventions –a homespun American wizard.
JOHN STAUDENMAIER: He is absolutely Joe Ordinary, this guy wearing a dumpy suit who hasn't shaved, who catches catnaps in the little cubbyhole underneath the stairs, you know. He looks like somebody that grew up on a farm, and you wouldn't always want him in the Waldorf Astoria. I think what fascinated people about him was that, "Could someone like us actually be this smart and actually do these things that people say are impossible?"
NARRATOR: The phonograph was a miracle, perhaps, but besides selling tickets to public demonstrations, no one could think of any practical use for it. It was nine months later that Edison gathered reporters in his lab and announced his biggest project yet –something more practical than the phonograph, more certain to free him from financial concerns. He would replace gas lights with electric lights. Gas was one of the most profitable industries in the world, with utilities in every city supplying street lamps, businesses and large houses. Modern civilization had come to depend on gas, despite its dangers. The gas was not only highly poisonous, but highly flammable. Asphyxiations and fires had become unfortunate elements of nineteenth-century urban life.
Edison saw his opportunity. If he could sell electricity in the same way gas was sold, he would make cities safer. And if he could steal away the profits of the mammoth gas-lighting industry, he would become the richest inventor in the world.
NEIL BALDWIN: Edison often used combat, war imagery in his rhetoric. As a matter of fact, one of Edison's nicknames as "the Napoleon of invention." And in the gas industry, I mean, Edison had the perfect opportunity to identify a technological enemy –gas was dirty, gas was unhealthy, gas was polluting –versus the clean, pristine cutting edge of electricity that he espoused.
NARRATOR: Edison was not the only inventor working on electric lights. Arc lights, thousands of times brighter than any gas flame, had already replaced gas street lamps in several cities. When first introduced, they had seemed supernatural. The mysterious and powerful electrical arc burned with such intensity that some said they would end crime in the cities by illuminating every darkened alley.
But Edison quickly determined that arc lights could never fully replace gas. First of all, they were just as dangerous as gas. Arc lights were powered through a tangle of overhead wires carrying deadly voltages of alternating current. Arc light and telegraph wires were becoming an urban hazard, and one of Edison's first decisions was that his own electric lights would be powered through underground cables. His cables would carry direct current, which at the time seemed safer and more manageable than alternating current. But the biggest problem with arc lights as far as Edison was concerned was that they were simply too bright.
JOHN STAUDENMAIER: The arc light is glaring and hideous, and it emits noxious fumes. There's no possible way that you could keep it in your house, put it in your living room or something like that. You'd go crazy. Is it possible to take that huge light that the arc light creates and break it down into little bitty lights?
NARRATOR: Edison knew that to compete with gas, he would need an electric light of about the same brightness as gas, but such lights had proven impossible to make. The closest any scientist had come was to pass a current through a wire, making it glow, but every attempt over the previous half-century had burnt out within minutes.
JOHN STAUDENMAIER: On the one hand, you have science over here –these people, they're in London, they're in New York, they're in Washington, they're in Paris –and science says you cannot do what he wants to do, which is to make a durable, economical incandescent filament lamp–can't do it, it's been tried. And there you have this strange man, Edison, who is very technically gifted –everybody knows that –and part ordinary guy, part peddler, mysterious and romantic and almost magical. Edison comes along and says, "I know how to do it, and I can do it at the same price as gas lights." Again, given his reputation, people say, "Do you think he can? I mean, that would make the whole world different."
NARRATOR: Edison went to work. He set his Menlo Park team of engineers, mathematicians, glassblowers and draftsmen to the task of creating a practical incandescent lamp. He gave them six weeks to do what had never been done before. He already had it figured out, he said. Using techniques he had used in his telegraph inventions, he quickly assembled a number of prototype lightbulbs. Not one of them worked.
PAUL ISRAEL: One of his assistants approached him about all these failed experiments that they had had. He said, "No, they're not failures. They taught something that I didn't know. They taught me what direction to move in."
DAVID NYE: Edison understood something about human psychology, I think. He knew that you had to keep people in a positive frame of mind. He didn't believe his fellow workers when they'd say things were going very well, that they'd just about solved the problem, but he preferred to let them say this, because he felt that was the way to talk, that was the way to think. Don't let a negative feeling spread through the shop that things were going badly.
NARRATOR: The eyes of the world were upon him as his six weeks dragged on for months. The press began to label him a fraud, and his investors grew angry. Edison kept working. Visitors to Menlo Park often commented on his ability to concentrate under pressure, even while teams of experimenters swarmed the lab.
NEIL BALDWIN: The second floor of the building was an unobstructed space, like a loft space, you might say. Several people could be working together on one thing, and there were all these notebooks that were next to each project, that were open, that you would write in. You know, whatever you were doing, you would make an entry on that. And Edison was constantly circulating throughout the hall, stopping here and stopping there and working with all the different people all the time, sort of like a butterfly almost, flitting from one flower to another. And then he had his own desk off in the corner by the window, facing the wall. If he sat there, then you weren't supposed to bother him.
I think his hearing loss definitely was one of the reasons why he was able to screen out a lot of buzz from the outside world. His hearing had been deteriorating since he was about twelve years old, and by the time he was involved with the lightbulb, he was in a situation where if, let's say, I wanted to speak with him, you would have to come up to his ear and cup your hands around the side of your mouth and almost yell in order for him to hear you distinctly. People would say to him, "Why don't you invent a hearing aid? Isn't that an obvious thing for you to want to discover?" He would say, "I want to have this condition, because it helps me be a better creator and a better inventor."
NARRATOR: Edison worked by his own mysterious methods. He had an ability to grasp complex technical issues instantly, for example, that the filament in his bulb would need a resistance over one hundred ohms to keep down the expense of copper wiring, but he said that he had trouble explaining what ohms were. "I can hire a mathematician," he said, "but a mathematician can't hire me." But trained scientists ridiculed the self-taught inventor. "If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack," complained Nicola Tesla, a Vienna-trained physicist who briefly worked for Edison, "he would proceed with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search."
In fact, Edison knew exactly what he was looking for. For over a year, he and his team narrowed down their search for the perfect filament. The breakthrough came in the fourteenth month. The material –a piece of lampblack scraped from the chimney of a common lantern. Carbon like this was used in Edison's microphones.
PAUL ISRAEL: Well, with this material –commonly available in the laboratory, as so much is –apparently playing with it one day and realized, as he was rolling it between his fingers, that all of a sudden he had something that might be a wire. And the first thing that you see them do in the laboratory is try to make little wire spiral carbons that didn't work. But then they got the idea that, well, there's another form of wire in the shape of carbon, and that's a thread, carbonized. And that's what they then inserted into the lamp, and when that began to glow and lasted for several hours, all of a sudden, they realized that they might be on the right path.
NARRATOR: "I knew," Edison announced triumphantly, "that if it would burn for forty hours, I could make it burn for one hundred." On New Year's Eve 1880, ten days after the first reports in the press, the bulbs were placed on posts throughout the complex. Three thousand visitors invaded Menlo Park to see for themselves. The lights seemed magical, inexplicable –a gentle orange glow trapped in a bottle.
DAVID NYE: It's hard to recover today the feeling that people had when they saw the first incandescent electric light that Edison had made, because up until that time, light and fire had always been the same thing. So when the electric light comes along, here's something that doesn't smoke. Here's something that doesn't burn any oxygen. It doesn't seem to burn out. It doesn't have any of the characteristics that we associate with fire. And for those people who saw it, they said, "This violates the natural order. This is not the way light is supposed to be." After Edison, light and fire are always going to be separate, and that's a major shift in the way people see things.
CAROLYN MARVIN, Historian and Author: Electricity was so remarkable to the Victorians that they saw the electric light and the effect of electricity generally as having an almost religious power. One of the most popular words used to describe electricity in the nineteenth century was that it was the lightning, and this equated electricity with God's very power. This was a very unsettling idea. Edison was both a godlike figure in some ways –because he could manipulate the lightning –and he was also a very dark and satanic figure for the same reason. He could challenge God's order.
NARRATOR: The public looked at the lightbulb as the birth of a new electrical age, an age that would bring unsettling but exciting changes. But Edison knew, as he had known all along, that his lightbulb would be little more than a sideshow novelty without an entire industry to market it and to provide power for it in people's homes. The lightbulb needed a socket, and the socket would need wires, and the wires would need to be connected to a switch. The finished system would need fuses, junction boxes, power meters, voltage regulators, manhole compartments, lamp fixtures. Over the next year, Edison and his team invented all of these and more.
They found ways to wire large numbers of lamps in a single circuit. They developed the concept of insulation, using beeswax and paraffin, in hopes of protecting the public from underground power lines, and they built larger, more efficient direct-current generators than ever before. Each new component was developed and handmade at Menlo Park. Edison was happiest when he was creating, and the year that followed his introduction of the lightbulb was one of his most productive.
NEIL BALDWIN: Most of the day was spent in a team environment –very rough-hewn, male-oriented, work-oriented, informal, but they started early and they ended late. At night, they used to play the organ and sing songs, eat sardines and crackers and drink beer, and sort of hang out together till all hours of the night. And actually, drinking on the job was very common in that time.
DAVID NYE: Edison's often perceived as being a workaholic, of somebody who just worked all the time. That's not really true. He much more fits the notion that we have now in history of what an artisan was like before the Industrial Revolution, that is, he had spurts of very intense labor and also times when he would suddenly stop work and play. If you look at the laboratory and study what happened there, you find out that he also sometimes would suddenly call off work and take everybody outside and they would ride the electric railway for a little while. Now, partly that's testing the railway, but partly it's having a good time, and he knew that people needed those moments of idleness, of story-telling, of jokes. Otherwise there would be no real, interesting work done.
NARRATOR: Two and a half years after announcing his plan to the press, Edison finally had a prototype lighting system up and running in Menlo Park. Edison's own home and the boarding house where his employees lived became the first in the world with electric light. "The electric lighting system is perfected," Edison announced. "I will now bend all my time and energies to its introduction to the public." Edison was already two and one-half years behind his six-week schedule, but during this time the public was growing more and more fascinated with the powers of electricity.
DAVID NYE: Electricity was somehow healthy, mysterious, dangerous, exciting. People wanted to mingle with it, they wanted to have something to do with it. They would buy little electric flash pins to put on their neckties, for example, or they would buy other kinds of electrical gizmos or gadgets. At a time when they still didn't have electricity in their homes, they enjoyed having a little electrical buzzer, for example, to give someone a handshake and give them a shock, or even electrical socks or the electrical belts, which were thought to cure people of impotence and other diseases. People believed that that was going to recharge their sexual batteries.
NARRATOR: These supposedly health-enhancing devices ran off of direct current in voltages so tiny that they gave only a slight buzz. Edison liked to point out that his own safe and healthy electric lighting system ran off of direct current as well.
CAROLYN MARVIN: People believed that there was an important connection between electricity and the force of life itself, and this meant that when people thought about electricity, they thought about it as an agent of health, something good for the body. In the Capitol, the basement, there was a special room with a special machine fitted out for the senators and the representatives to take electricity after a long, hard day in the legislature.
NARRATOR: With the fad for electrical gizmos in full swing, Edison had every reason to believe the public would now embrace electric power in their homes. In 1880 in New York City, Edison set about installing the first commercial electric utility. It was in a cheap waterfront building near Wall Street. This first central station would provide power to a square-mile area which included some very wealthy and influential customers –J.P. Morgan, the Stock Exchange, and the nation's largest newspapers. "I have left the laboratory," Edison said, "and am now a man of business."
JOHN STAUDENMAIER: And so he is leaving a small world that I think he was more comfortable with over to a world of business and finance and layers and layers of hierarchy with many workers. That's his big transition. It's a hard one for him.
NARRATOR: Edison had said he would create an entirely new industry, but he had never imagined just how difficult that would be. "There's no parallel in the world," he wrote. "All our apparatus and devices are homemade. Our men are completely without experience. What might happen on turning a big current into the conductors under the streets of New York? No one can say." The new installation was going to use higher voltages of direct current than anyone had ever seen before. Even some of the workers that Edison hired to dig up the streets and lay the cables were nervous, afraid, they said, of the devils in the wires.
JOHN STAUDENMAIER: I don't think the average immigrant workers are unusual in saying, "Who knows what this stuff does? And you want us to get right down in there. When are the demons in there and when aren't they in there?"
NARRATOR: Edison had to personally oversee every aspect of the installation. No one else was qualified.
PAUL ISRAEL: One suspects that his wife didn't see much of him in the couple of years that they spent trying to get the central station installed in New York City. At Menlo Park, the home had only been a few hundred yards away, but here he was in New York, and he had an office on 65 Fifth Avenue. He and his secretary would finish up business in the late evening and then they'd walk down to the central station district in downtown New York, and occasionally he'd jump right in and try and solve some technical problem, regardless of what he was wearing at the time. It was too late to go home, so they'd just go to sleep on a couple of cots that he kept there for that purpose.
NARRATOR: Back in Menlo Park, the glassblowers and machinists were struggling to make enough lightbulbs by hand for the system Edison was building. It was time to begin mass production. Edison approach his board of directors for money to build factories, but the businessmen, led by J.P. Morgan, refused. "Not another dime," they said, until the initial investments showed a profit. Edison fumed. "Since capital is timid, I will raise the money myself. The issue is factories or death."
PAUL ISRAEL: He was willing to undertake the risk that was involved in manufacturing and they weren't, so he's the one that set up the manufacturing company. He had a manufacturing plant for the lamps in Newark. He had another factory for the dynamos in New York. Then he had the central station itself that he was building, and he was spending time doing all of these things, plus occasionally going out to Menlo Park for experimental work that took place out there –an extraordinary period of activity.
NARRATOR: At 3:00 P.M. on September 4, 1882, the anxious board of directors met in J.P. Morgan's office to watch the throwing of the switch, the switch that would start up the first electric power plant in America. It had been four years exactly since Edison first had the idea. One witness now bet him one-hundred dollars that the system would fail. "Taken," said Edison, as he pulled the lever. There was silence for a minute as the giant direct-current dynamos slowly came life. Then the lights came on and the small crowd erupted into cheers. "I have accomplished all that I promised," the inventor said proudly. He printed up advertisements promoting his new central station, completely confident that all the cities of the world would soon rush to install their own. But a year later, only one sale had been made, a tiny water-powered system in Appleton, Wisconsin.
DAVID NYE: The general public did not get as excited as Edison expected. It was a great engineering achievement, but the public, as always, is a bit fickle. They had seen the electric light, they knew it could do good things to you, maybe it could do bad things to you, and they certainly didn't understand the safety aspects of it.
CAROLYN MARVIN: Whenever there's any new technological advance, there's a lot of debate about whether it's good for society or bad for society. And at the beginning with electricity, it was no surprise that there were lots of accidents.
PAUL ISRAEL: They discovered there was a problem with the insulation because on a wet day after some rain, some horses came along the street where the electric lines had been laid and all of a sudden started getting shocked.
CAROLYN MARVIN: People got electrocuted by accident, horses got electrocuted. This made them very concerned about electricity as an agent and caused scientists and electricians to work hard to reassure them.
NARRATOR: Edison had no choice but to throw all of his energy and imagination into building demand for his system. He launched a publicity campaign worthy of P.T. Barnum. A minstrel performer was hired to hand out pamphlets at a Philadelphia exposition. As he tap-danced across an electrified floor, his helmet would light up in rhythm to his feet. Four hundred men paraded through Manhattan, wearing lightbulbs on their heads. Power lines ran down each man's sleeve to a horse-drawn, steam-powered generator.
DAVID NYE: Now, to us today, they might look a little silly or slightly amusing, but at the time these electric bulbs on top of someone's head were quite spectacular because, remember, light and fire were still closely associated in the public mind. It seemed as if these people were walking along with fire on the tops of their heads, and doing so in a rather unconcerned way. It seemed to prove the electric light was very safe. It was remarkable.
NARRATOR: While promoting the safety of his system, Edison was also working to improve his technology and lower prices. By 1884, only six years after having had the original idea, the work was starting to pay off. Towns across the country were installing his electrical utilities. This was a remarkable rate of growth by any standard, but Edison wasn't happy. To his way of thinking, he was six years behind schedule. His many business duties were keeping him away from the lab.
DAVID NYE: Every individual installation at first had to be supervised, at least indirectly, by Edison or a few of his key people, so that the team that had worked together in the early years to make the inventions no longer was in place, and Edison was not in Menlo Park.
NARRATOR: Menlo Park was suffering badly from neglect. The historic complex was reverting to farmland. Chickens were living in the glassblowers' shed where the first lightbulb had been made.
DAVID NYE: Just as maybe he was getting to that point where he could have returned, his first wife died, and he never wished to go back to the place after that.
NARRATOR: Edison was only thirty-seven years old, but he saw his life slipping away. He now had three children to raise, including a teenage daughter. He set about the task of finding them a new mother with typical singularity of purpose. Within six months, he had found nineteen-year-old Mina Miller. His hearing had worsened over the years, and he taught Mina Morse code to help them communicate. He tapped out his marriage proposal in code on her wrist. Mina was able to bring out a previously unseen domestic side in Edison. He bought her a mansion in West Orange, New Jersey. "It's a great deal too nice for me, but it isn't half nice enough for my little wife."
By 1887, there were one-hundred-twenty-one Edison central power stations scattered across the country and several more in Europe. Not only was Edison a partial owner in most of these local communities, but each was obligated to buy supplies and equipment from Edison's own factories. J.P. Morgan, who had been too conservative and short-sighted to help Edison build the factories he had needed, now paid almost two million dollars to buy into Edison's manufacturing business. They renamed it the Edison General Electric Company.
At age thirty-nine, Edison was given the financial security that would allow him to return to his life as a full-time inventor. He drew up plans for a brand-new lab just a mile from his new mansion, an invention factory like Menlo Park, only bigger and better. It was an incredible trophy, the fruit of ten years' labor during which Edison had almost single-handedly started a new industry that was transforming how people live. While on a trip to France, Edison bought himself a present, a statue called "Triumph of the Light." He made it the centerpiece of his impressive new office.
Edison had shown the world how profitable electric power could be, but now other inventors and other businessmen wanted part of the action. Competitors began rushing into the field with rival products and technological refinements. One of the most threatening of these new competitors was George Westinghouse. Westinghouse challenged Edison with a brand-new system based on high-voltage alternating current. Edison's direct-current power plants could only send electricity a mile or so –any farther away and lightbulbs grew dim –but Westinghouse's newly-developed technology could reach for hundreds of miles with little loss of power. The advantages of alternating current were obvious to most people, but Edison could not or would not see them.
DAVID NYE: Edison himself was convinced that alternating current, in its very nature, was destructive to the nervous system. For Edison, it was proof enough that if you took hold of an alternating current wire, you were not able to let go –your nervous system was paralyzed by it. So he believed strongly that it was a bad thing to have alternating current in your home. This may help us to understand why Edison, in his battle with Westinghouse, adopted some pretty unusual tactics.
PAUL ISRAEL: Well, you know, obviously, one of the other problems in terms of trying to understand Edison's relationship to AC is that it's a much more complex technology than the DC system, and requires a kind of mathematical analysis Edison frankly wasn't capable of.
NEIL BALDWIN: The reason Edison was so against alternating current was not only because it was proposed by a competing industrialist, but because, on some level, he saw it as the wave of the future and he saw that ultimately it would win and triumph, and he could see the seeds of his destruction there.
NARRATOR: Rather than adapt to the new technology, the inventor who had once been so visionary now decided to fight against change. He launched a new propaganda campaign denouncing alternating current as too dangerous. An electrical engineer named Harold Brown became his chief lieutenant in this "battle of the currents."
PAUL ISRAEL: Brown approached Edison with the idea that he could prove how dangerous AC systems were if Edison would allow him to conduct experiments at the laboratory using animals. And what Edison did was provide the resources of his laboratory, and at the laboratory, they conducted experiments and killed a bunch of animals as a way of demonstrating the effect of the alternating current on the human body.
NARRATOR: One thousand volts of alternating current was used, thus insuring the results of the experiments. Westinghouse responded angrily. "Yes, the alternating current will kill people. So will dynamite and whiskey." Not only was Edison a liar, according to Westinghouse, but Edison simply did not understand alternating current. It was Nicola Tesla, Vienna-trained critic of Edison's primitive research methods, who helped decide the battle of the currents by developing an AC motor and generator far more efficient and far more powerful than ever could be possible using DC. Westinghouse bought Tesla's patents, then enlisted the inventor into the propaganda war.
Tesla had a trick he liked to perform. When he touched a generator with one hand, a gas-filled tube would dramatically light up in the other. It was done by passing harmless static electricity through his body, but the public was given the false impression that alternating current was completely safe. By this time, it was clear that Westinghouse was winning the battle of the currents. More alternating current systems were being sold than direct-current. But Edison, never one to give up without a fight, was still looking for a way to save his business.
RICHARD MORAN, Sociologist and Criminologist: Well, at that time there had been a number of botched hangings, and the State of New York became concerned that the opposition to the death penalty was growing because of these botched hangings, and that hanging was associated with the barbaric past. So they were looking for a new, modern method of execution, one that would appear much less brutal and gruesome. The governor appointed a commission to study the best method of executing criminals. A dentist from Buffalo who was on the commission–he wrote Edison, asking Edison if he could propose a method of execution that would be swift and painless.
Initially, Edison wrote back, saying that he was a progressive and a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, and he wasn't interested in this business at all. But a month later, Edison saw the opportunity here to help discredit alternating current, and he wrote back that a thousand volts of alternating current would surely do the job, using a generator–an alternating current generator principally produced in this country by George Westinghouse. And, of course, Edison has enormous prestige. I mean, there's no modern-day equivalent of him. His word was taken, you know, as the word of God, really, in this area of electricity.
NARRATOR: With Edison's blessing, the State of New York adopted death by alternating current as its official method of execution. Edison's attorney suggested that the new electric chair be called "The Westinghouse." The first man condemned to die by electricity was a twenty-eight-year-old murderer named William Kemmler. The world eagerly awaited his execution to find out if alternating current was as deadly as Edison claimed.
RICHARD MORAN: On the day of the execution, everyone was really very nervous. Kemmler himself was probably the most calm. By the time the signal was given to start the current, Kemmler received that current, his body stiffened and for a moments he looked like a toy soldier almost. And then, after seventeen seconds, one of the doctors panicked because there was smoke coming from one of the electrodes, so he gave the order to shut off the electricity. Then they all started to congratulate themselves on a job well done.
Then someone cried, "But he moves, he's still alive." And his body went into spasms, and his fingers started to bleed, and blood came down through his mask on his face. And then they gave the signal –"Start it up again, start it up again" –and this time they left the current on for seventy-two seconds, in which case Kemmler's body began to smolder and burn. It took actually four minutes for his body to cool off enough so they could remove him from the chair. The publicity was enormously negative. Every single newspaper denounced it, both in America and across the world.
NARRATOR: Edison's last-ditch effort to discredit alternating current had backfired. Rather than proving the deadliness of AC, he managed only to cheapen his own reputation. When J.P. Morgan and the board of directors decided to quit fighting against alternating current, they forced a merger with a rival company. Edison had to learn from reporters that his name had been removed from the new company's title. Edison General Electric was now simply General Electric. The new General Electric joined forces with Westinghouse to build a hydro-electric plant at Niagara Falls, completing Thomas Edison's own vision of fifteen years earlier, but Edison would have nothing to do with the installation. He refused to set foot inside a General Electric building for the next thirty years.
JOHN STAUDENMAIER: On the one hand, I think he is deeply hurt and angry, so he's going to cut off electricity –no more brilliant Edison ideas for them – and it's petulant and kind of petty. On the other hand, he's a buoyant guy who says, "There are other fish to fry in this world. There are other inventions to be done. I'm Edison. I can do stuff. I'm good." And that's genuine, too. I think this is a deeply ambivalent moment for him.
NARRATOR: Edison wasted little time brooding over his losses. At age forty-six, he was already plotting his next major inventions. Still to come in the second half of his life were new methods of mining, poured concrete houses, battery-powered cars, the first record company, motion pictures, and the first movie studio. Once again, he gathered an eager group of reporters in his office, and announced that he would change the world. "I am going to do something now so different and so much bigger than anything I have ever done before that people will forget my name ever was connected with anything electrical."