Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A dispute worth killing over

Back at the beginning of summer I recommended some good books for summer reading, but maybe now it's time for a book for those chilly evenings by the fire: AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol (and no, it's not about AC/DC the band).

Quite often companies develop technologies that do the same thing but use different formats. Recently we had something of a "standards" battle between Blu-Ray and HD DVD but when I was young it was BetaMAX vs. VHS. But who'd have thought that just over a hundred years ago it was AC vs. DC, alternating current vs. direct current electricity? Each side had its powerful backers. On the DC side was Thomas Edison, the world's greatest inventor, who was at his best when developing new products and was supported by a powerful marketing machine. On the AC side was George Westinghouse, another brilliant inventor who's mostly faded from history due to his unassuming personality and avoidance of the limelight. Nicolai Tesla (maker of the Tesla Coil for you fans of AC/DC and hard rock music) plays a minor part on the AC side, providing a "99% inspiration" counterpoint to Edison's "99% perspiration" ethic.

The "War of the Standards," as it came to be known, forms the core of this short history of electricity (even going back to Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite) and the dispute was very personal for these inventive giants, and the attacks and slander got as mean as a Republican primary election contest. Edison even supported an enterprising salesman named Harold Brown who conducted very UNscientific experiments to portray AC as inherently more dangerous. With Edison's tacit approval, he experimentally killed over a hundred stray dogs using electricity. Westinghouse and AC came out the winner but not before Brown and Edison helped develop a new system of capital punishment - the electric chair - that deliberately used the rival AC power (even electrocuting a circus elephant, which was recorded by another of Edison's inventions: the motion picture camera).

Both AC and DC have important roles in today's world, and as technology advances the balance will move back and forth. But this was a surprisingly interesting read on a topic I wouldn't have guessed had been so contentious. It's a bit short, perhaps, but often provides just the right amount of detail for readers who aren't intimately knowledgeable about electricity. I found the part about Brown's "experiments" disgusting and even disturbing, and I think many will agree, but it was an interesting part of the history of something we all take for granted.

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