Updated: Jul 21
#47 Science in History
20th March 1886
The first demonstration in America of the alternating-current (AC) system for lighting was conducted today in 1886.
The demonstration was orchestrated by George Westinghouse, an inventor and businessman, along Main Street at Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Westinghouse’s AC system used high-voltage transmission lines to carry electrical power over long distances. The electrical power could then be stepped down through transformers for use in homes and businesses. This contrasted with the direct-current (DC) system that was in use at the time, which required power plants to be located close to the areas they served.
George Westinghouse was already a successful inventor and businessman before he became involved in the development of the alternating current (AC) system. He had made his fortune by inventing and developing new technology for the railroad industry, including the air brake system. By the time Westinghouse became involved in AC technology, he was already a wealthy and respected figure in the business world.
In the 1880s, Westinghouse became interested in the potential of AC power and began working with Nikola Tesla to develop AC motors and transformers. He saw the potential for AC to revolutionize the way electricity was distributed, and he acquired the rights to Tesla's patents for AC technology. Westinghouse then began promoting AC power as a more efficient alternative to the existing direct current (DC) technology that was in use at the time.
The success of the demonstration in Great Barrington helped to establish AC as a viable alternative to DC for electrical power distribution. However, it would be several more years before AC systems became widely adopted, as there was still significant resistance from those who had invested in DC technology.
Thomas Edison, a strong advocate of direct current (DC) technology, was not present at the demonstration but was aware of the demonstration and was not pleased with the success of Westinghouse's AC system. Edison had invested heavily in DC technology and had even gone so far as to launch a smear campaign against AC, including the public electrocution of animals using AC power to convince people of its dangers. Edison believed that DC was safer and more reliable than AC, and he saw the success of the Great Barrington demonstration as a threat to his business interests.
In the years that followed, Edison continued to promote DC technology and tried to discredit AC at every opportunity. However, as AC technology improved and its advantages became more apparent, it eventually became clear that AC was the superior system for electrical power distribution. Despite his initial resistance, Edison eventually came around to accepting AC as a viable alternative to DC, and he even worked on some AC-related projects later in his career.