Westinghouse vs. Edison: Pittsburgh’s Energy Redux

More than a century after Pittsburgh dominated electrical innovation, the city is once again lighting the way towards energy reinvention. The Energy Grid Research and Infrastructure Development (GRID) Institute, launched by the University of Pittsburgh, boasts one of the most technically sophisticated testing laboratories in the country, and leads the nation’s efforts to develop micro-grid technology. The Institute is concerned with the thoroughly modern questions of resilience and climate change, but we can’t help but admire the historical symmetry of their pursuits. After all, Pittsburgh was once the site of a decade long battle between Alternating Current (AC) titan George Westinghouse and Direct Current (DC) inventor Thomas Edison.  Yes, that Thomas Edison.

Tesla and Westinghouse Exhibit at Chicago International Fair

Photo: Wikimedia

If you didn’t follow power struggles of the 19th century, suffice it to say that George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison were not the best of friends. Westinghouse Electric Company had been testing AC power grids in Pittsburgh, relying on a series of transformer and transmitters to carry power across long distances. Edison meanwhile was pushing the adoption of his DC power generators, not unrelated to profits from his patented incandescent bulb. The two electrical systems could not co-exist, and the rivalry blew through the courts and banks and on to the front page of every national newspaper.

By 1893, AC systems were poised to dominate the market, though not before Edison engaged in a series of propaganda stunts including electrocuting several dogs and an elephant! He even helped orchestrate the first criminal electrocution by AC power, referring to the process as being ‘Westinghoused.’ It probably didn’t help that Westinghouse’s success hinged on an invention by one of Edison’s former employees, a one Nikola Tesla. Yes, that Tesla.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and cities are still contending with the current debate. With no less enthusiasm than Westinghouse himself, GRID Institute Director Dr. Gregory Reed has been championing DC grids as an answer to climate change, a way for communities to flexibly and independently power their development. Reed concedes, “We’re not necessarily saying Edison was right. He wasn’t in his time. But he is now.”

Learn about the GRID institute first hand during GBA’s upcoming tour on March 29th. We’ll explore the Energy Power Technologies Lab, the Next Generation Energy Conversion and Storage Technologies Lab, and the High-Temperature Corrosion Testing Lab, in addition to hearing from Director Dr. Gregory Reed and Business Development expert Dr. Katrina Kelly-Pitou.

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