Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer. If you know anything about the history of electricity, you probably know about what's become known as the battle of the currents. It's a short window in time, the late 1880s into the early 1890s, when three of the world's most famous inventors duked it out over the future of electricity, Thomas Edison versus George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla, and the very, very simplified version of the battle goes like this. Edison was developing a system of electricity called direct current, and Westinghouse and Tesla backed a different kind of system called alternating current. And Edison took every opportunity to convince the public that alternating current was deadly and should be feared and resisted.
Jason Feifer: That's Adam Allerhand, a retired professor of chemistry from Indiana University who's written actual five-pound book called An Illustrated History of Electric Lighting. And we'll get into the whole electric chair thing more later. But for now, just to put a fine point on it, the electric chair was basically an orchestrated effort by Edison to make people think of alternating current as deadly. So, here's where on this show I usually start to go wide and get a little indignant and ask a question like, \"So, why did people fear electricity? What caused them to see this transformational innovation, the technology that literally powers our world today as something worth resisting?\" But Adam, he cut me off.
Jason Feifer: Electricity, Adam would go on to tell me, is different from every other innovation we've discussed on this show, different perhaps from most other consequential innovations across time which are feared and resisted before they're massively adopted. Unlike the bicycle or coffee or the car or the Walkman or other new things we focused on here, Edison wasn't able to summon many enemies of electricity. It wasn't something people broadly predicted gloom and doom about.
Jason Feifer: In fact, electricity as a whole wasn't something people actively resisted. And again, that's despite one of the world's most famous inventors waging a furious fear campaign and going so far as to actually have a man killed by that technology.
Jason Feifer: So, this is going to be a different kind of Pessimists Archive. Rather than ask why people feared electricity, we're going to ask why didn't they? If the history of innovation is marked by fear and resistance, how did electricity stroll right through and light us up? How did reason triumph so easily over Edison's howls? How can future technologies repeat this success? We're going to get into it all, and it's really interesting, and we go pretty deep.
Jill Jonnes: The very first person to have electric light incandescent light in his house in Manhattan with JP Morgan who was one of the original investors in the Edison company, and he had an isolated unit installed in his former... He moved all the horses out of this stable and put a generator in there, and he literally hired people who would come as it got dark, and they would run this generator. And then, they had electric lights in their house.
Jason Feifer: It's hard to know exactly what Edison was thinking. But by the next year, he surely knew he was in trouble. By September of 1887, Westinghouse had installed 25 AC stations and had 16 more under construction. Sales of DC station equipment were shrinking. And one of Edison's own engineers wrote a letter to the Edison electric light company pleading that they get into the AC game. Here's an excerpt of that letter.
Jason Feifer: But Edison decided to fight instead with the politician's weapon of choice, insane fear-mongering. Sometimes, he'd get into the fight himself. The New York Tribune for example once reported that, \"Mr. Edison has declared that any metallic object, a doorknob, a railing, a gas fixture, the most common and necessary appliance of life might at any moment become the medium of death.\" And other times, he'd have someone else do the work for him.
Jason Feifer: But by this time, the war of the currents was functionally over. Edison had lost. His technology was worse. His company was struggling. In 1889, his company merged with another to become the Edison General Electric company, and they promptly began working on alternating current. And by the way, if you happen to be listening and thinking, \"Wait, wait, wait. What about the elephant,\" then very quickly, and for those who weren't thinking this, now here's a little fun fact, this has become one of those stories that is attached to Edison and the whole current war thing but actually has nothing to do with it. In 1903, a Coney Island amusement park made a public spectacle out of electrocuting an elephant named Topsy from a zoo, and it was filmed by the Edison film company. But Thomas Edison himself had nothing to do with it, and this is more than a decade after Edison was out of the electricity business. The real legacy of Edison's war against AC is basically this.
Jason Feifer: AC is what you use today when, for example, you plug your phone in so you can recharge it and listen to Pessimists Archive over and over again of repeat which I appreciate by the way. So, nice of you. And now, it's time to really dive into the question why. Why did Edison's fear-mongering fail so completely? Why was electricity which had violently and brutally killed a condemned criminal not totally scaring the hell out of people? I asked this question to both historians, Adam and Jill. Here's Adam's take.
Jason Feifer: I'll go a step further. It's also super complicated. People didn't know what electricity was. And I mean, hell, they still don't. Can you explain electricity? I'm not even going to try. And yes, we often fear the unknown. But we also struggle to marshal our passions against it. I'd say it's why today we aren't all mobilizing against climate change which actually is something to fear. It's just too abstract. But Jill's answer was the one that really got me thinking. So, before I tell you what it is, consider the moment electricity was having. Today, we think of electricity as the engine that powers our entire digital and mechanical world. But back then, electricity was basically the provider of two things. First, it was light.
Jason Feifer: Number one when electricity as a concept was new. Number two, when lighting was new. And number three, when AC and DC were brand new like maybe Edison's fear-mongering is just a big distraction and we're looking at the wrong thing here. So, let's start with when electricity itself was new. Here's the thing to understand. For most of human history, electricity wasn't thought of as an innovation or even an invention. It was like a phenomenon. Some sea creatures could give you a shock. There was lightning, static shocks. People were playing around with this stuff since at least ancient Egypt and probably far longer. It took a long time to learn how to harness it.
Jason Feifer: In the 1700s, they thought asthma could be cured by drying out a dead toad smashing it into powder and eating it in pill form. So, different times. Let's consider it then. This is the grand tradition of storytelling where we create monsters that reflect the fears of our time Godzilla, nuclear war, Dracula, and foreign invaders threatening the British Empire. And so, I wondered was Frankenstein really about electricity? Was this evidence of a deep panic about this mysterious new power? But Matthis says, \"No, not really. Electricity just wasn't impacting enough people at the time.\" But you know what was?
Jason Feifer: That pretty well summarizes why people didn't fear early introductions of electricity, I think. They just had other things to worry about. And electricity may have been powerful and clearly could do strange and alarming things especially to corpses. But it also felt entirely contained. It wasn't let loose into the world or left for individuals to reckon with. We fear what seems inescapable, not what merely seems possible. So, that's the introduction to electricity.
Jason Feifer: So, now finally, let's look at our third moment of electricity being new, and this is just a different approach to the Edison versus Westinghouse thing and all that craziness. Instead of focusing on the battle between two men and Edison's fear-mongering, let's just look at the whole thing, the installation of electricity. Cities suddenly electrified. What do we see there? The answer is in fact some very real and legitimate reasons to be afraid. If you've ever seen photos of American cities from the late 1800s, you've seen these in insane jumbles of wires everywhere. There were all sorts of things there, telephone and telegraph wires and so on. None of them were especially dangerous. But then arc lighting gets installed bringing high voltage wires into the jumble.
Jason Feifer: Why? They'd go to the National Cash Register Company, of course. So, with all these shenanigans going on and big businesses doing whatever they can to separate people from their money, you can imagine that the people of the time might have seen Edison's fear-mongering in a very different light. They'd have focused on what was genuinely the big problem, not what he said was the problem. I mean I think people got it. They understood the real problem, and it wasn't alternating current. It was high voltage wires lying around in the street.
Jason Feifer: Now that we know all this, let's think for one final time about the Westinghouse and Edison fight. Edison thought he could manipulate people into fearing a certain kind of electricity. Instead, people feared what they saw with their own eyes. It didn't matter what kind of electricity flowed through those wires on the ground. It just mattered that the wires were buried. The rest, I think, people understood could take care of itself.
Jason Feifer: For such a smart inventor, Edison misunderstood how people think and, frankly, how innovations seep into the world. DC, AC, nobody could care about that. What we care about is something that feels controllable. We want to know the outcome of a new technology. What will change in our lives? What will it replace? Oftentimes, because of the slow way that electricity's impact spread across time and space, we knew the answers. Before the electricity actually arrived in our homes, the fear was directed at real problems with real solutions. The anxiety when it did pop up were all around the unknowable. Will corn grow to twice the size under the glare of nighttime light? Who knows until, of course, we did know. And then, that fear went away.