#ThrowbackThursday: The city of light


The late 19th century filled the nation with a sense of wonder and sensation. Occurring across the nation was the Second Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age was as prevalent as ever.

Skyscrapers allowed men to reach the heavens and the powers of science seemed to have no boundaries. During this time of great scientific progress two titans of scholarship emerged and they were Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

With waves of immigrants coming into the states and thousands moving to cities, America was faced with the challenge of lighting their world. Kerosene lamps proved to be ineffective which led to the necessity of better lighting. America desperately needed a man to light her skies. In the eyes of Edison and Tesla, there could only be one man to do this job.

The race began in 1882 when Edison released his direct current electricity. Starting in New York City, Edison’s direct current slowly made its way to other parts of the nation. Edison’s direct current, while an impressive sight to see, had its limitations.

The constant low voltage direct current required a power station every mile or so. Seeing an opportunity for advancement, Tesla in 1888 unveiled his first alternating current motor. By sending low voltage to high voltage, Tesla’s alternating current was able to travel further than direct current and provided much better lighting.

Edison saw alternating current electricity as a dangerous idea that could prove deadly to men and his company. Backing these two scientists were J.P. Morgan and George Westinghouse.

The duo of Morgan and Edison faced off against Tesla and Westinghouse to see who could light-up America first. The first major battle between these two mega forces came in 1893 in the city of Chicago.

The year 1893 commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492 by the Daniel Burnham and Fredrick Law Olmsted, a good friend of John Bigelow (Class of 1835). The World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition showed off 200 new neo-classical buildings, lagoons, canals and represented more than 40 different countries. It showed the world the first Ferris wheel, created by George Ferris, and filled ears with the ragtime music of Scott Joplin.

The grand attraction in the eyes of Burnham and Olmsted was light. General Electric was under the control of Edison and Morgan who offered to light up the 600 acres for $1.8 million.

Their steep offer was quickly rejected. Undeterred, the two offered to do the job for just a little more than $500,000, a reasonable offer in the eyes of the fair committee. Before a deal could be reached, Westinghouse proposed he and Tesla could turn night into day using alternating current for a mere $399,000. The fair quickly jumped on the Westinghouse’s offer.

Outraged by the results, Edison refused to allow the two lowest bidders to use his patented lamps for the fair. Westinghouse, in order to avoid being outdone, created a double-stopper lightbulb and the crisis was avoided.

Tesla and Westinghouse were given a building to showcase some of their scientific advancements. Some included Tesla’s two phase induction motors and generators.

To officially open the fair to the public, President Grover Cleveland was asked to push the “golden button” to kick off the fair. On May 1, 1893, according to the Salt Lake Herald, “the electric age was ushered into the world.”

By pressing the button, Cleveland started dozens of electric engines and generators across the grounds. Machines began to hum their sweet sound and geysers shot water 70 feet into the air. For the “magic of electricity did the duty of the hour.”

Over 20 million people would see the power of electricity. People from across the globe witnessed light conquer the night and create a sun that would never set. This spectacle was made possible by the genius of Tesla and Westinghouse. The genius derived from Westinghouse 28 years before the first light flickered at the World Fair. For his work with the rotary steam engine, Westinghouse received his first patent, at the young age of 19.

His advanced natural knowledge and success at such a young age was enough to convince him that college was no longer for him.

So, in 1865, after three months of school in his hometown of Schenectady, Westinghouse dropped out of Union and never entered another institution as a student.


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