Writing Project Wednesday: Tesla, Edison, and The War of Currents

While the feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison predates my novel-in-progress, it’s still a fascinating story that few people are familiar with in present day. If you’re a younger person, you’ve probably seen The Oatmeal’s lengthy comic which summarizes Tesla’s life and also mentions the famous feud. You can see that full comic here.

I’m going to summarize the issues and introduce you to the major players in The War of Currents. For an extended look at the issues, I recommend Tesla Vs Edison by Nigel Cawthrone, a well-researched book that really covers this issue in depth. Eventually, I’m going to do a post ranking all these different Tesla biographies since I’ve read so many of them.

Ok so first things first as we dive into The War of Currents:

-This is Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor who was born in Serbia in 1856. He arrived in America in June of 1884. At this time, he had already been experimenting with the alternating current (AC) motor. After he failed to raise money to back his invention, he accepted an offer from Charles Batcherlor to go and work for the Edison company in New York.

-This is Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was a genius inventor who was born in Ohio in 1847. Edison either invented or improved upon a number of things we still use today like the lightbulb. In 1884 his electric company was busy lighting up New York with direct current (DC) power.

-Nikola Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison in 1884 and stayed for nearly a year. All the while, Tesla continued to work on his AC motor.

-When Tesla left Edison’s employ, he became to file his own patents. Tesla applied for patents on his AC motors, which were ultimately granted in 1888.

-This is George Westinghouse. George Westinghouse was an inventor turned entrepreneur who was born in New York in 1846. Westinghouse invented the air-operated brake for railroad cars. In 1885, Westinghouse decided to develop an AC power system. In 1888, Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s AC motor patents. Tesla then became a consultant with the Westinghouse Electric Company.

-Meanwhile, Westinghouse and Edison were fighting The War of Currents with their rival electric companies and rival power systems.

-Edison claimed that AC power was dangerous. In February 1888, Edison published an attack on Westinghouse and AC.

-Enter a fourth player, Harold P. Brown. Brown was an electrical engineer who also published an attack on Westinghouse and AC power in June of 1888. Brown knew he needed an ally so he called on Edison, who accepted.

-Brown then began to stage demonstrations that involved shocking animals with DC and AC power. Brown electrocuted dogs, calves, and horses to prove his point that AC was dangerous.

-In 1888, New York adopted electrocution as its preferred method to administer capital punishment.

-Brown was then hired by the prison system of New York to design its electrical equipment. Naturally, he decided to use the Westinghouse AC generators.

-In May of 1889, William Kemmler was convicted of murder and was set to become the first person to be executed by electrocution. Kemmler’s lawyers protested that electrocution was an inhumane punishment and the defense team began to dig into Brown’s background which later revealed that Brown was working with Edison. Nevertheless, the sentence was upheld and Kemmler was executed in August of 1890.

-By 1890, The War of Currents largely began to wind down. The Panic of 1890 caused by the collapse of Barings Bank in London created havoc for both Edison and Westinghouse. Faced with financial trouble, Edison General Electric and Thomas-Houston merged, Edison was dropped from the name, and the new company become General Electric. At this point, Edison also stepped away from the electric lighting business to focus on other things. By the end of the century, AC would become the undisputed winner in The War of Currents. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison continued for the rest of Edison’s life, though not quite at the same magnitude.

* Some of you may have noticed I included AC/DC’s logo in my title image for this week’s Writing Project Wednesday. The story goes that Angus and George Young noticed the initials AC/DC on their sister’s sewing machine and thought that would be a cool name for a band!

Next week, I’m going to talk about one of Colorado Springs’ creepiest unsolved murders!



By Jeff VanderMeer

After thirty years, the only human engagement with Area X–a seemingly malevolent landscape surrounded by an invisible border and mysteriously wiped clean of all signs of civilization–has been a series of expeditions overseen by a government agency so secret it has almost been forgotten: the Southern Reach. Following the tumultuous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the agency is in complete disarray.

John Rodrigues (aka “Control”) is the Southern Reach’s newly appointed head. Working with a distrustful but desperate team, a series of frustrating interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, Control begins to penetrate the secrets of Area X. But with each discovery he must confront disturbing truths about himself and the agency he’s pledged to serve.

In Authority, the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Area X’s most disturbing questions are answered . . . but the answers are far from reassuring.


In many ways, I liked Authority better than Annihilation. One of the major reasons is that Authority is nowhere near as creepy as Annihilation. Rather than take place in the mysterious Area X, Authority deals with the Southern Reach, the government body in charge of Area X.

Van De Meer loves to give his main characters thought-provoking names. Ghost Bird in Annihilation. Control in Authority. I read the word “Control” so much it actually started to sound like a decent name. And of course there was a delightful little riff with CTRL and Control.

Authority goes a long way towards putting some explanation to Annihilation and the secrets of Area X. But of course, not everything is resolved and we get new questions with no answers. Some people found this book to be slow or even boring. While it’s true I didn’t gobble this book down in one sitting, my pulse wasn’t at an all-time high, either.

Oh and the ending of this one is a doozy. Be sure to have Acceptance standing by so you can start reading.

All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.


I had seen All the Light We Cannot See make the rounds on the blogs and win the Pulitzer prize before my book club picked it.

I knew it was set during WW-II which made me uneasy. I just am not a fan of reading about this time period, even though the last time WW-II era book we read, The Book Thief, I loved. I wasn’t in a hurry to start it this book so it sat on my bedside table for awhile.

Once I did start the book though, I was hooked. The chapters are very short (a few pages at most) and the writing exquisite. I heard that Doerr author worked on this book for over ten years… I guess that’s enough time to really polish your sentences!

This book never seemed to slow or get boring, just wrapped me up in beautiful sentences that seemed to describe life in a way I never could. The intertwined stories of Marie-Laure and Werner were both very enjoyable. One a blind girl, daughter of a humble museum locksmith, entrusted with an in incredible secret. The other, an orphan in Germany, tapped by an elite Nazi school for his brilliance with radios.

A third strand, the siege of Saint-Malo, penetrates the narrative and was really the only part of the book I didn’t like. Not the scenes itself. But I didn’t think it was necessary to have a time-jumping narrative structure. I was perfectly engaged from Marie-Laura and Werner’s childhood onward and got a little annoyed when the time jumps get popping up throughout the book.

Highly, highly recommend this book! Probably one of the best I’ve read this year and I feel like I’ve read a lot of great books in 2015. Bonus: All The Light We Cannot See will look stunning on your bookshelf. The cover is absolutely gorgeous!

Also, my next trip to France will not only have to include Mont Saint-Michel, which I’ve dreamed of visiting for years, but now Saint-Malo.

The Hunt For Atlantis

By Andy McDermott

Archaeologist Nina Wilde can find long-lost Atlantis, helped by reclusive billionaire Kristian Frost, his beautiful daughter Kari, and ex-SAS bodyguard Eddie Chase. But a powerful and mysterious organization opposes revealing the secret submerged for 11,000 years. Others have already died — Nina’s own parents. From the streets of Manhattan, Brazilian jungle, Tibetan mountaintop, to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, they race to save all human life on earth.

This book is exactly my cup of tea. An ancient secret, a book so action-packed it’d make a better movie, racing to the save the world, yup, that’s a book I’d enjoy.

And this one was exactly what I’d hoped it would be. I didn’t want to stop reading it, I just wanted to keep going and see what they discovered.

The dialogue wasn’t as horrid as it can sometimes be in these types of books. Eddie Chase was pretty funny all on his own.




I really liked that they went beyond just discovering Atlantis….they found Atlantis AND so much more. It was a nice update to this story of Atlantis, giving something fresh to a mystery that has been so speculated about.

The one thing I thought was a little off, was that they didn’t address why the bad guys were trying to stop them from finding Atlantis or particularly why the Frosts wanted to find Atlantis, until halfway through. That seems like kind of a big thing that should have been addressed much earlier in the book.





I’m definitely going to be reading more Andy McDermott, especially since The Hunt for Atlantis is the first in a series featuring Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase, trying to find and protect the world’s greatest secrets.


Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen Hornblum, Judith Lynn Newman, and Gregory Dober

During the Cold War, an alliance between American scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and the US military pushed the medical establishment into ethically fraught territory. Doctors and scientists at prestigious institutions were pressured to produce medical advances to compete with the perceived threats coming from the Soviet Union. In Against Their Will, authors Allen Hornblum, Judith Newman, and Gregory Dober reveal the little-known history of unethical and dangerous medical experimentation on children in the United States.  Through rare interviews and the personal correspondence of renowned medical investigators, they document how children—both normal and those termed “feebleminded”—from infants to teenagers, became human research subjects in terrifying experiments. They were drafted as “volunteers” to test vaccines, doused with ringworm, subjected to electric shock, and given lobotomies. They were also fed radioactive isotopes and exposed to chemical warfare agents. This groundbreaking book shows how institutional superintendents influenced by eugenics often turned these children over to scientific researchers without a second thought. Based on years of archival work and numerous interviews with both scientific researchers and former test subjects, this is a fascinating and disturbing look at the dark underbelly of American medical history.

I had the honor of helping to do a small piece of the research for this book while an undergraduate at UCSD. Jonas Salk, the creator of the Polio Vaccine, was a big beneficiary to the school later in his life and as a result, much of his research files ended up in the UCSD Archive Collection. If you’ve never done archival research before, it is fascinating and rewarding. Getting to work with old texts and documents is like a treasure-hunting dream.

Upon receiving Against Their Will from the authors, I was excited to get to read the whole story. I know what I’d read and seen, but it was just a very small part of the puzzle.

I suppose you could say this is a difficult book to read. I think that while doing the research that I did, I kind of got desensitized to it, as sad as that is to say. But I want to make it clear that this is by no means a happy a book. It contains the chronicles of medical researchers in America and how their research trials, while ultimately contributing to vaccine research and our larger body of medical knowledge, were conducted on innocent children, some of them just days-old babies.

This is a great overview of the face of medical science post-WWII. We’ve all of course heard of the terrifying experiments the Nazi doctors conducted on their Jewish prisoners. Some of us have heard of the Nuremberg trials and the subsequent introduction of the Nuremberg code. But what you don’t hear about is that essentially the same was happening and continued to happen, in America. It seems that most doctors felt that since their intentions were more “honorable” than the Nazis and would ultimately be of more benefit to society, certain facets of the Nuremberg code could be overlooked. Though as this book points out, if you look at the hard evidence of what these scientists were doing, it isn’t all that much different than what the Nazis did.

Radiation treatments, shock therapy, involuntary sterilization, psychological bullying, castration, ringworm, lobotomies. These are only a few of the many horrors that awaited institutionalized children in America. Young children were often forced into the experiments, will little or no consent by the parents or children themselves. These experiments sometimes resulted in death, maiming, extreme psychology disturbance, and lasting health issues that weren’t or couldn’t be corrected.

Much of what we know about science and disease and how the human body works, comes as a result both of the Nazi experiments on the Jews and the American Scientists experiments on institutionalized children, adults, and prisoners. As Against Their Will argues, certainly we have a gained a lot in our knowledge, but did we pay too high a price for it? In the quest for knowledge, did our American Scientists strike a Faustian bargain with the Devil?

The book sums it up best with this closing line:

“Scientific progress and the medical advances it fosters is a process we can all celebrate, but the attainment of such triumphs on the backs of children and other powerless groups makes their realizations all the less impressive and praiseworthy”.