Students use art to explore the original energy crisis
Thomas Edison: renowned inventor, revered scientist, beloved innovator of modern day electricity… fraud.
This message rang through the halls of Studio 1219’s Spiral Gallery Friday as SC4 students and graphic arts instructor Chris Krolczyk took spectators on a journey through the electric revolution and its rival leaders, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
The show began as the students displayed portraits of Edison accompanied by diagrams of his inventions. Abruptly, the students plastered over top of Edison photos of Tesla and vandalized Edison with spray paint. They wrote phrases such as “Liar”, “Thief”, and “I steal patents”, adorning the man with devil horns. Ambient music played in the background simultaneously with a spoken word explanation: “Tesla wasn’t looking to make money. He was just looking for ideas and inventions… knowledge, without trying to harbor it for profit.”
To understand the students’ message, we must take a deeper look into historical events of the era. Both men shared a common goal of creating a distribution system for electricity to be made readily available to the masses. Edison’s system, known as direct current, is the one most commonly used today. In the late nineteenth century, this system prevailed for its efficiency in powering many then-popular devices such as the incandescent lamp and small motors.
DC systems worked by supplying power quickly to consumers who had no means to produce their own energy but were ready to pay for it. Although effective, many flaws of this system were made evident such as the need for numerous production facilities. There was also no practical means to convert DC voltage increments from high to low, creating the need to install analogous and costly electrical lines to carry differing power loads as required by different devices.
Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, another electrical empire of the day, sought to remedy these issues by investigating another method of power distribution called alternating current. Employing inventions patented by Tesla, AC worked by sending power through a device called a transformer which had the capacity to convert voltage to fit the needs of the consumer, high or low, and without additional wire hookups.
The AC transformer could transmit power up to ten times more effectively than DC with the need for fewer power plants. Tesla went on to develop a device made of a metal coil that harnessed the power of AC and electromagnetism. This device was capable of generating its own renewable power source, making energy sustainable and free. This would have potentially done away with Edison’s DC, power plants as we know them to be today, and the capitalistic power structure entirely.
If AC obviously overshadowed DC in cost-effectiveness and practicality, what led to the rise of DC? One word: money. Edison, a powerful political figure of his time, used lobbying and strong connections to back his inventions.
“He ran a slander campaign against AC and used it to publicly murder an elephant,” explains contributing artist Zach Penzien. The elephant in question, named Topsy, was killed on film to demonstrate the dangers of AC and how his system seemed to be much safer. Edison also delivered public addresses in which he coined the term “Westinghoused” as interchangeable with being electrocuted.
The motives of such action were to ensure sizable returns to investors and shareholders of the DC movement as well as securing Edison’s own public notoriety and position of influence.
Anthony Petit, contributing artist, commented, “Tesla did the work and he got no credit.” Petit explained that the event was born from the shared passions and creative ideas of his peers and