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Beyond Tesla and Edison: Other Luminaries from the Age of Electricity

November 25, 2013 - 1:30pm

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Electricity pioneer Charles Proteus Steinmetz (center in light-colored suit) poses with Albert Einstein (immediate left) and other inventors at the RCA Brunswick, New Jersey, wireless station in 1921. | Photo courtesy of Franklin Township Public Library Archive.

Electricity pioneer Charles Proteus Steinmetz (center in light-colored suit) poses with Albert Einstein (immediate left) and other inventors at the RCA Brunswick, New Jersey, wireless station in 1921. | Photo courtesy of Franklin Township Public Library Archive.

All last week, Energy.gov hosted a Tesla vs. Edison showdown. And while Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison have captured the public's imagination -- and come to represent the opposing sides in the battle between direct and alternating currents -- they weren't the only great minds and colorful characters working in electricity at the time. Learn more below about the inventors and entrepreneurs who ushered in the Age of Electricity.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz

Charles Proteus SteinmetzKnown as the Wizard of Schenectady, Charles Proteus Steinmetz was a four-foot tall Prussian immigrant with a hunched back who adopted the middle name of a shape-shifting Greek god when he came to America.

A contemporary of Tesla and Einstein, Steinmetz's mathematical and engineering genius allowed him to make great contributions to alternating current systems. The Law of Hysteresis, or Steinmetz's Law, helped minimize losses of electric power caused by magnetism and allowed for the transmission of electric power over long distances.

A true eccentric, Steinmetz was a collector of exotic plants and animals (including a Gila monster). He also built a number of wonders, including a "1,000,000-horsepower lightning generator" that led the New York Times to proclaim him "a modern Jove who sits on his throne … and hurls thunderbolts at will."

Lewis Latimer

Lewis LatimerLewis Latimer was the son of slaves who escaped from Virginia to Massachusetts, were captured by their former owner, and were later purchased and freed by abolitionists. Latimer was a prolific inventor and collector of patents, who devised improvements to everything from railroad car bathrooms to elevators.

As an inventor and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, Latimer was able to produce an electric filament bulb that was more efficient and cheaper than the Edison bulb and led to the widespread adoption of electric lighting in homes and in street lamps.  

Eventually, Latimer was later hired by Edison himself where he was the only African American on Edison's team of inventors.

Philip Diehl

Philip DiehlA German immigrant who came to New York City in 1868, Philip Diehl began his career improving sewing machines for companies like Singer and Remington. After an ill-fated move to Chicago, where he lost all his possessions in the Great Fire, Diehl eventually settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Although he produced notable inventions such as one of the first devices to turn direct current into alternating current, Diehl may be best known for his role in the Westinghouse-Edison rivalry. In 1882, Diehl invented a bulb that used a secondary coil rather than Edison's lead-in wires to carry the current to the filament. Westinghouse secured the rights to the invention and although Diehl's "induction incandescent lamp" was never mass-produced, it caused Edison to lower the cost of his patent rights and reduced the price of incandescent bulbs.

Diehl's later inventions included the first electric ceiling fan.

William Stanley, Jr.

William StanleyWilliam Stanley dropped out of Yale after not even a full semester of studying law and went on to pioneer the development of transformers and the transmission of alternating current.

While working for George Westinghouse, Stanley conceived of a system of generators, transformers and transmission lines that would allow for a safe alternating current power system. Despite some skepticism from Westinghouse, Stanley built a system that successfully provided power to about 25 subscribers along Main Street in his hometown of Great Barrington, Connecticut. 

Stanley formed his own company but faced a steady stream of litigation from Westinghouse and General Electric. GE eventually bought out the Stanley Manufacturing Company, and Stanley spent his later years as an avid outdoorsman and traveller.

Hiram Maxim

Hiram MaximThe oldest of eight children born to a Maine farmer, Hiram Maxim eventually emigrated to the United Kingdom and became famous as the inventor of the machine gun. But earlier in his life, Maxim was an important figure in the development of incandescent lamps. 

While working for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, Maxim was the first to install electric lights in a New York City building, the Equitable Insurance Building on Broadway. Maxim later devised a process for hardening carbon filaments that was instrumental to the development of the incandescent bulb.

Maxim worked on inventions for everything from mousetraps to flying machines, but his most famous invention was his automatic machine gun. The invention was met with suspicion by the U.S. military, but found an enthusiastic client in the British Royal Forces. Maxim later became a British subject and was knighted by Queen Victoria.

George Westinghouse

George WestinghouseGeorge Westinghouse was a prolific inventor and businessman who became Thomas Edison's chief rival in the so-called "war of the currents."

A Civil War veteran, Westinghouse spent his early years devising inventions that improved the operation and safety of railroads, including developing air brakes and improving railway signals. After building a successful business, Westinghouse turned his attention to electrical systems and came to see alternating current as a more viable solution to distribution and transmission than direct current systems.

Westinghouse's advocacy of alternating current and his embrace of Nikola Tesla's theories ignited a fierce rivalry with Thomas Edison, who supported direct current systems.

The two men's struggles would eventually reach the Supreme Court when Edison backed the use of alternating current electric chairs as a mode of capital punishment (a process he called "being Westinghoused") and a not-so-subtle way to demonstrate the safety of direct current systems. Westinghouse helped bankroll convicted murderer's William Kemmler's appeal that such a death constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Kemmler lost his appeal and suffered a particularly gruesome execution. After the execution, Westinghouse told reporters, "It has been a brutal affair. They could have done better with an axe."

While Westinghouse and alternating current eventually triumphed, Westinghouse eventually lost control of his company and died in 1914.

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