In 1891 a tall, dark, and handsome man strode onto the stage in the lecture hall at Columbia University in New York City. Grasping a brass ball in each hand, the man touched the terminals of a high-voltage, high-frequency transformer (what is today called a Tesla coil). For a moment, 250,000 volts raced across the surface of his body, causing him to be surrounded by what one newspaper called “the Effulgent Glory of Myriad Tongues of Electric Flame.”
Yet after a few moments, the man stepped away from the apparatus, the electrical aura dissipated, and to the delight of the audience, he was unharmed. Who was this man and why did he take this risk?
The man was Nikola Tesla, inventor of the alternating current (AC) motor. Tesla took the risk to demonstrate the safety of AC. For the past several years, the Edison Electric Light Company had been waging a campaign against AC. Its direct current (DC) systems had been losing market share to Tesla’s friends at the Westinghouse Electric Company, and in response, the Edison group had decided to challenge the safety of AC through sensational stories in the newspapers. Tesla hoped, through his dramatic demonstration, to disarm the negative publicity. In the late 1880s, when electricity was the“Wild West”of technology, no one knew what kind of system was going to succeed.