Tesla and Westinghouse - part 2

July 12 2012 - TI Staff


In his previous article, the author narrated the story of Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse, the two great men who led the world on a path of AC power generation, transmission, distribution and usage, which some call ‘the great second industrial revolution.’ 

When Tesla first went to Philadelphia as a consultant, the first thing that had to be settled was the issue of frequency, cycles per second (cps) of AC. Westinghouse wanted to use 133 cps, but this frequency was too high for Tesla's electric motors. The motor RPM was too high. Westinghouse gave in and so 60 cps, later to be known as Hertz, was established. Europe soon followed with their system of 50 cps, both of which are used today.

(Tesla's inventions were not limited to electricity and high frequency; he also invented a vertical takeoff and landing flying machine, and a box-like structure which he called the flying stove)

Then came the 60-cycle motors of all kinds, ranging from a fraction of a horsepower to hundreds of horsepower. Switchgear, transformers, power lines and distribution systems had to be developed. The first application of the AC motors, switchgear and generators was for a small mining town, Telluride in Colorado, in 1891, soon after Westinghouse started making the Tesla AC motors and generators.

In the early 1900s, ballooning quantities of AC power were needed and both Westinghouse and the new Edison GE company developed the Rankin cycle steam turbine driving large generators to fill the need of this surging demand for electric power -- to run fans, pumps, compressors, stoves, heaters, washing machines and all kinds of factory devices. The smaller diesel engine powered systems in more remote locations such as mines. Home electric appliances were developed following the early 1900s and were sold in large quantities. GE coined the slogan of \"live better electrically\".

Two AC power equipment breakthroughs
An initial breakthrough came when Westinghouse received the contract to supply AC power and light for the Chicago World Fair in the summer of 1893. Westinghouse and Tesla overcame the Edison light bulb patent by inventing a plug in connector instead of Edison's screw in arrangement. People from all over the world came to see the wonders of Tesla/Westinghouse lights and exhibits. Tesla was in his glory with his high frequency light demonstrations. The fair was a huge success. Later in the same year, they got a second breakthrough. Westinghouse was given the contract to furnish AC generators for Niagara Falls whereas the Edison GE company was given the contract to furnish the high voltage power line, switchgear and transformers for the 26-mile run from Niagra Falls to Buffalo. The DC/AC war was now over and GE had to join the “ACers” from then on. AC power equipment and devices were developed and sold at an accelerated pace by GE and Westinghouse. Europe followed with their 50 cycle systems.

Tesla and Westinghouse were off to a revolutionary way of generating, transmitting, distributing and using AC power. Edison was reluctantly forced to join the pack and with help from others formed the diversified General Electric Company we know today. The talented German mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865 - 1926) helped GE and Edison get going with AC through his complicated calculations and designs.

Steinmetz came to the US in 1889 and joined the newly formed GE Company in 1893 when GE bought out the Eickemeyers Company. This company made transformers for power lines and GE needed this AC background. Initially Westinghouse had the AC lead over GE, but soon GE caught up and the two companies ran neck and neck in the new business of AC power, GE from Schenectady, NY and Westinghouse from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The US found use for 25 cps power. This power was first generated from water, from the dams. One of the first applications of 25 cps power came from the first US reclamation project in the Arizona Salt River Valley region, where the Roosevelt dam (named after Teddy) on the upper Salt River and dams downstream stored water, prevented floods and provided water to generate power. The stored water was used for irrigation in the valley and the 25 cps power was used for farms and the various cities that were formed as the state grew.

As a young boy of 10 years, the author remembers his fascination at looking into incandescent light bulbs to see them flicker as the 25 cps lights changed back and forth from plus to minus. Reading was all right, but looking directly into the light bulb caused a flickering sensation. Power was later on in the 30s switched over to 60 cps. The early Edison motion pictures used to flicker the same way and were called \"the flickers\" until improvements were made to take better advantage of retina retention.

Tesla's inventions were not limited to electricity and high frequency; he also invented other things such as a vertical takeoff and landing flying machine, a box-like structure which he called the flying stove. He patented it in 1928 but the apparatus was never developed as he ran out of money. He also invented a speedometer for automobiles that was used for many years.

Much earlier, in 1906 (patented in 1913), he invented a steam turbine that had no vanes or blades. It operated at a very high RPM and used the principles of adhesive and viscosity as well as laminar vs. turbulent flow. The turbine had a large stack of closely spaced thin plates and the steam expanded inwards from the periphery in a spiral fashion. He built two models, one developing 30 HP and the other 200 HP. The 30 HP unit ran at 35,000 RPM and the centrifugal forces were so great that the metal plates, made of German silver, stretched. At the time metallurgy was not good enough for the stresses encountered.

Efficient Tesla turbine models
There have been more recent models made of the Tesla turbine using modern metallurgy. In 1972, Walter Baumgartner built an experimental model that ran on compressed air with steam injection that produced 30 HP at 18,000 RPM. In the 1980s, there was active development of the turbine for vehicles and power plants for Sun Wind, Ltd. of Sebostaropol, California, burning hydrogen for a three wheel car. Nothing is known to have come of this effort. These model turbines were reported to be very efficient. However, in the past 25 years no further activity is known to have taken place.

We have huge AC hydro power generation around the world. The US followed the Arizona project with the Hoover Dam (Boulder) and other Colorado River dams. Then came the Grand Coulee and a little earlier the TVA dams, all producing more hydro AC power. Several years ago, Egypt built the Aswan Dam across the Nile River. Recently, China completed the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River to start producing huge amounts of AC power. Some historians say that the 600-foot-high Three Gorges Dam project rivals the accomplishments of the ancient China Wall. Towns and villages had to be relocated over a 400-mile stretch of the river. Let us remember that it was Tesla and Westinghouse who started the whole system of AC power.

Tesla was not successful in his effort and dream to transmit large quantities of AC power though the atmosphere without using wires. He performed basic experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the summer of 1899 on this concept and obtained considerable data on such a possibility. Tesla started the project of transmitting quantities of power without wires in Long Island in 2000 and a high wooden tower was erected by 1903, but he had to abandon his Wardenclyffe, NY project in 1906 because of lack of funds and no backing from Westinghouse.

Tesla was very disappointed. There was fear of energy dissipation and the control thereof. There was a lack of a good method to meter and bill customers. However, we use Tesla's wireless devices every day such as the radio, TV, cell phone and the satellite systems which transmit small amounts of high frequency power without wires. Today, the US Navy is installing the laser guns on our latest destroyers, the ships and guns being powered by the big Rolls-Royce 60 MW Trent gas turbines. A considerable amount of power is shot through the air at the target – a prediction and system proposed by Tesla. We patrol our Texas-Mexican border with robotically controlled drone airplanes and also use them in Afghanistan, and they all use the Tesla remote control systems, first developed by Tesla.

Tesla never got married. He died in January 1943 in his NYC hotel room, a poor and lonely man. His NYC laboratories were gone and his old friends were dying. He got some comfort from feeding and caring for the many white pigeons in and around NYC for several hours. His files were confiscated by the US government to prevent Hitler from gaining access to them for the so-called death ray. After WW II his files were turned over to Hungary at the request of his living relatives where these files are now on display at a special museum in Belgrade, dedicated to Tesla. Much of his original pieces of apparatus such as the AC induction motors, the steam turbine and the high frequency, high voltage Tesla coils are on display in this museum.

Today, the GTCCs are installed around the world and their sales are up. Production of clean AC power at over 60 % efficiency is gaining ground in the US and around the world, where power is generated by burning one third as much fuel and using one third as much cooling water and giving out half the amount of CO2 emissions compared to the conventional coal fueled power plants. This has been possible due to Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, who gave us our modern day AC power system wherein the GTCCs can be applied.

A complete account of Nikola Tesla, his life and his accomplishments as well as Westinghouse's AC activities can be found in the book entitled, ‘Tesla, Man out of Time,’ written by Margaret Cheney, 1st Touchstone edition, 2001, by Simon & Schuster.


Ivan G. Rice was past chairman of the South Texas Section of ASME (1974 - 75), past chairman of the ASME Gas Turbine Division (now IGTI) (1975 - 76). A Life Fellow Member of ASME and Life Member of NSPE/TSPE, he has authored many articles and ASME papers on gas turbines, inter-cooling, reheat, HRSGs, steam cooling and steam injection.