Story of Tesla and Westinghouse

Published on: 



It was Nikola Tesla's invention of the brushless poly-phase alternating current (AC) induction motor and associated equipment that changed the whole world, industrially and domestically. Today, AC electric motors rotate to drive many pieces of large and small turbomachinery, and we would be lost without them. It is timely for us in the turbomachinery industry to review the AC work of Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943) done over 100 years ago with the help of George Westinghouse, and pay them the respect that is overdue and also give them the honor they rightly deserve.

(Some of Nicola Tesla's contributions and inventions are directly associated with turbomachinery.)


Together, these two great men led the world on a path of AC which skyrocketed progress in what some call the great second industrial revolution. Westinghouse furnished the push, the manufacturing space and the required capital. It all took place amid the strong opposition of Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of direct current (DC), and AC won the "battle of the currents" to give us all the vast AC electrical system we have today.

Tesla's contributions and inventions go far beyond AC power and extend into electrical and mechanical devices which are driven by this power, and some of them are directly associated with turbomachinery. A growing number of experts, historians and the US Supreme Court (in 1943) have endorsed that Tesla’s contributions have surpassed those made by Edison, Marconi and others. Today, the GTCC is leading the way towards a more efficient and greener method of producing the power needed to energize the Tesla/Westinghouse AC world. The recent large supply of shale natural gas and the new advancements made by the gas turbine industry have made this possible.

The sale of GTCCs in 2011 was up by 31% in the US and 54 % around the world compared to 2010 in terms of MW capacity, according to the May-June issue of Turbomachinery International magazine. Worldwide sales have mushroomed, particularly in China. TMI says sales have "exploded" to outstrip the predictions by forecaster experts. Recent orders of GTCCs this year confirm the growth for 2012 and beyond, and the sales are predicted to show a continuous and significant increase.

Four factors have come into play to bring about this sales surge:

1. Japan's recent nuclear power plant disaster,

2. The EPA's war on coal and HAPs (hazardous atmospheric pollutants),

3. The development of horizontal shale drilling and fracking, and the large shale natural gas and oil production, particularly in the US, and

4. The worldwide drive to reduce CO2 and other emissions, to improve power production efficiency and to conserve fresh water.

How did we get to this point in time? Let us now continue with the story of Tesla and Westinghouse. Tesla, a young Hungarian electrical engineer/inventor, had the idea of using alternating current to create a rotating electrical magnetic field, to run an electric motor whereby no brushes were used as in the DC motor. Europe at this time had already invented the AC generator and transformer but the AC motor was elusive and could not be produced. The motor was the vital missing link in the AC system. Tesla was not successful in selling his AC motor ideas in Europe so he came to the USA in 1884 to try and sell his motor invention, where people had an open mind towards new ideas.

Tesla forms his own company

Tesla started working for Thomas A. Edison, but Edison was hell bent on using DC. They did not see eye to eye and as a result Tesla left Edison. After working on other jobs for a couple of years, he formed his own company, The Tesla Electric Company. By 1891 he had been granted 40 US patents on AC motors and systems. Westinghouse, the inventor and developer of air brakes for trains, heard about Tesla and his AC motor patents, and in 1889 went from Philadelphia to NYC to meet Tesla. The two became compatible soon, and worked together. Westinghouse was given the rights to all of Tesla's patents on a royalty basis, and he already had the European rights to the AC transformer and generator. He was an advocate of AC power whereby large amounts of power could be transmitted by wires through long distances with very little energy loss, which was not possible with DC. He only needed an AC motor to complete his dream of an AC system.

Tesla went to Philadelphia as Westinghouse's consultant for a few months to get things going. But Edison was furious. A bitter fight took place between Edison (DC) and Tesla/Westinghouse (AC), but in the end AC was victorious. Edison had quite a reputation as an inventor and was a fighter. It is true that Edison gave us many modern devices such as the incandescent light bulb, the motion pictures (Hollywood), voice recording, the phonograph and other different DC devices, but it was Tesla who towered far above Edison in terms of the overall worldwide larger picture of AC power production and transmission which accelerated the pace of the second industrial revolution.

Tesla's inventions range from all kinds of AC motors to the fluorescent light bulbs, high voltage AC devices, high frequency transmitters and devices, transformers, transmission lines, switch gear, the radio, the TV, radar, X-ray, cell phone, remote control devices, the ray gun, to mention a few. His basic patents were the backbone of many of these devices and the US Supreme court in 1943 gave Tesla credit for the radio over Marconi. The suit was filed by others and not Tesla. This decision got little attention because of the war. The question is: has Tesla today been given full credit for his accomplishments? More and more people say no.

In the second part of this article, we shall see how Tesla and Westinghouse got their initial breakthrough and the application of their AC invention in today’s domestic and industrial machinery. 

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.