A war was fought on American soil in the late 1800s. Nobody knows the exact number of casualties – probably fewer than 10 – but it redefined every city and town. The new movie “The Current War” brings it to light.
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse fought battles in boardrooms and the media, with Nikola Tesla serving as a soldier on each side. The two generals claimed to have found the ideal way to harness electricity: Westinghouse preferred alternating current, with greater reach at lower cost, while Edison declared direct current was less dangerous and more reliable.
Writer Michael Mitnick and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon deliver an intriguing if occasionally confusing story – and, said Duke Energy’s Jason Handley, an accurate one, except for shunting Tesla too far to the side. They present Westinghouse as the victor, after he safely lights the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Yet Handley, Duke Energy director of smart grid emerging technology and operations, said it’s clear a century later that both won.
The film, photographed sumptuously by Chung-hoon Chung, confounds our expectations. Benedict Cumberbatch, who usually gets heroic or sympathetic parts, plays Edison as a driven and spiteful man who insists AC kills people and advises the state of New York how to use it in a death chair. (He recommends murderers be “Westinghoused,” not “electrocuted.”) Michael Shannon, who has a long career of crazies behind him, plays the imperturbable Westinghouse with quiet patience. The supporting cast includes familiar faces, from Nicholas Hoult (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) as Tesla to Tom Holland (the newest Spider-Man) as Edison sidekick Samuel Insull.
“It did a good job of setting up the story, though Tesla was integral to both men,” Handley said. “It focused more on character development than technology, but I didn’t see any mistakes.
“Alternating current does have a higher voltage and can kill you if it flows through your body to a ground, when you come into contact with a loose wire. But It’s fundamentally safe as long as you don’t. That’s why birds can perch on electric lines: Their bodies have the same (electrical) potential as that wire. We have maintenance crews that can step out of a helicopter, approach a live wire (carrying) 500,000 volts, and as long as the platform they work on doesn’t approach the ground, they’re fine.”
Edison’s DC idea worked well only in large cities, because he had to build generating stations close together to sustain current. (New York didn’t fully abandon DC until 2007.)
“There’s a ton of talk today about microgrids that generate their own power,” Handley said. “We started that way: Each city was its own microgrid. As AC won out, you could connect those microgrids, and now the world’s electrical power grid is the largest machine ever built.”
Yet DC has had a seldom-acknowledged comeback in recent years.
“Almost every electronic device in our houses runs on DC and requires a converter: your laptop, your TV, your printer,” Handley said. “The first big IBM computers were AC. But with integrated circuit boards, manufacturers switched to DC. It only has two states, off and on, with no voltage variations in smaller form factors.
“Many types of renewable energy – wind, solar, battery – are DC; we convert them to AC to use them, which is less efficient. One of the folks on my team is leading a group to create a new DC-certified meter; we’ll be able to generate DC energy and measure usage that way. There’s even a whole house in Detroit run on DC power now.”