Field of Science

You've been Westinghoused Mr. Edison

Recently while glancing through an old physics text I found a line I had underlined, Westinghouse Electirc Corporation, and I remembered a little phrase that I used to use with other physics students. The phrase was, you've been Westinghoused. Let me explain. There is a curious episode in history know as the the war of the currents wherein the early pioneers of electricity were trying to commercialize the transmission of electricity. Nikola Tesla with the financing of George Westinghouse supported alternating current (AC) against Thomas Edison who supported direct current (DC). Edison tried to discredit the idea of AC transmission by showing how dangerous it was. Edison attempted shenanigans like electrocuting an elephant in public, but in the end practicality and economics prevailed. AC transmission is much more viable than DC transmission because of the pure physics: with DC transmission in order to get adequate power transmitted either the wires would have to be copper as thick as your arm or you would have to have power stations every block or so. It was probably a combination of physics and the shrewd business sense of Westinghouse that it came to pass that Edison lost the war of the currents. This history, like the story of Bohr and Heisenberg, has interesting characters and a certain mystique that lends itself to historical plays and documentaries.

Tesla was a modern Prometheus. Some say that history overlooked Tesla, however, there is a current (pun intended) revival in interest for Nikola Tesla, if not always for his science, for his eccentric personality. This documentary about Tesla talks about his life and work. The part about the war of the currents begins at 18:35.

Now, as Edison fought against AC current he tried to be really clever and he wanted to brand death by electrocution as being Westinghoused. However, Edison's electric empire faded and history summarily shows that he was bested by Tesla and Westinghouse. Scientists are a competitive bunch, so I propose that when one colleague bests another colleague in an academic pursuit, we proclaim that the the defeated has been Westinghoused. It isn't the worst thing to be Westinghoused, it just means you were bested in that pursuit. Edison was a great inventor and is still famous to this day, but he surely got Westinghoused.


There was an amazing article up on Wired today about the America's Cup. It reminded of just how cool competitive sailing is. I wrote about sailing upwind in 2009 before the last America's Cup race and I mentioned a revolutionary solid wing multihull boat created by team Oracle. That boat was in fact as fast as promised and it won the race and by doing so team Oracle won the right to dictate the rules of the next America's cup. What they did was create the America's Cup World Series of standarized fixed wing catamaran sailing boats (you can read more about the entire thing in the Wired article). These boats are super fast and super intense. The America's Cup World Series is the water equivalent of Formula 1, but instead of crashes there are capsizes. Well, actually there are crashes too. Here is a hectic highlight real of these boats racing in the first ever event a few days ago in Cascais, Portugal.
Modern sailing is a paradoxical mix of elements. The boats are designed with advanced knowledge of physics and constructed of carbon fiber, yet they are powered by the simplicity of the wind. I think there is an appeal to working with nature to accomplish work rather than fighting against it. Working with nature always seems to be the most graceful option. In space travel rather than firing rockets to propel ships it is advantages to use gravitational assists by swinging by planets. And then of course there are solar sails in space too. The Japanese IKAROS satellite recently successfully unfurled itself in space and is now being pushed by photons on a unique journey. If you think about it astronomy and sailing go together.