Movie Review: The Current War

This movie is focused on the interaction among Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla in the competition to create and build out America’s…and the world’s…electrical infrastructure.  It has gotten mixed and generally not-very-enthusiastic reviews; I thought it was well-done and definitely worth seeing.  Visually, it is striking and sometimes even beautiful, thus worth seeing on the big screen.

The movie gets the outline of the history right; also, I think, the essence of the characters.  Edison is a brilliant inventor and self-promoter who is committed to his DC-based distribution system and will do some more-than-questionable things to get it universally adopted.  Westinghouse, who had invented the railroad air brake (among other things) and already built a large company, sees the value of alternating current, which can be stepped up and down in voltage via transformers and hence can be economically transmitted over long distances.  Tesla, a Serbian immigrant and brilliant inventor, provides the missing link in the form of a practical motor that can run on AC power.  The relationships of Edison and Westinghouse with their respective wives are highlighted, and the future utility mogul Samuel Insull appears as Edison’s young secretary.

I was happy to see the movie’s positive portrayal of Westinghouse, a great man who has tended to be overshadowed by the more-glamorous figures of Edison and Tesla.  (The legions of Tesla fans may be unhappy that Tesla did not get a more central role in the film.)

If this movie sounds interesting to you, better see it soon; I don’t think it’s going to be in the theaters for very long.

20 thoughts on “Movie Review: <em>The Current War</em>”

  1. Insull was rather unfairly made out to be a major villain. He was an entrepreneur and introduced the electrical appliances that made the 20s the equivalent of the 90s in innovation. Like many entrepreneurs, he lost control of the finances and died broke. Sadly, he took a lot of investors down too but so did the stock market,.

  2. Mike K, I just downloaded the Kindle free sample for a book about Insull. Looks interesting enough to read the whole thing. A little political ridiculousness from the author in the introduction, though.

  3. One of Edison’s main strategies in his battle against AC was to argue that it was too *dangerous* to be allowed.

    If today’s political-social environment had existed back then, he would have probably gotten away with it.

  4. I suspect a lot of Edison’s hostility to alternating current was the math it takes to design the machinery and especially a stable distribution system. I don’t think that math was in Edison’s wheel house. The small DC systems that could be built could be analyzed with nothing more than Ohm’s Law like the telegraph system.

  5. MCS…I’ve had the same thought. AC is a lot more abstract and math-intensive than is DC.

    Of course, Edison could have hired and relied on other people to do the analysis, but I don’t think that was the way he was wired.

  6. I’ll second the biography of Insull. Very interesting and capable business man. You’ll see portions of his personal story (the opera singer as wife) in “Citizen Kane” too.

    Yes, AC power math is much more complex, making extensive use of imaginary numbers.

    Tesla was working on the problem of AC power systems for months with great difficulty and frustration, then one day took his lunch time walk in the park.

    He awoke on his back in the grass after sundown with the complete theory worked out. A classic “brain storm” that seems to have taken hours to reorganize the brain neurons.

    I had one once, while working on a nuclear design issue. Mine was over in about 15 seconds but it was startling in its profundity. I count myself lucky.

    I’ll definitely look out for the movie.

  7. Tesla’s own story of the invention of the AC motor:

    One afternoon, which is ever present in my recollection, I was enjoying a walk with my friend in the city park and reciting poetry. At that age I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe’s Faust. The sun was just setting and reminded me of a glorious passage:

    The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;
    It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
    Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
    Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!

    As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

    Maybe could have been an interesting visual, in the form of a dream sequence, in the movie.

    (I’ve seen the story challenged, on grounds of the friend’s recollection and other factors)

  8. I also will recommend

    Tesla, Man Out of Time
    by Margaret Cheney

    I will grant it borders, at time, on hagiography, but it’s an interesting overview of his life and accomplishments, and his failures.

    His biggest error was in surrendering his patents to Westinghouse and not getting a paper restructuring of their obligations. While all indications are, Westinghouse was an utterly honorable man who would have treated Tesla correct, the latter part of his life, Westinghouse was gone, and he almost certainly should have been treated much better by the corporate entity that followed. Tesla could have broken the company if he’d been greedy, but wasn’t. And, had he played the cards right, Tesla might have been set for a decent R&D budget for the rest of his life, too.

    Tesla was one of those incredibly unstable geniuses, who really needed a minder. A dutiful wife, a great friend, someone, to watch out for him and his interests as a human would, could, and should, but Tesla was somewhat unable to do.

  9. OBH….Westinghouse paid Tesla $60,000 cash plus a $2.50/hp royalty, with a $15K yearly minimum. Apparently when George W ran into financial trouble, he approached Tesla and said something would have to give, leading Tesla to tear up the royalty agreement because he wanted the business and AC power to succeed. If I’m reading the Wikipedia entry right (and if it’s correct), Westinghouse later paid Tesla $216K for full ownership of the patent.

    Given that the inflation rate since then is at least 30:1, the cash payments equate to $1.8 million and $6.3 million respectively. Certainly not anywhere near what the AC motor was worth, but not trivial numbers either….the meme that Tesla was never paid for his inventions really isn’t true.

    Westinghouse probably would have been happy with a stretch out or reduction of the royalty terms; I believe he was surprised when Tesla just tore up the deal.

  10. If the load had been a motor in the video, there would have been a little more snap when opening the AC circuit. You generally have to use special switches with high energy DC that have a magnetic field to blow out the arc.

    My father was in the power station in Colorado Springs that was damaged during one of Tesla’s experiments with wireless power transmission.

    I still vividly remember watching a 568KV switch open from the door of a substation when I was about 6-7. It was AC, of course, but it still drew a 16′ arc. I was probably about 100′ away.

  11. I’ve worked at the legacy companies (nuclear) of both men – Westinghouse and Edison (General Electric.) Both founders are still revered within their respective children. The Founders’ photos line the walls; stories are shared.

    Interesting in how the corporate cultures differ too. In sports analogies, Westinghouse plays full back, making big, fast moves. General Electric is a defensive line, biggest on the field and they know it.

    Both companies have a nickname for their corporate logo. General Electric puts its “meatball” on its products. Westinghouse is more cowboy and goes by “the Circle Bar W.”

  12. Mr. Wooten,

    Same here but I had just been vested in my pension, which was most generous.

    I’ve moved on and I’m now in a happy job in a busy but hot and sandy place. I’m pretty much “Mr. Spent Fuel Pool.”

  13. Saw the movie last night. A good but not great effort. This movie (without all the special effects) could have been made in 1939. No cursing, no nudity, no violence. Just a good old fashioned story.

    The fact that it was made is what is amazing about this film.

    Why was it made? The producers, which these days I suspect means the big investors, were

    Adam Ackland … executive producer
    Garrett Basch … executive producer
    Timur Bekmambetov … producer
    Benedict Cumberbatch … executive producer
    Basil Iwanyk … producer
    Michael Mitnick … executive producer
    Matthew Patnick … line producer
    Ann Ruark … executive producer
    Martin Scorsese … executive producer
    Adam Sidman … executive producer
    Jayne Sullivan … co-producer
    Georgette Turner … Line Producer: Additional Photography
    Bob Weinstein … executive producer
    Michele Wolkoff … executive producer
    Steven Zaillian … executive producer
    Harvey Weinstein … producer (uncredited)

    Scorsese, Weinstein, and Cumberbatch are some big names. IMDB estimates it cost $30 million. That’s a lot of money and power to put into such a classical movie. At Rotten Tomatoes critics give it 62% but audiences 80%. Is this an indication of a shift in the culture of Hollywood? And politics is down wind from culture.

  14. }}} Certainly not anywhere near what the AC motor was worth, but not trivial numbers either….the meme that Tesla was never paid for his inventions really isn’t true.

    Westinghouse probably would have been happy with a stretch out or reduction of the royalty terms; I believe he was surprised when Tesla just tore up the deal.

    Oh, Agreed. As I suggest, Westinghouse’s dealing with Tesla were totally honorable. And I’m not even saying Tesla got screwed in any regard.

    I’m saying he was not the smartest man in the business sense, and could have, at the least, been set for life, and, had he had a “minder” (i.e., a wife, a friend, anyone) who would look over his shoulder and make sure his own interests were watched out for, he would never have been destitute or bordering on it later on, and likely would always have had a substantial R&D budget available for his studies (never the amount he wished for, I am sure).

    Everything “bad” that happened was entirely his own fault, but it ties to the oddness connected to his genius. Face it, the guy was OCD fastidious and yet he was in love with a pigeon. Literally in love. Pigeons are rats with wings.

    He could have struck a decent balance between surrendering it all and breaking the company, but did not.

    As to the movie, I just saw it last night. I am currently (ar ar) in the process of reading the book it is based on. It’s pretty, but it misses so much of the undercurrent of what was happening, and many other actors are not mentioned. This leads to Edison, et al, becoming too thin in characterization. It also puts J.P. Morgan front and center, while reducing Tesla to even less of a role than he has in the book, where the first 3/5ths of the book barely mentions JP. All understood as related to the limits of a movie, but it leads to a certain emptiness of the justifications of the characters’ motivations, and a dramatic emphasis about same that does not show up in the book at all (there’s little mention of Edison’s wife’s issues in that same 3/5ths).

    Cumberbatch and Holland are somewhat wasted in their parts, particularly Holland. Holland is basically just there as a true believer and for moral support for Edison, and that’s all. Anyone could have done this, it did not need an actor of any stature. And Cumberbatch is not greatly suited for the role — Edison is not obnoxious enough (and probably wasn’t) for his best performances.

    But yes, the visuals of the era are lush and opulent — perhaps a bit too CLEAN — you don’t see the true tangle of wires, nor the filth of 1880 Pittsburgh, both of which are prominent in the actual course of events (many of the early accidental electrocutions occurred as a result of the wire tangle (the wires generally shown are all neat and tidy arrangements), and the smog of Pittsburgh was a problem for many, including Tesla. And in its desire to be “beautiful”, it glosses over, with merely a headline, the electrocution of Kemmler.

    All in all, I recommend the book far far more than the movie. I think it sat in limbo for far longer simply because it really just doesn’t quite work. It’s worth seeing, but don’t expect too much from it.

  15. I enjoyed the movie. Wasn’t what I would call entertaining but informative. And together with the book Devil In The White City didn’t realize how important the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair was in this battle. Didn’t know about the electric chair angle.

  16. Whitehall,

    I saw it coming and was prepared and now happily working for a small consulting company from home. I was also “retired” but did not start drawing the pension yet. I wanted to work a few more years first.

    Did you know Marty Zegar?

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