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Good Movie: The Men Who Built America

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I have this item in my DVD collection. To be fair, it is worth watching once, and I would give it 2 and a half stars out of a four star rating.

The problem with the History Channel is that their objective is to make history dramatic. So, they cast actors that don't really look much like the historical personalities, and present them in the most overly-dramatic scenes imaginable. Add some "expert" that uses the the word "literally" just a little too much, and narrate as it as if this were an action movie trailer. This particular show portrays railroad tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, banking giant, JP Morgan, steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, and oil titan, John D Rockefeller as the robber-barons most of us learned about in high-school; that is, the guys you love to hate. In a few scenes, these guys are "literally" punching someone out. How else can history be made appealing to a younger audience?

Also in this series, they portray Thomas Edison in a very positive light (no pun intended). However, Edison was desperately trying to undermine the innovations of the most amazing man of the age: Nikola Tesla. I won't give away the plot, but it is worth watching to understand the saga of one man's success, challenged by another. And that seems to be the underscoring premise of the show. While I find Tesla to be a particular subject of fascination, (and quite possibly a comparable dead-ringer for the fictional John Galt, that is, to compare him to Galt's technical genius), the fact is, he allowed his genius to be consumed by George Westinghouse. All of this is explained in the series, and for that exact reason it is worth checking out once. I can't explain why I purchased it for my collection, but I recommend it for those who seek greater understanding of a period when America, that is, the United States of America, was the fulcrum of an as yet un-identified order known as Capitalism. The Nineteenth Century American experience is a matter of nearly mythological proportion by our present day standards. But to truly understand the importance of that situation, that perfect storm of mind-over-matter, one must revisit the entire age. One must look at other videos. (Or read the history)

I recommend: The Prize. It was a PBS documentary series examining the oil industry. There are many others related to the personalities examined in The Men Who Built America. Reading about the times gives one a scope of the popular ideas circulating among immigrant populations, memories of the Civil War, the quasi-war between labor and capital, the effects of bank failures that seemed to create mob-mentality, church approval that supported altruistic causes, and a new political force of Populism that delivered to us our present-day Progressive government.

Oh yes, there was credit given to Henry Ford, perhaps the greatest inventor to advance genuine democracy. (Would people have as much personal liberty today if they did not have their own cars?) This subject is addressed in The Prize. I give credit to The History Channel for promoting Capitalism, but I believe this presentation could have been better.

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  • 1 year later...
I haven’t seen the History Channel series and don’t intend to, but I wanted to comment on the following by Repairman:

Edison was desperately trying to undermine the innovations of ... Nikola Tesla.


First though, a brief comment on what I left out under the ellipsis:  “the most amazing man of the age:”.   I haven’t thought about who I’d nominate for that position but it wouldn’t be Tesla, amazing though he undoubtedly was.  Speaking of Edison, he would be even more amazing.  There are other candidates too, but let it pass.
OK, was Edison, desperately or otherwise, trying to undermine any of Tesla’s innovations?  “Undermine” meaning some negative action against.
Well, what was going on?
Before Edison, the only electric lights were carbon arc lights.  They worked over only short distances from the power source.  
These lights operated at high current / low voltage.  Edison was the first man of anyone working in the electrical field to realize that that was relevant to the problem of distributing power, and that in order to transfer power by wire over a long distance required the reverse: low current / high voltage and of course a new type of lamp that worked with it.  
Compared to even geniuses like Kelvin in England he more clearly understood the concepts of current, voltage, and resistance and the consequences of Ohm’s Law regarding power.  He understood that the power loss before the current got to the device went as current squared times the wire resistance.
He invented a high voltage / low current system, which included the Edison light bulb that worked at high voltage / low current.  It was a three wire system (plus, ground, minus) and he patented it.
Now about the voltage source, the generator.  Basically a generator consists of loops of wire rotating in a magnetic field.  The result is alternating current.  You might say that alternating current is natural current.  Edison knew that such current, even at fairly low voltage, is very dangerous.  So he added a commutator to his generator to convert it to direct current.  (He also much improved existing generator design.)  His three wire system worked with either alternating or direct current.  
His preference for direct current and his taking the trouble to convert to it was due to his concern for the safety of the end users.  (Most people who get electrocuted in their homes today would not have been had the current been direct.)
Enter Tesla.  He saw the value of Edison’s idea of using high voltage / low current.  If high / low is good, higher / lower is even better.  That is, you could send power over even longer distances.  He added a transformer (discovered by Faraday) right after the generator to step up the voltage and reduce the current, and generator not far from the user to reverse the change.  
However, transformers (the simple ones of those days anyway) work only with alternating current, so direct current was out.
He took his idea to Westinghouse.  Westinghouse hired Tesla to design this system, but he did not contract with Edison to use his three wire system on which it was based.  Westinghouse was a thief in that regard.  I gather Tesla didn’t concern himself with the business end of it.  
Edison, or rather the Edison company (by then – I think – he had lost control of his company to the financiers), sued Westinghouse and won in court.  Westinghouse then contracted to use Edison’s system.
The Edison company started a propaganda campaign against alternating current emphasizing its dangers.  It was true propaganda but in the end the economic advantage of longer distances between generator and user outweighed considerations of safety.  Also some devices (some invented by Tesla, e.g. the alternating current motor) require alternating current.  
By the way, the electric distribution system has come full circle.  For very long distances today direct current is again used.  It minimizes resistance losses due to self-inductance.  This direct current is then converted to alternating current before being put through a transformer.
This corrects some of the misinformation constantly being spread about Edison and the pioneering days of electric power distribution.  
Edited by HandyHandle
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Nice piece of work, HandyHandle. No doubt you learned of the rather bizarre exhibition involving the electrocution of an elephant using Tesla's alternating current, an attempt to influence public opinion. That was the act of "desperation" I was referring to. Otherwise, I meant no disrespect toward Thomas Edison, he was indeed a pioneering genius and industrialist. My praise for Nikola Tesla is subjective, and I view him as an unappreciated hero.

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