Before there was Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, before there were terms like "disruptor" and "futurist", there was Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Two brilliant minds and titans of industry in the 1800s, they each raced to develop the electrical power transmission system that would light the modern world. Edison favored direct current (DC), which was large scale but low voltage, whereas Westinghouse favored alternating current (AC), which was a higher voltage and much less expensive to produce.
The Current War pits Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) against one another, as they were in 1886 at the beginning of the "War of the Currents", a serious of events involving demonstrations by the two inventors and mass media coverage. Let's dive in and see what things were historically accurate about the film and what wasn't.
11 HISTORICALLY ACCURATE: THOMAS EDISON WAS A JERK
Of the two inventors and titans of industry, Thomas Edison was definitely the more egotistical and stubborn. As is mentioned by engineer Franklin Pope (who once had Edison sleep on his couch), Edison didn't care how he won, only that he won. This includes buying the patents of other inventors and perfecting their machinations to be credited with their success.
Edison didn't invent the first incandescent light bulb, but he created the most "commercially viable" one. He was an arrogant and underhanded opportunist, which is more or less how Benedict Cumberbatch portrays him. Edison was stubbornly convinced of the superiority of DC current even when he lost the "War of the Currents" and his own company, part of General Electric, adopted AC current and bought him out of his shares.
10 INACCURATE: THOMAS EDISON AND GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE MEETING FACE TO FACE
While it would have made for more dramatically tense scenes, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison never met face to face, at least not on record. They exchanged snide correspondence, and dueled with op-eds in the national papers during the War of the Currents, but that was the extent of it.
The Current War would have benefited from a few electrically charged scenes between these two power houses, but audiences had to be satisfied with a brief ( and random) conciliatory exchange they share at the World's Fair in Chicago, where Westinghouse has won the bid to supply its crown jewel attraction, the "City of Light" with his AC current.
9 HISTORICALLY ACCURATE: EDISON ELECTROCUTED ANIMALS TO SHOW THE DANGERS OF AC CURRENT
In one of the film's more graphic scenes, we see Edison holding demonstrations to prove the dangers of AC current. He electrocutes a horse to prove that touching a line housing AC current would prove instantly fatal. Some of these demonstrations sparked the idea that what could kill animals without suffering could also be used to kill humans, thus the birth of the electric chair.
In reality, Edison not only shocked horses, but also stray dogs and cats to prove his point. He was not responsible, despite rumors, for the electrocution of Topsy the circus elephant.
8 INACCURATE: EDISON HELPED INVENT THE ELECTRIC CHAIR
In The Current War, Edison is desperate to disparage the reputation of his rival Westinghouse to such a degree that he agrees to advise the production of the first electric chair. He extends information about the necessary construction of the chair and voltage required to "humanely" kill a human provided that it uses Westinghouse AC generators.
Edison did lobby for Westinghouse's equipment to be associated with the electric chair so that AC current could be seen as lethal. However, he never clandestinely met with the inventors of the electric chair, much less sent letters that Westinghouse could use later to prove his rival was trying to discredit his system. The letters that appear in the film refer to acquiring Westinghouse's generators, and were not written by Edison.
7 HISTORICALLY ACCURATE: NEW YORK BOTCHED THE FIRST EXECUTION BY ELECTRIC CHAIR
Thankfully, the first death via electric chair isn't shown in the film, because it would have been pretty horrific. Convicted murderer William Kemmler, sentenced to death for killing his wife with a hatchet, was to be executed by the electric chair via 1,000 volts of AC current. He went lifeless after 17 seconds, but then came to, forcing the Westinghouse generator to be charged up again.
He was then hit with 2,000 volts, at which point his hair fried, he bled from orifices, and the smell of burning flesh filled the room where witnesses began to faint. It took a total of three times to kill him. His body took hours to "cool off" before he could be removed from the chair.
6 INACCURATE: TESLA'S BEHAVIOR
Serbian-born inventor, futurist, and certified genius Nikola Tesla certainly deserved as much recognition as Edison and Westinghouse, if not more. However, his portrayal in the film (by Nicholas Hoult) isn't as certifiable as it should have been.
In The Current War, Tesla is a fastidious man, conscientious of his finely tailored clothing, as well as prone to a very short attention span. This may have made him seem eccentric to neurotypical men like Westinghouse and Edison, but the real Tesla was much more out of touch. He became obsessed with pigeons, germs, and often abandoned projects he just began.
5 HISTORICALLY ACCURATE: WESTINGHOUSE BEAT EDISON TO SUPPLY ELECTRICITY TO THE 1893 CHICAGO WORLD'S FAIR
Despite Edison's best efforts to crush Westinghouse's AC current system, it beat out his bid for the contract to provide electricity for the "White City" or "City of Light", the crown jewel exhibition of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Not only was his AC current system proven to be no more dangerous than the DC current system, but his was significantly cheaper which appealed to investors.
The White City, and later that same year, the Niagra Falls hydro-electric plant, secured Westinghouse's victory in the War of the Currents. He's quoted as saying after the fact, "If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied."
4 HISTORICALLY ACCURATE: EDISON WAS ALL ABOUT HIS BRAND
Throughout the film Thomas Edison is depicted as a man not so much obsessed with the cult of personality, but with being remembered as one of the greatest inventors of all time. In fact, he seems beleaguered by the concept of "fame", while at the same time desperately wanting to cement himself and his company as a household name.
When he hired a young Nikola Tesla to fix the design of his DC motor, he promised him interest. Instead, Edison ran off and patented it under the Edison name, ensuring Tesla would get no royalties. It drove Tesla to work for the fairer employer, Westinghouse, while Edison was busy making a viable brand.
3 HISTORICALLY ACCURATE: WESTINGHOUSE'S NIAGARA FALLS HYDRO-ELECTRIC POWER PLANT ENDED THE CURRENT WAR
One of the smartest decisions that George Westinghouse ever made was partnering with Nikola Tesla, the young futurist and inventor who conceived of one day using the immense propulsion power of Niagara Falls to create a hydro-electric power plant that would generate electricity.
At the end of the film, the plant at Niagra Falls was able to deliver AC current 26 miles away to Buffalo. That achievement seemed to mark the end of the "War of the Currents" between Westinghouse and Edison. Westinghouse's AC current system became the standard for electric power.
2 INACCURATE: EDISON INVENTED MOTION PICTURES
At the end of the film, we see Edison foregoing the business of electricity and turning his attention to his kinetograph and kinetoscope. It's implied that he was the inventor of future motion pictures, but that's isn't true. His devices weren't the first used to record sequentially moving pictures.
What Edison did invent with his kinetoscope was passing light over strips of celluloid film. He later constructed a small movie studio, where he recorded three of his employees pretending to be blacksmiths. While revolutionary, this device only allowed one viewer at a time through a peephole to view the finished product.