War of Currents era begins
During the initial years of electricity distribution, Edison's direct current was the standard for the United States and Edison was not inclined to lose all his patent royalties.
Direct current worked well with incandescent lamps that were the principal load of the day, and with motors. Direct current systems could be directly used with storage batteries, providing valuable load-leveling and backup power during interruptions of generator operation. Direct current generators could be easily paralleled, allowing economical operation by using smaller machines during periods of light load and improving reliability. At the introduction of Edison's system, no practical AC motor was available. Edison had invented a meter to allow customers to be billed for energy proportional to consumption, but this meter only worked with direct current. As of 1882 these were all significant technical advantages of direct current.
From his work with rotary magnetic fields, Tesla devised a system for generation, transmission, and use of AC power. He partnered with George Westinghouse to commercialize this system. Westinghouse had previously bought the rights to Tesla's polyphase system patents and other patents for AC transformers from Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs.
Several undercurrents lay beneath this rivalry. Edison was a brute-force experimenter, but was no mathematician. AC cannot be properly understood or exploited without a substantial understanding of mathematics and mathematical physics (see AC power), which Tesla possessed. Tesla had worked for Edison but was undervalued (for example, when Edison first learned of Tesla's idea of alternating-current power transmission, he dismissed it: "[Tesla's] ideas are splendid, but they are utterly impractical."). Bad feelings were exacerbated because Tesla had been cheated by Edison of promised compensation for his work. Edison would later come to regret that he had not listened to Tesla and used alternating current.
Edison carried out a campaign to discourage the use of alternating current, including spreading disinformation on fatal AC accidents, publicly killing animals, and lobbying against the use of AC in state legislatures. Edison directed his technicians, primarily Arthur Kennelly and Harold P. Brown, to preside over several AC-driven killings of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs but also unwanted cattle and horses. Acting on these directives, they were to demonstrate to the press that alternating current was more dangerous than Edison's system of direct current. He also tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being "Westinghoused". Years after DC had lost the "war of the currents," in 1902, his film crew made a movie of the electrocution with high voltage AC, supervised by Edison employees, of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant who had recently killed three men.
Edison opposed capital punishment, but his desire to disparage the system of alternating current led to the invention of the electric chair. Harold P. Brown, who was at this time being secretly paid by Edison, constructed the first electric chair for the state of New York in order to promote the idea that alternating current was deadlier than DC.
When the chair was first used, on August 6, 1890, the technicians on hand misjudged the voltage needed to kill the condemned prisoner, William Kemmler. The first jolt of electricity was not enough to kill Kemmler, and only left him badly injured. The procedure had to be repeated and a reporter on hand described it as "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." George Westinghouse commented: "They would have done better using an axe."