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Thomas Edison: An original crony capitalist


Edison practiced Alinsky's politics of commercial destruction, but in the end free enterprise, and with it all of mankind won the day.

Glenn Beck’s new book, the New York Times bestselling “Miracles and Massacres,” is about helping people connect with the true, untold history of America. In Chapter Five, Glenn tells the story of Thomas Edison versus George Westinghouse, a clash of innovative titans of industry with starkly contrasting personalities, goals and tactics, the story of which has been sorely missed in the history books.


Thomas Edison is one of the most famous and renowned inventors of all time, while George Westinghouse, due to his dry personality and characteristic modesty, is far less heralded. Yet it is Westinghouse who was responsible for fostering the genius of Nikola Tesla and developing the revolutionary technology of alternating current in the late 19th century; the technology that powers practically every electronic device you use, including charging whatever device you are using to read this article.

Glenn Beck’s New York Times bestselling history book Miracles and Massacres covers the fascinating story of the war over electric currents—a war that spawned a new technology revolution and changed the world.

Thomas Edison. (Source: Wikipedia)

In the late 1880s, Thomas Edison, the Northeast-based, brash and widely-known inventor was on top of the world. He controlled a vast business empire, including the darling of Wall Street and America’s next great industry: electricity. George Westinghouse, on the other hand, was a successful mid-Western industrialist who had carved out a much smaller and lesser-known empire. Westinghouse remained a mere upstart inventor and manufacturer, invisible to the great Edison, until the day he literally went against the current—that is against Edison’s direct current technology.

[sharequote align="center"]Westinghouse’s interest in...providing a superior technology at a superior price...challenged Edison[/sharequote]

Westinghouse had the vision that Edison lacked: alternating current, which was being developed by the eccentric genius, Nikola Tesla, could be cheaper, safer, more efficient and cleaner than the direct current on which Edison’s electricity empire was based.

Edison had spurned Tesla for spending his time working on this expensive innovation while under Edison’s employ. Edison preferred a company man focused on today’s technology, not one who wasted time inventing something that would undermine Edison’s life work. Tesla, to the world’s great fortune, left Edison General Electric, and Westinghouse jumped at the chance to partner with the aloof but brilliant inventor.

In the ensuing years, Westinghouse’s genuine interest in improving the lives of others by providing a superior technology at a superior price, presented a challenge to Edison’s empire. But instead of competing in the marketplace, Edison sought to destroy his competitor through underhanded tactics—slandering Westinghouse’s technology in the press, lobbying state legislatures to regulate alternating current out of existence and even killing animals with alternating current in an attempt to prove the technology unsafe for society.

[sharequote align="center"]Edison, to put it in Alinsky-ite terms, was a practitioner of the politics of commercial destruction[/sharequote]

Instead of trying to win on the basis of building a better mousetrap, Edison, to put it in Alinsky-ite terms, was a practitioner of the politics of commercial destruction. He didn’t try to beat Westinghouse on price or convenience or efficiency, he instead sought to portray his competitor’s technology as inhumane, dangerous, and evil.

Chicago World's Fair, 1893. (Source: Wikipedia)

You’ll need to read the story in the book to find out how the "War of Currents" played out, but Westinghouse’s efforts culminated in his electrification of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Fittingly, the switch that turned on the power was flipped by another man mostly forgotten by history, a champion of free markets and limited government: President Grover Cleveland.

[sharequote align="center"]Edison proved no match for...the market’s desire to bring [Westinghouse's] vision to fruition[/sharequote]

While Edison’s “crony capitalism” was more limited in scope and size than that of crony capitalists today—he likely could not have imagined a regulatory state as punitive and Byzantine as that of America in the 21st century, a government so loose with the public’s funds as to shower “investments” down upon all of its favorite sons, or a Department of Justice or IRS so willing to be converted into weapons against those who cross it—it is clear that Edison used every trick available to him during his day to destroy Westinghouse, Tesla and alternating current. Had he been successful, all of society would have paid a great price. Instead however, despite his years of unscrupulous tactics and leading market position, the mighty Edison proved no match for the ingenuity and intestinal fortitude of Westinghouse and Tesla, and the market’s desire to bring their vision to fruition. The crony capitalist could only hold his competition at bay for so long before free enterprise would win the day, rewarding Westinghouse and Tesla for their exceptional technological achievements, and with it improving the lives of millions.

To read the full, riveting account of the story of Thomas Edison versus George Westinghouse, along with 11 other epic and untold stories from American history, check out Glenn Beck’s new New York Times bestselling book, “Miracles and Massacres.” You can find story summaries, excerpts and audio samples by visiting here.

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