The year is 1890 and the light bulb has been invented and everybody and their mother wanted electricity in their homes. Who wouldn’t? Two men were in a fierce battle to control the very lucrative market. One man was Thomas Edison who favored using direct current also known as DC. The other man was George Westingtonhouse, an investor in Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current also known as AC . This conflict came to be known as the “War of the Currents.” Curiously Tesla used to work for Edison and had told Edison of his theory, to only be rebuffed; Tesla decides to call it quits and goes out on his own. Little did Edison know that his former employee would become his nemesis.
Because Thomas Edison had a reputation DC took the lead. AC started to catch-up because it was easier and cheaper to transmit across long distances. By 1887 one hundred cities were wired with AC and Edison was losing business and employees. Edison got pissed off and thought of a plan to discredit AC. He sets out to prove that AC was dangerous to use, he not only issues ominous warnings to the public, he collects reports of deaths by AC, and hires lobbyist in several states in an attempt to limit the voltages that power lines could legally carry.
But the craziest thing he does is suggest to the state of New York to use AC to distribute electricity through the criminal’s body on the newly approved method of execution, the electric chair. Around this time death by hanging had been eliminated for death row criminals, and death by electric chair becomes the preferred way to deal with these inmates. But they had not decided whether to distribute the electric via AC or DC and so this is how Edison has become a part of the history of the electric chair. He said that if they’d use AC to transmit the electricity through the criminal’s body, the criminal would die instantly thus making it “humane.”
A Mr Harold Brown who was rumored to have been a former employee of Edison in the 1870’s becomes Edison’s great defender of DC. He conducts horrible experiments on dogs, cats, all kinds of animals to prove how dangerous and deadly AC was. Brown was fervent and convincing and many paid close attention to his ominous warnings. One agency being The Department of Prisons, and based on the findings they decided on AC being used in the death chair. And the first New Yorker to be executed on the death chair was William Kemmler in 1889, a man accused of killing his wife with a hatchet. Curiously Harold Brown’s findings were so trusted that they had him design the death chair and was appointed New York’s official electric chair technician.
Westinghouse tried all he could to stop the use of his generators to distribute the AC for the execution to no avail. He went as far as using a high priced lawyer who got a temporary stay of execution for Kemmler under the pretense of “interest of humanity,” when in fact, Westinghouse had hired him to simply try to stop AC from being used. By hiring the high price lawyer to step in on Kemmlers behalf, Westinghouse was trying to keep his name and business from a potentially ruinous association with death.
All this drama and nobody on either side ever thought of the poor slob who was going to fry. Just saying. In the end, the execution took place and it went horribly wrong. One paper said, “strong men fainted and fell on the floor.” Despite evidence to the contrary, Brown and Edison claimed that Kemmler was killed painlessly within the first second the current flowed. Edison however, suggested another current be used in the future with more powerful generators and a different method of applying the current…yea like his.
So for the time being Edison had won the battle, but not the war. The advantages of AC were too hard to ignore and it became the household standard.
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