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Monday, June 23, 2014

Shock and Awe- The War of the Currents and Capital Punishment

The 40 years after the Civil War was truly an amazing era in the United States. Invention and industry transformed a nation in just a few short decades. The Bessemer process made steel a viable and plentiful material and cities began to grow upwards as well as outwards. Railroads connected a nation allowing goods and people to travel with ease from coast to coast, oil exploration and refinement brought cheap fuel into the homes of many, and we took to the skies for the first time. During all of this, Thomas Edison successfully invented and patented(we can argue over the invented part, but he did win the patent wars) the electric lightbulb. Along with this he placed patents on the generation and distribution of power using a direct current or DC as it is more commonly called. But during the 1880's a rival system came of age, that of alternating current or AC. And the ensuing "current wars" brought out the much darker side to one of America's most celebrated industrialists and inventors.

 AC was the brainchild of Nikola Tesla, the brilliant Serbian inventor and theorist who was actually a disgruntled ex-employee of Thomas Edison. Tesla had left over a disagreement in pay after working nearly three years under Edison. He took his ideas for alternating current to George Westinghouse, an American industrialist then famous for making brake systems for locomotives and rail cars. Westinghouse listened to Tesla and saw the benefits of AC over Edison's DC and immediately became the patron and face of alternating current. Likewise, Edison had his own patron in famed capitalist J.P. Morgan. The two inventors and their backers would battle it out for the next several years in an attempt to become the dominant force in electrifying America. The goal for both sides was the same, to be the system used in the proposed Niagra Falls hydroelectric power station. Which ever side won the contract would be the de facto standard for the rest of the nation.

 The advantage of AC over DC was basically that alternating current could be more easily transmitted over great distance than direct current could. This meant it was more efficient for use in a large grid, but at a cost, and it was that cost that Edison banked on exposing to win the support for his older DC system. Simply put AC is dangerous while DC is by comparison much safer in regards to the risk of electrocution. While Tesla was famous for putting on grand spectacles of his electrical inventions, most people failed to understand how his electricity truly worked. Edison, through his agents, especially one named Harold P. Brown sought to use spectacle to scare people away from AC. Harold P. Brown went around electrocuting animals at shows to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Instead of saying electrocuted, they used the term "Westinghoused" so people would associate the horrors of electrocution with Edison's rival. In 1889 Edison thought the best chance yet to spoil AC in the public eye would be come at the hands of the state of New York.

 The state of New York was looking for a new and more humane way to execute prisoners. There had been several botched hangings of late and the press those executions generated left a bad taste in the mouth of the public. Edison caught wind of this and thought it would be a wonderful P.R. campaign to show the lethality of AC if New York used it to quickly execute prisoners. He sent Brown to the state on his behalf with a design for an "electric chair". Brown swore it would be humane, quick, and painless and the state ordered him to build one. After previous demonstrations Westinghouse was aware of Edison's tactics and refused to sell any AC supplies to Edison or his known agents. Brown had some initial difficulty obtaining a Westinghouse AC generator but was able to find one dealer to sell him one via a straw man purchaser.

 The prisoner who would be the guinea pig for the new device was William Kemmler, a 30 year old man convicted or murdering his common law wife with an axe. On August 6th of 1890 he was strapped into the chair, calmly resigned to his fate and assured no doubt it would be painless and quick compared to the noose he might have otherwise faced. When the switch was thrown by the "state electrician" 1,000 volts of AC power surged through the condemned man's body for 17 seconds before the chair was turned off. Kemmler was declared dead, but witnesses remarked he was still visibly breathing. Hurriedly the switch was thrown again but this time with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels started to burst and Kemmler was visibly bleeding and convulsing. The execution took almsot 8 minutes to complete from start to finish. Witnesses remarked of the horrible smell from singed hair and burnt skin. Newspapers jumped on the botched execution, and in the typical yellow journalistic style of the day sensationalized the details as much as possible to one up their competition. All in all the public took away from the event that AC was not as deadly as thought given the amount of voltage and time it took to execute the man. Edison was horrified and Westinghouse played it to his advantage stating that Brown did not know how to do it right because he did not understand AC.

 In the end, Edison's scare tactics of electrocuting animals and people did not have an effect. DC was simply not as suitable as a current for a large power grid as AC was. When the Niagara power plant went online, it was with Westinghouse generators. People and towns slowly converted their DC systems to AC and Edison had lost the campaign. DC would remain a logical choice in smaller system such as vehicles where its efficiency and safe nature made it ideal, but it would not power homes and light the future like Edison had hoped. He was ordered to give up the battle by J.P. Morgan who a few years later would be the mastermind who consolidated Edison's and other electric oriented companies into the giant General Electric in 1892.

Artist rendition of the execution in 1890

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