Edison's Electric Chair, X-Rays, Design

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

Edison's Electric Chair, X-Rays, Design


Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When Thomas Alva Edison demonstrated his newly-invented phonograph to Henry Morton Stanley, the famous explorer asked him to name the historical figure whose voice he would most like to hear. Edison's answer, "Napoleon," shocked the devout Stanley, who responded, "I should like to hear the voice of our savior." Unabashed, Edison explained, "Well, I like a hustler."

Mark Essig's engrossing tale of one of the less edifying episodes in the life of America's greatest inventor, Edison and the Electric Chair (Walker & Co., $26, 368 pages) puts Edison's achievements in the context of the development of electricity, discusses the history of capital punishment in America, and demonstrates that Edison himself was no mean hustler.

Born in 1847, and with less than a year of formal education, Edison became an expert telegrapher as a teenager, patented his first invention at 22, and before he was 30 had built his famous laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., where in 1879 he perfected the first practical electric light bulb.

His next major project was to illuminate New York City with an Edison-built electric system including generators and conductors as well as light bulbs. Unfortunately, Edison's inventive genius let him down here, because his system was based on direct current.

Other companies, most notably one headed by George Westinghouse - another prominent inventor whose fame and fortune came from the air brake that tamed the locomotive - were pressing ahead with alternating current systems that were far better suited for large-scale power stations than Edison's design.

Faced with this formidable competition, Edison decided to make a major issue out of safety, arguing that high-voltage AC was dangerous, whereas low-voltage DC was safe. To bring this point home, he became a strenuous advocate of electrocution - relying on AC power - as a means of inflicting capital punishment.

In fact, Edison himself regarded capital punishment as barbaric, but he decided he could fight Westinghouse by persuading the public that AC electricity was an efficient method of disposing of murderers, and therefore too dangerous for people to allow in their homes.

He carried out this campaign with his customary enthusiasm and zest, inter alia proposing that the electric chair be called a "Westinghouse."

The comparatively esoteric technical debate over the relative merits of AC and DC became a subject of intense public concern as competing companies festooned New York with thousands of overhead wires. All too frequently, a lineman would make a wrong move and electrocute himself, which on occasion would result in a grisly scene as thousands of pedestrians on the streets of lower Manhattan watched his lengthy and agonizing death throes.

Meanwhile, New York state held legislative hearings to compare the merits of electrocution with other methods of capital punishment. After New York decided in favor of electrocution, the first man sent to the electric chair was William Kemmler, who was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife.

The new technology, however, did not perform with the promised efficiency, and the execution was a drawn-out, painful and messy affair as the operators struggled to make the process work. Writing from the viewpoint of the early 21st century, Mr. Essig tells us that although capital punishment is still practiced in America, the electric chair has been superseded by less violent methods.

* * *

The electric chair was adopted during the era John H. Lienhard discusses in his book Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers and Tailfins (Oxford University Press, $28, 267 pages). His title reflects his transformation of the adjective "modern" into a noun describing the environment of astonishing technological change from around the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s. …

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