Jan 042008

About 15 years ago I stumbled across a fascinating book (that was already dated at the time) about the history of capital punishment. This was not a political history, but a technological one. It dealt with the various methods governments have used throughout the ages to execute criminals. I was about halfway through when I accidently left the book in a purloined motel room in Kettleman City (a long and fascinating story unto itself). The portion I was reading at the time had to do with the early days of electrocution as a means of execution and, more importantly, with the battle between Thomas Edison (developer of direct current) and George Westinghouse (who was championing alternating current).

It seems both Edison and Westinghouse were trying to standardize the young American power grid to use their form of electricity and the battle was quite heated. This ties into the history of executions because neither wanted their system to be used for fear that it would be associated with death and danger. However, instead of focusing on the safety merits of their own system ,they instead launched smear campaigns against their opponents. In fact it was 105 years ago today that Edison launched a critical shot across AC’s bow by creating the following film-

What you just witnessed (or possibly skipped over) was the execution of Topsy the elephant by Thomas Edison using Westinghouse’s alternating current. Topsy’s crime? She had killed three visitors to Coney Island’s Luna Park Zoo. But that wasn’t Edison’s point. Rather, it was to provide concrete evidence of just how dangerous AC was. Of course, history shows that alternating current is an excellent system for executions, but also for powering all the wonderful gadgets that we enjoy more than a century later (or at least for recharging their batteries).

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