Ever heard of Nikola Tesla?
Well, during the “War of the Electric Currents,” a battle was being waged over whether Direct Current (DC) would hold off Alternating Current (AC) for the future of America’s electricity. Nikola Tesla invented the system and components that made it possible to transmit alternating current to virtually unlimited distances, a limitation that had seriously plagued direct current. With already well-entrenched Thomas Edison was busy trying to electrify New York City with Direct Current, Tesla teamed up with George Westinghouse, another inventor who brought a business savvy on par with Edison to the table. Together, Tesla and Westinghouse shot to the forefront of the race and got lucrative contracts such as those for lighting the Chicago World’s Fair and extracting hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls.
Not one to roll over when faced with competition, Edison’s reaction to the teamwork of Westinghouse and Tesla was immediate. He had pamphlets printed and mailed to reporters and lighting utilities that accused Westinghouse and other Edison competitors of being in violation of his patents. Edison also started pushing the idea of the dangers of alternating current at high voltages versus the safety of his low voltage direct current.
The technical battle was mostly the dry stuff of scientists and argued deep inside the technical journals and scientific meetings. Most of this was not visible, and certainly not understandable, to the general public. But one thing that was understandable was the occasional death by electrocution. And with cities like New York strung tight with hundreds of electrical wires from a dozen electric light utilities, the public feared the occasional might become the frequent.
Edison got some help in this regard from a few grizzly electrocutions that occurred over a short period of time. One such occasion was the unfortunate circumstance of an electrical repairman named John Feeks, who fell into a spider web of charged wires and was slowly incinerated as the horrified pedestrians on the street below gazed up at the gruesome scene. Needless to say this bolstered Edison’s case that alternating current current was too dangerous to be used, while direct current – on which his own systems were based – was perfectly safe.
Alas, a few accidents weren’t going to be enough to convince the public that alternating current should be banned from all use. It would take a lot more death to do that.
Ever the opportunist, Edison enlisted the help of Harold Pitney Brown, an electrician with a decade of experience and a bit of a mean streak. Brown set up shop in Edison’s laboratory and proceeded to electrocute stray dogs – which he paid neighborhood kids to acquire – with alternating current electricity. Edison called these animal executions getting “Westinghoused” because of the use of the alternating current system that his main competitor, using Tesla’s technology, was developing.
Later the term “Westinghoused” would be applied to the first execution by electrical current. On August 6, 1890, New York State accomplished the first execution using the new alternating current electric chair. William Kemmler had murdered his philandering wife with an axe and then calmly asked his son to contact the local police. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Edison had convinced the board that Kemmler’s death would be rapid and painless because of the incredibly high voltages of the dangerous alternating current.
When the day came, however, the execution did not go smoothly. No, it did not go smoothly at all.
An initial surge of more than one thousand volts of electricity was applied to Kemmler for seventeen seconds as he sat in the newly designed electric chair. This seemed to work and he was pronounced dead by the attending doctor. But suddenly Kemmler’s chest heaved and a droning rasp grew from his foaming lips. He emitted an animal-like cry and his body began shaking violently. Desperately, the attendants raced to reattach the electrodes to his skull and body and then switched the dynamo back on to full power. Wanting to ensure that they did not have a repeat of the failed first attempt, for nearly two more minutes the electricity surged into Kemmler as “the stench of burning flesh filled the room.”
Despite these gruesome incidents and Edison’s rabid public relations attempts to discredit alternating current, the winner of the war of the electric currents was clearly the alternating current commercialized by Westinghouse that relied on Tesla’s many patents. Alternating current would go on to replace direct current for almost all generation and distribution of electricity to industry and households. Edison would, of course, go on to develop hundreds of new inventions and improvements right up until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty-four, but this war—the war of the currents—was won by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.
[The above is an adaptation from my book: Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity.]
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