In the late 19th century, a fierce battle for dominance in the burgeoning field of electricity raged between two titans of industry: Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. As they vied to provide electricity for America, their rivalry took a chilling turn when Edison, in a calculated move, offered his rival’s Alternating Current (AC) system to power the first-ever electric chair. This dark maneuver not only placed the financial burden and negative publicity on Westinghouse but also resulted in a tragic incident when the voltage of the current proved fatal but not instantaneous. This article delves into the unsettling tale of the macabre business war that unfolded in the quest for control over electricity.
Who was Thomas Edison?
Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, USA. From a young age, he displayed a keen interest in science and technology. Known as one of the greatest inventors in history, Edison held over 1,000 patents for various inventions, including the phonograph, motion picture camera, and most notably, the practical electric light bulb. His relentless pursuit of innovation and his commitment to creating practical solutions revolutionized numerous industries and paved the way for the widespread use of electricity. Edison’s contributions to the world of science and technology earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”
Who was George Westinghouse?
George Westinghouse was born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York, USA. A skilled engineer and entrepreneur, Westinghouse made significant contributions to the fields of electrical engineering and industrial development. He was a proponent of alternating current (AC) and played a crucial role in its advancement, challenging Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) system. Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric Company and developed numerous electrical innovations, including the air brake system for trains. His work in promoting AC power transmission systems revolutionized the way electricity was distributed and made long-distance power transmission feasible. Westinghouse’s contributions to the electrical industry cemented his status as a pioneering figure in the field.
The Battle for Electrical Supremacy
In the 1880s, Thomas Edison championed Direct Current (DC) as the safer and more reliable method of delivering electricity. His system operated at low voltage but required numerous power stations placed relatively close together. On the other hand, George Westinghouse, along with his brilliant engineer Nikola Tesla, championed Alternating Current, which allowed for the transmission of electricity over longer distances using high voltage. Despite the potential dangers of AC, Westinghouse believed in its efficiency and sought to challenge Edison’s monopoly.
Sinister Strategy: Electrifying the Chair
In an effort to discredit Westinghouse’s AC system and maintain his dominance, Edison embarked on a devious plan. He seized upon a highly controversial and sensitive topic of the time: capital punishment. Edison proposed that Westinghouse’s AC system should power the newly invented electric chair, which was intended to replace traditional methods of execution such as hanging and electrocution. By doing so, Edison aimed to associate Westinghouse’s AC system with death and danger, tarnishing its reputation in the eyes of the public.
The First Electric Chair Execution
In 1890, the state of New York adopted the electric chair as its official method of execution. A convicted murderer named William Kemmler was chosen to be the first to face this grisly fate. On August 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into the electric chair, which was powered by Westinghouse’s AC system. Little did he know that he would become a pawn in a ruthless business war, where the battle for electrical supremacy between Edison and Westinghouse would tragically converge in the horrifying spectacle of his electrocution.
Tragic Consequences and Public Outrage
The execution did not go as planned. Despite assurances that death would be swift and painless, the voltage of the electric current used to electrocute Kemmler had been vastly overrated. As a result, the initial surge failed to kill him instantly. Witnesses were horrified as Kemmler convulsed and suffered for several agonizing minutes before finally succumbing to the electric shock. The botched execution sparked a wave of public outrage and raised serious questions about the morality and efficacy of the electric chair.
Legal and Ethical Ramifications
The tragic incident raised significant legal and ethical concerns surrounding the use of the electric chair. Critics argued that it violated the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The gruesome spectacle of Kemmler’s execution, far from the swift and painless death promised, further fueled the debate surrounding the use of electricity in capital punishment.
Legacy and Impact of the Business War
The battle for the electric chair between Edison and Westinghouse left a lasting impact on the development of electricity and its applications. Despite Edison’s attempts to undermine Westinghouse’s AC system, the superior efficiency of Alternating Current eventually prevailed, becoming the dominant method of delivering electricity. The tragedy of Kemmler’s execution, however, left an indelible mark on the history of capital punishment, leading to ongoing debates about the ethics and humanity of the death penalty.
The macabre business war between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, fueled by their desire for electrical supremacy, took a sinister turn with the introduction of the electric chair. Edison’s calculated move to use Westinghouse’s AC system for capital punishment not only shifted the burden and negative publicity onto his rival but also resulted in a horrifying and botched execution. This dark chapter in the battle for control over electricity serves as a reminder of the ethical implications and unintended consequences that can arise when business rivalries collide with matters of life and death.