kottke.org posts about George Westinghouse

AC/DC, the Westinghouse Edison rivalryNov 18 2011

The battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over direct and alternating current got ugly. Really ugly, with Edison gleefully electrocuting dozens of dogs, an elephant, and even a man with "dangerous" alternating current.

When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity "is a good idea," Edison said at the time. "It will be so quick that the criminal can't suffer much." He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be "Westinghoused."

Westinghouse was livid. He faced millions of dollars in losses if Edison's propaganda campaign convinced the public that his AC current would be lethal to homeowners. Westinghouse contributed $100,000 toward legal fees for Kemmler's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued that death in the electric chair amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Both Kemmler and Westinghouse were unsuccessful, and on August 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into Harold Brown's chair at Auburn prison and wired to an AC dynamo. When the current hit him, Kemmler's fist clenched so tight that blood began to trickle from his palm down the arm of the chair. His face contorted, and after 17 seconds, the power was shut down. Arthur Southwick, "the father of the electric chair," was in attendance and proclaimed to the witnesses, "This is the culmination of ten years work and study. We live in a higher civilization today."

Yet behind the dentist, Kemmler began to shriek for air.

(thx, peter)

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