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The Westinghouse/Edison Rivalry – stray dogs, circus elephants, and getting “Westinghoused”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Things got ugly in the 1890s as Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse entered into what has been referred to as the “War of Currents” over Edison’s direct current and Westinghouse’s newly discovered alternating current. It turned out that Edison’s direct current was difficult to transmit over long distances without a significant loss of energy. Nichola Tesla, who showed Edison that an alternating current could do a much better job, was dismissed by Edison and took his idea to George Westinghouse.
 
As Westinghouse’s alternating current became more popular, Edison did what anyone would do: he organized public electrocutions of stray dogs (purchased for twenty-five cents each), a circus elephant (Topsy), and a convicted murderer to show how dangerous the alternating current could be. The Smithsonian Blog fills us in on some of the more gruesome history:
 

The battle of the currents had begun. Westinghouse recognized what Edison was up to and wrote the inventor a letter, stating, “I believe there has been a systemic attempt on the part of some people to do a great deal of mischeaf [sic] and creat [sic] as great a difference as possible between the Edison Company and The Westinghouse Electric Co., when there ought to be an entirely different condition of affairs.”  Edison saw no reason to cooperate, and he continued his experiments at varying levels of voltage with dozens of stray dogs purchased from neighborhood boys in Orange, New Jersey at 25 cents each.  Edison’s research was soon proving that alternating current was, as he said, “beyond all doubt more fatal than the continuous current.” By the end of the year, Edison arranged a demonstration before a New York State committee impaneled to investigate the use of electricity in executions.  At his West Orange laboratory, the inventor wired electrodes to several calves and a horse; even though the animals’ deaths were not quick, the committee was impressed. New York State expressed a desire to purchase “three Westinghouse alternating-current dynamos,” but Westinghouse refused to sell them for the purpose of what was now being described as “electrocution.” It did not matter. An electricity salesman named Harold Brown was commissioned by the state to build an electric chair, and Edison was paying him behind the scenes to use alternating current in his design. Somehow, Brown got his hands on some AC dynamos.

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.”

 
Despite Edison’s repeated efforts to smear Westinghouse, reason and logic eventually prevailed when everyone agreed that alternating current was better for transmitting power over long distances, and that Edison was being a jerk about the whole thing. Westinghouse was awarded the contract to light the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and the rest is history.

The Scoleri Brothers in Ghostbusters 2, possibly experiencing the alternating current.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. MoEnergySci 9:54 pm 12/6/2011

    H/T on the Ghostbusters reference

    Link to this

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