Which sort of current would provide electricity to American homes and businesses (and the world): AC or DC? That was the question toward the end of the nineteenth century. The bitter, controversial and coldblooded battles that ensued—known at the time as the AC/DC wars, or the current wars—were front-page news (and for good reason).
1 Eventually Edison held more patents than anyone (over a thousand).
Like all talented children though, Al did poorly in school—so poorly he had to be home-schooled. 2 The year that he turned thirteen, he began to sell newspapers, and, unrelated to that, became deaf in one ear. 3 He married and had three children, twice.
That was just one side of him though: He was also an ambitious, arrogant and ruthless businessman who, by the time of the AC/DC wars, had already built an empire that he would do anything to protect, if not expand.
In war the first step is to choose a cause/side to defend/advance. Westinghouse chose AC; it was cheaper and capable of providing higher voltages and reliable service over a greater distance than DC. Edison staked his reputation on DC claiming that AC was too dangerous; it had already killed a number of innocent people. He wanted the American public to see just how lethal it was (so that he could have sole control of the soon-to-be-booming electrical industry). In 1887 he got his chance.
New York State had a plentiful supply of convicted criminals, and the Legislature thought it should shop around for a more humane way to kill them. It contacted ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park,’ where Edison’s “invention factory” was located, and asked for his opinion. Edison opposed capital punishment, and at first, he was reluctant to weigh in, but upon reflection, he decided that it was foolish to let something like principles stand in the way of revenge and a leg up.
AC, he assured the lawmakers, was the surest way to kill a human.
“The state’s consideration of adopting electricity for execution gave him an opportunity to point the inherent dangerous nature of competing technology.”
Edison backed a New York engineer who began to execute large dogs in New York City lecture halls that were open to the public. One New York City official and onlooker stated: “It was one of the most frightful scenes I have ever witnessed. The dogs writhed and squirmed and gave vent to their agony in howls and piteous wails.”
Across the river in New Jersey, Edison was also doing some “research” of his own. He was paying local boys a quarter to find him stray dogs to “experiment on.” The boys responded so enthusiastically—you have to wonder about the working definition of ‘stray’—that the local pet population went down to zero, or at least, close to zero.
Some of Edison’s critics pointed out that killing a dog doesn’t prove that AC could kill a larger human, so he switched over to calves and horses. He even threatened to kill an elephant. Final stats: twenty-four dogs, six calves and two horses.
And Edison could hardly believe his good fortune: Kemmler was going to be executed by AC produced by a Westinghouse generator located right there in Buffalo! The gods seemed to be smiling on Edison—maybe even laughing with him. And the American public would figure it out soon enough: AC = DEATH. Better, even, than “got milk?”
“Far Worse Than Hanging: Kemmler’s Death Proves an Awful Spectacle” pontificated the front page of the New York Times.
“I have merely glanced over an account of Kemmler’s death and it wasn’t pleasant reading,” Edison conceded. Westinghouse chimed in with: “They could have done it better with an ax.”
Though Edison no longer dominated the technological landscape, from where he stood, the AC/DC wars were far from over. Never one to accept defeat graciously, Edison was still looking for a way to stick it to Westinghouse. Perhaps one last dramatic demonstration would show the public just how lethal AC could be; and what could be more dramatic than making good on his threat to electrocute an elephant?
“Elephant Terrorizes Coney Island Police.; Big Animal Tried to Enter the Station House When Its Intoxicated Keeper Is Arrested.”
That was enough even for the craven circus owners who sold Topsy to Coney Island where she was put in charge of the heavy lifting (and where, soon, elephants would be forced to ride the park’s frolicsome water slide). Someone offered to buy Topsy’s body parts so long as she was killed first, and the amusement park’s management was only too happy to oblige, constructing a scaffold so they could hang her. The SPCA protested, and that was Edison’s cue: He graciously offered to electrocute her.
And what better place than Coney Island? Edison was looking for publicity, and Coney Island’s grand opening (in just a few months) would have full-tilt electrical lighting and ample press coverage.
So, on a gray, gloomy day in early January 1903 Coney Island workers reluctantly led Topsy, with a heavy rope around her head, to the hanging scaffold that had been converted into an electrocution platform. She wore copper sandals and some more ropes (to hold her in place while workers attached electrodes to two of her legs; lifting her legs on command was one of her circus tricks), and the workers fed her carrots stuffed with cyanide, just in case.
Approximately 1,500 off-season spectators watched (see LYNCH) 6,000 volts jolt Topsy to the ground, and the New York Times reported:
There was a bit of smoke for an instant. Topsy raised her trunk as if to protest, then shook, bent to her knees, fell and rolled over on her right side motionless. All this took a matter of ten seconds. There had been no sound and hardly a conscious movement of the body, outside the raising of the trunk when the current was first felt. In two minutes from the time of turning on the current (the veterinary in charge) pronounced Topsy dead.
Today you can go to Coney Island (what an advertising friend calls “Disney on Crack”) and visit the Topsy Memorial (which opened in 2003) in the Coney Island Museum on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn. ‘Memorial’ and ‘Museum’ should be taken with two grains of salt. Hole in the wall would be more appropriate. Just walk down the boardwalk, past the Shoot the Freak concession (where you can shoot paint balls at two scrambling midgets; five dollars gets you fifteen shots) and take a right.
Once inside, a woman will hand you a penny for the machine so that you can watch a film of Topsy’s electrocution (also posted below). You have Edison to thank for that: He had the foresight to have it filmed for posterity. Posterity, that’s us.