A Ridiculously Brief History of Electricity


Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse

In 1884, a 28 year old Serbian visionary, Nikola Tesla, immigrated to America with a clear ambition. He was going to harness Niagra Falls and produce vast quantities of electrical energy.  Seeing that Thomas Edison’s laboratories were the most famous and successful purveyors of electrification, he headed there.  Unfortunately for Thomas Edison, Tesla’s vision did not embrace direct current, which Edison was convinced was the way to go.  Edison fired Tesla.

The genius of the unemployed Tesla did not go unnoticed.  He was soon working for Edison’s primary competitor, George Westinghouse. Westinghouse had an uncanny knack of harvesting the patents of geniuses like William Stanley Jr.. and Nikola Tesla, who had the vision to realize that AC distribution was the path to America’s industrial future.  By the late 1890s, the Westinghouse AC system had won out, and Edison’s electrical fortunes had all but disappeared.

"The Battle of the Currents" between Edison and Westinghouse is legendary.  Edison went so far as to demonstrate the dangers of AC electricity by publicly electrocuting animals.  Edison even tried introducing the verb “to Westinghouse” for the executions of persons with AC current.  Edison’s public persona reached its lowest point when he electrocuted an elephant.

Edison and Westinghouse and the Electric Chair

In 1888, Harold P. Brown, an inventor in Edison’s East Orange lab, who had performed a number of electrocution experiments on dogs, met with the superintendent of New York prisons to arrange (unbeknownst to Westinghouse) for the purchase of Westinghouse AC generators to power the electric chair.  Behind the scenes, Edison began calling the electric chair the Westinghouse chair, to scare off potential customers of Westinghouse’s AC system.  Needless to say, Westinghouse was not pleased.  He spent significant capital on legal expenses to try to have electrocution made illegal, as cruel and unusual punishment.

As testament to Westinghouse’s opposition to electrocution, the first electrocution, on August 6, 1890, went horribly wrong.  The process took nearly five grisly minutes and ended with the victim bleeding and ablaze.

"The man never suffered a bit of pain!"
George Fell, executioner's assistance to first electrocution
"We live in a higher civilization from this day on."
Alfred P. Southwick, inventor of the electric chair
"They would have done better with an axe."
George Westinghouse

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