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Correcting a Misquote in the Edison vs. Tesla re "Battle of Currents"

Correcting a Misquote in the Edison vs. Tesla re "Battle of Currents" - RF Cafe

"...an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." You will find that quote used many places in reference to the well-known battle between Thomas Edison with his DC power distribution system and Nikola Tesla with his AC power distribution system (aka the "War of Currents"). It derives from a headline in the August 7, 1890 edition of the New York Times that read thus: "Far Worse Than Hanging." Edison and his attack dogs did constantly and mercilessly haunt Tesla and his underwriter, corporate magnate George Westinghouse, with a lot of vicious quotes and actions. Most nastiness attributed to Edison is factual. As normally misrepresented, the article is an attack directed specifically against the horror of Tesla's AC current being used in an execution by electrocution as opposed to the - to be inferred by the reader - more humane form of execution by Edison's DC current. However, after scanning the entirety of the original "Far Worse Than Hanging" article from the NYT's archives, I cannot find even a hint that the writer meant to impugn Tesla's AC and absolve Edison's DC. The story merely reported, in gory detail, the procedure and witnesses' thoughts on the outcome. In fact, when Edison, who was not present, was asked to comment, his criticism was not on the use of electricity as a means of execution, but that the doctors, "with their knowledge of nerves and nerve centers," made a mistake in placing the electrodes on the top of the felon's* head and at the base of the spine so that the shock would attack the spinal column. He reflected that thirty or so people had been seen to die instantly upon coming in contact with high voltage wires with their two hands. Accordingly, Edison's recommended method was to insert the hands in jars of water "with a little potash added" to increase conduction, in order to have the current pass directly through the heart. He reasoned that the lack of water in the scalp and the skull bone created too much resistance for a clean electrocution at the available voltage (700-1,700 volts, which varied during the procedure). Even placing dampened sponges between the skin and the electrodes was not very effective. High voltage was deemed to be the solution.

BTW, George Westinghouse, upon hearing of the execution, said "They could have done better with an axe." There are reportedly 8 states that still use the electric chair.

* I use the term "felon" rather than "victim" in reference to William Kemmler because he was a convicted murderer condemned to death in Buffalo, New York. The person he murdered was the victim.

See also Nikola Tesla - Master of Lightning.



Posted July 16, 2012

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