Today, the strange origin of the electric chair.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1875 the inventor
Nikola Tesla was a student
at the Austrian Polytechnic Institute. When he
brashly suggested that electric motors would run
better on alternating current, his professor asked
where a bright student came up with such claptrap.
There was no way to make an AC motor. Six years
later, in Budapest, Tesla walked through the park
at sundown, reciting sad lines from Goethe's
Faust. The aging Faust, who'd failed
to uncover the secrets of nature, thought about
sunset and the end of life:
The glow retreats, done in the day of
It yonder hastes, new fields of life
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil,
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!
Then it hit him. Maybe Faust
was stuck, but he wasn't. He
suddenly saw what to do with the electric field of
a motor to make alternating current work.
Three years later Tesla went
to work for Edison in the United States. He
tried to interest Edison in AC but was told that
the idea was downright un-American. Tesla and
Edison soon parted company. Tesla managed to get
funding from the financier J.P. Morgan, and he
issued a series of AC patents starting in 1887. He
soon convinced George Westinghouse to put his money
into the development of AC power systems.
Edison's response was downright maniacal. He
launched an appalling campaign to discredit
Westinghouse and Tesla. The idea was to show that
AC was too dangerous to use. He invited reporters
to demonstrations where stray dogs and cats were
placed on metal sheets and electrocuted with 1000
volts of AC.
Next, Edison took out a commercial license to use
AC. The world found out why after he'd made
clandestine visits to Auburn Prison. He'd built an
electric chair. Now the American public would see
what AC could do to a human being. Before the chair
was first used on a fellow named William Kemmler,
Edison's people started killing larger animals in
their demonstrations. "Is this what your wife
should be cooking with?" they asked.
When poor Mr. Kemmler was taken to the chair to be
-- as the Edison people put it -- "Westinghoused,"
the voltage was too low. A half-dead Kemmler had to
be electrocuted a second time to finish him off.
All this served Edison's purpose, of course. There
was no need for Kemmler's passing to be a pleasant
In the end, Tesla's AC prevailed, but it took
twenty years for Edison to admit defeat. The
electric chair also prevailed. I strongly doubt
that capital punishment really springs from any
desire to see justice done. It surely comes from
some much darker corner of our collective psyche.
And the invention of the electric chair certainly
leaves us with little to be proud of.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Cheney, M., Tesla: Man Out of Time. New York:
Dell, 1981 (note especially Chapter 5).
O'Neill, J. J., Prodigal Genius: The Life of
Nikola Tesla, New York: David McKay Co. 1944.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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