Saturday, June 11, 2011

Electrocuting an elephant

Topsy the Elephant

The recent movie Water for Elephants tells the story of a veterinary student who abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a travelling circus as their vet.  The film is based on a 2007 book by Sara Gruen, who has cited a Coney Island elephant, Topsy, as part of the inspiration for the fictional circus elephant Rosie. 

Topsy was born in about 1875 and was a domesticated elephant with the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island’s Luna Park.  Over a period of 3 years she killed three men, including an abusive trainer who thought it was funny to feed her a lit cigarette. Topsy was deemed a threat to safety and was to be put to death by hanging.  The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in and said no way.  This left the owners in a quandary as to how to do the deed.

Thomas Edison

Enter Thomas Edison.

What, Thomas Edison the inventor?

Yes, him.

Edison invented or developed such diverse items as the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the long lasting light bulb, the stock ticker, a battery for an electric car and electrical power.  Much of his fame is associated with having originated and implemented electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses and factories.

It is not as well known that Edison was not a nice chap and that many of his inventions and patents came from other people, he either having bought the rights (eg the light bulb) or having had ownership rights in that the inventions were developed by employees.

The War of the Currents

There was a problem with the electrical power generated and distributed by Edison’s power stations, which by 1887 numbered 121.  Edison used direct current, which had the limitation that it could be economically delivered only to customers within a 2.5 kilometre radius from the power station. 

One of Edison’s former assistants, Nikola Tesla, had developed an alternative form of electrical power, Alternating current (AC), which could be stepped up to high voltages by the use of transformers, sent over thinner and cheaper wires and the stepped down again at the end that was receiving it and then distributed to users.  Direct current flows in one direction only whereas alternating current reverses direction in a circuit at regular intervals.  Direct current was sent through thick copper wires, a more expensive exercise in that copper prices were rising at the time.

Alternating current was promoted by Edison’s main rival, Georeg Westinghouse, who pointed out that whereas Edison’s direct current was really only suitable for central business district users, alternating current could be sent for many hundreds of kilometres with minimal loss.

(The origin of the band name AC/DC is that Margaret Young, the sister of original band members Michael and Angus Young, saw the initials on a sewing machine.  The brothers felt that the name AC/DC rep[resented the band’s power-driven performances and raw energy).

Edison responded to the competition from Westinghouse with a massive, aggressive propaganda campaign that told the public that alternating current was unsafe. 

The campaigns and competition between the two forms of current became known as The War of the Currents.

The electric chair

Notwithstanding that in later years Edison boasted that “I am proud of the fact that I have never invented weapons to kill”, it was Edison’s electrical chair design that was adopted in 1890 as a new, supposedly more humane alternative to execution by hanging.  Edison did not invent the electric chair, that was done by Edison employees Harold Brown and Dr Fred Peterson.  Dr Petersen was also the head of the committee responsible for making the decision on the best design for an electric chair.

As part of The War of the Currents, Edison campaigned that AC should be used in that it was deadlier and more likely to kill. Edison reasoned that people would be unlikely to want the same electricity in their homes and businesses that was used to execute people.   In 1887 Edison had purported to demonstrate the danger by electrocuting more than a dozen animals using alternating current.  In later years Edison made the further comment in support of his avowed policy of no-violence that "Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”  Edison was also supposedly against capital punishment.

The committee chose alternating current for use in the new form of execution, a decision opposed by Westinghouse who refused to sell any AC generators to prison authorities.  Edison and Brown stepped in to assist by secretly acquiring and providing 3 Westinghouse generators.

George Westinghouse funded the appeals for the first prisoners sentenced to death by electrocution, made on the grounds that "electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment." Edison and Brown both testified for the State that execution was a quick and painless form of death and the State of New York won the appeals. Ironically, for many years people referred to the process of being electrocuted in the chair as being "Westinghoused".  The term “electrocution” originally referred only to execution by electricity but later came to be applied to all forms of death by electricity.

The first person to be executed by electric chair was William Kemmler, executed on 6 August 1890 for killing his lover with an axe.  The execution was botched.  The 17 second burst of electricity cause him to lose consciousness but not to cause death, his heart and breathing continuing.  The second burst took place after the generator had charged up again, causing Kemmler’s body to catch fire.  The New York Herald reported that “Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”  Another reporter asserted that it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."  George Westinghouse summed up the execution:  “They would have done better with an axe.”

Nonetheless various states adopted the electric chair as the preferred means of execution, so that by 1910 at least 20 states had adopted it.

Enter the elephant

Which brings us back to Topsy, the elephant.

Topsy had been sentenced to death by her owners in 1903.  Hanging having been vetoed by the SPCA, Thomas Edison stepped into the breach as part of The War of the Currents and offered to do the deed using Westinghouse’s alternating current, again as a demonstration of the inherent risk in that form of electricity.

To make sure that Topsy did die, she was fed cyanide laced carrots immediately prior to the electrocution.

She was fitted with wooden sandals with copper inserts, she was tethered to poles front and rear, then electricity was sent through her body.  She dies in seconds with 1,500 people in attendance to see the spectacle.

Edison filmed the execution and showed the film throughout the United States in furtherance of his smear campaign.

When Luna Park burned down in 1946, it was dubbed “Topsy’s Revenge.”

In 2003 a memorial plaque was erected for Topsy in Coney Island Museum.

Edison’s film of the execution is able to be viewed at:

The finale

Edison failed to vanquish alternating current.  Its superior qualities and technology, cheaper cost and greater ease of delivery made it the preferred choice and it eventually became the norm.

Allegations of increased risk were ill founded in that the use of transformers minimised any additional risk.

According to author Margaret Cheney “Edison would much later admit that the biggest mistake he ever made was in trying to develop direct current, rather than the vastly superior alternating.”

He also admitted that he had thought so himself all along.

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