Public Torture of a Dog Spurred Electrical Progress But Edison Shorted Out

Edison Kills Elephant As Part of Sales Pitch

Edison Kills Elephant As Part of Sales Pitch

On This Date in History:  In the late 19th century a technological competition was buzzing.  Thomas Edison favored the direct current (DC) as a method of transmitting electricity while rival George Westinghouse was in favor of the alternating current (AC).  AC was cheaper to transmit but the direct current was thought at the time to be safer.  In 1888, a self-taught consultant to all things electrical jumped into the arena of the battle of the titans, aka “the war of currents,” and things really got electrified.

Harold Pitney Brown

Harold Pitney Brown

Harold P. Brown was in favor of Edison’s DC method because of its safety.  To prove this, he took the Michael Vick approach.  He tortured dogs and other animals.  On this date in 1888, Brown went to Columbia University to make a demonstration.  He exposed a caged dog to 300 volts of DC, which was about the same AC voltage that the animal could withstand.  To better make his point, he increased the voltage; first to 400, then 500 and ultimately to 1000 volts.  The unfortunate chosen specimen was a large Newfoundland mix.  The beast howled in agony but survived the 1000 volt jolt.  That was not enough though.  Brown followed up by hooking up the poor dog to a 330 volt dose of AC and he fried.  The SPCA jumped in and called for a halt before another demonstration could be made.  Thus, this date in history was also the first time a dog was saved from public execution.   Needless to say, observers not only were not amused, they were downright angry.

Now, Brown didn’t know it but he was actually making a sales pitch because it just so happened that the state of New York had just formed a commission to find an alternative to hanging as a form of capital punishment.  The commission had considered electrocution and Brown’s demonstration got them so intrigued that they asked Edison for his opinion.  Since Edison was trying to promote electricity, particularly his “safe” DC current, he was against the use of electricity in bringing about a lethal sentence.  But, he opined that if they must do it, use Westinghouse’s version of the AC current.  A pretty slick way to promote his argument that AC was so dangerous that they used it in execution.

"improved" Brown Invention at Sing Sing

"improved" Brown Invention at Sing Sing

Just a few months later on January 1, 1889 New York became the first state to make electrocution the favored way to bring about death  to the condemned.  And who do you suppose they hired as their expert consultant.  Why, Harold P. Brown, of course!  And what did he do to earn his pay?  Why, he invented the electric chair.    Now, the law did not specify what  type of current was to be used. But,  Brown used AC with the hope that it would bring so much bad publicity to Westinghouse and his “executioners current.”  The first man to be executed by the electric chair was said to have been “Westinghoused.”   In spite of Brown using a Westinghouse AC dynamo for his chair, his scheme failed.  Because of the lower distribution costs, Westinghouse’s AC current eventually won the electric war.  Just in case over the last few months you forgot how capitalism works….the person who can deliver a service or product at a lower cost usually gets the job.  Besides, as long as the AC current is insulated and installed properly, it can be transmitted safely as it generally has been from the late 19th century to the present day.  There is at least one anti-Thomas Edison faction out there who claims that the only original invention of Thomas Alva Edison was the electric chair.  But, that charge is patently false.  That claim belongs to Harold P. Brown.

Artist's rendering of Kemler getting Char-Broiled

Artist's rendering of Kemler getting Char-Broiled

Now, the war of the currents wasn’t over.  See, a convicted murderer, William Kemler, was first to make it all the way to the electric chair.  None other than George Westinghouse tried to come to his rescue, testifying that electricution through the use of one of his AC dynamos hooked up to a chair was cruel and unsual punishment.  Who testified for the opposition?  Harold P. Brown and Thomas Alva Edison.  They convinced the  court everything was just fine and dandy and on August 6, 1890 Kemler became the first person to die in the electric chair.  While Kemler probably wasn’t feeling too cheerful, Westinghouse may have had the last laugh. 

deadjimYou see…they messed up the execution and Kemler did not  die with the first jolt of electricity.  Just like the Newfoundland, Kemler suffered in agony from an initial jolt.  His breathing had stopped but not his heart.  So, they gave him another jolt.  The autopsy showed the Kemler’s organs had carbonized.  In other words he burned to death…or was fried, if you like.  Again the public was not amused but Brown went back to the drawing board and “improved” his invention.  25 states followed up with adopting the electric chair as the primary form of execution.  By the late 20th century, just about all states (if not every one) had gotten rid of the electric chair because several courts had indeed ruled it was cruel and unusual punishment, as Westinghouse had said at the end of the 19th century.  Other states just did so because lethal injection was so much easier to sell to the public since it was like putting the old dog “to sleep.”  A humane death, unless you are the one who gets the same result you would get whether you’re hanged, shot, fried or injected with drugs. You’re still dead.   Edison still didn’t give up.  In 1901, he made a film that re-enacted the execution of the assassin of President McKinley.   He electrocuted an elephant on Jan 3 1904 and even filmed it (actual footage of elephant execution).  Didn’t change a thing except kill the elephant.

Thursday Evening

Thursday Evening

Weather Bottom Line:  Guess when the main wave came through on Wednesday.  By the time it got out of here it had dropped about 2 inches of rain from around 1 am to 9 am.  Then there was scattered activity later in the day.  I should think from the late night Wednesday data we have a similar situation ahead but reversed.  It would appear we have some relatively minor disturbances coming through the flow on Thursday and that should kick off scattered stuff, particularly in the afternoon.  I’ve some reports that say Thursday night we get another strong wave that will bring a lot of rain.  But, the way the data looks at this time, it looks more to me like we had on Wednesday which is a period of rain and t’storms after midnight on Thursday through sunrise Friday.  Either way, it still doesn’t look like any large scale severe events on the way, just more rain and continued mercury levels way below seasonal norms.


4 Responses

  1. Gosh those poor animals! I guess it goes to show that our attitudes toward animals have changed quite a bit in the last 120 years. Back when we were a more agrarian nation I think most tended to think of animals as commodities for commerce and utility and not much else. Harold Brown needed to make a demonstration so electrocuted some dogs and an elephant and probably didn’t lose any sleep over it. Now Mr. Brown would be tried as a criminal (ala Michael Vick). This shows a tremendous shift in attitudes that I think is due to the fact that most folks today have never even been on a farm and don’t associate their chicken nuggets with an actual animal running around. Most get their views of animals from Bambi, Benji and My Little Pony which is kind of silly. I think somewhere in between Mr. Brown and PETA is where we actually need to be.

    So, who’s the new meteorologist at WAVE? I was hoping that they got the best guy available, whom we both know, but I didn’t get to hear the announcement.

  2. I”m out of the loop on the answer, but I have an idea. If you think that the best person available is out there and they didn’t go that direction, then either you are wrong and that person is not the best available or, they are not interested in getting the best available, right?

    I don’t let Nit and Wit see postings like this one…they may think that folks may try this stuff on cats instead of dogs!

  3. That certainly clears things up. That was almost as vague as Lincoln’s famous book review: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

    Well, here’s hoping for the best!

  4. …well, I saw the announcement: WAVE didn’t get the best, I’m afraid. I’ll reserve judgement until after I see the new “weather babe” on the air, of course, but I hope that there’s something there other than a pretty face. I don’t know how it is for most folks, but I don’t tune in the weather to see some hot young thing strutting around on the screen: I want the weather and I want it to be substantially correct!!! Hopefully this newest addition to WAVE will have some substance–at least she’s from around here. That should help. I mean you’re replacing Tom Wills, for crying out loud! Those are some large, experienced shoes to fill. For my part I think that WHAS and WLKY have taken some steps backward in their changes to their weather departments as of late. I hope that WAVE hasn’t made the same mistake. Time will tell. Thankfully, I can still get the weather from you on line!

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