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Death, Money, and the History of the Electric Chair

The history of the electric chair and death by execution.

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SING SING PRISON ELECTRIC CHAIR
Archive Holdings Inc./ The Image Bank/ Getty Images
During the 1880's two developments set the stage for the invention of the electric chair. Beginning in 1886, the New York State Government established a legislative commission to study alternate forms of capitol punishment. Hanging was then the number one method of carrying out the death penalty, even while considered too slow and painful a method of execution. Another development was the growing rivalry between the two giants of electrical service. The Edison General Electric Company founded by Thomas Edison established themselves with DC service. George Westinghouse developed AC service and started the Westinghouse Corporation.

What is AC? What is DC?

DC (direct current) is electric current that flows in one direction only. AC (alternating current) is electric current that reverses direction in a circuit at regular intervals.

The Birth of Electrocution

DC service depended on thick copper electrical cables, copper prices were rising at that time, DC service was limited by not being able to supply customers who lived beyond a few miles of a DC generator. Thomas Edison reacted to the competition and the prospect of losing to AC service by starting a smear campaign against Westinghouse, claiming that AC technology was unsafe to use. In 1887, Edison held a public demonstration in West Orange, New Jersey, supporting his accusations by setting up a 1,000 volt Westinghouse AC generator attaching it to a metal plate and executing a dozen animals by placing the poor creatures on the electrified metal plate. The press had a field day describing the horrific event and the new term " electrocution " was used to describe death by electricity.

On June 4, 1888, the New York Legislature passed a law establishing electrocution as the state's new official method of execution, however, since two potential designs (AC and DC) of the electric chair existed, it was left to a committee to decide which form to choose. Edison actively campaigned for the selection of the Westinghouse chair hoping that consumers would not want the same type of electrical service in their homes that was used for execution.

Later in 1888, the Edison research facility hired inventor Harold Brown. Brown had recently written a letter to the New York Post describing a fatal accident where a young boy died after touching an exposed telegraph wire running on AC current. Brown and his assistant Doctor Fred Peterson began designing an electric chair for Edison, publicly experimenting with DC voltage to show that it left the poor lab animals tortured but not dead, then testing AC voltage to demonstrate how AC killed swiftly.

Doctor Peterson was the head of the government committee selecting the best design for an electric chair, while still on the payroll of the Edison Company. It was not surprising when the committee announced that the electric chair with AC voltage was chosen for the statewide prison system.

Westinghoused

On January 1, 1889, the world's first electrical execution law went into full effect. Westinghouse protested the decision and refused to sell any AC generators directly to prison authorities. Thomas Edison and Harold Brown provided the AC generators needed for the first working electric chairs. 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".

Edison's plan to bring on the demise of Westinghouse failed, and it soon became clear that AC technology was vastly superior to DC technology. Edison finally admitted years later that he had thought so himself all along.

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