Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Westinghoused," Part 9 (Final)

(In the late 1800’s, the battle between two competing electric technologies, AC and DC currents, turned brutal. For Thomas Edison, it was a life and death struggle. This is a fictionalized version of true events in history. If you're just joining us, you can start at Part 1.)



Sketch of William Kemmler's Execution


In the primal world of the warden's mind, he pulled out his revolver and shot Kemmler in the head to end his suffering.

Except prison officials didn't carry sidearms. His days of patrolling a precinct and feeling the click of handcuffs over a suspect's wrists were long gone.

The Warden wanted to scream. "What is taking so long?"

"The voltage."

Harold Brown stood paralyzed in the doorway. "It's old equipment. They stopped us...."

A fleeting memory about the Westinghouse Company refusing to sell a generator shook through the earthquake of the warden's thoughts.

Kemmler was finding his voice, moaning.

"It's ready," the technician said.

The warden hurried back into the execution chamber. The audience's chairs were shoved in different directions. Some were standing. Each face mirrored a different reflection of the horror.

"Do it," the warden said.

The avalanche of current hit.

Kemmler rose again, as if straining to lift from the chair.

Long seconds passed. The warden gave no signal to let him down.

When he started to smoke and burn, some in the audience fainted.

Four minutes.

An eternity to watch someone die.

*****

The next day, Thomas Edison danced to the newspaper headline.

The banner read, "Kemmler Westinghoused."



Historical Note:

In the late 1800's, two technologies for electricity waged a war of supremacy. On one side, Thomas Edison championed direct current. On the other, George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Company fought for alternating current. This race for the commercial electricity market is now known as the battle of the currents.

Thomas Edison was the first. His direct current technology lit the streets in New York City, and he was looking to expand. However, Nikola Tesla, a gifted former employee of Edison, changed the playing field. His breakthrough in alternating current technology threatened to leap over Edison's system and destroy Edison's investment.

The crux of the problem was transmission.

Direct current was heavily affected by the physical property of resistance. As a result, thick, expensive wires were necessary, and transmission was limited to a couple of miles from the power plant. Lighting a few cities was fine, but how would direct current cover the countryside?

Nikola Tesla solved the problem. Using the flip-flopping principles of alternating current, he invented a practical version of the induction coil, or transformer. Using the transformer, alternating current could be stepped up to very high voltages, which enabled current to travel long distances without too much resistance. Another transformer at the destination reversed the process and delivered a usable voltage.

Thomas Edison knew his technology was inferior. To protect his financial interests, he decided to embark on a media campaign to discredit and destroy George Westinghouse and the public's perception of alternating current. He planned to portray Westinghouse's product as horrifically dangerous, unsuitable for use in the home. He planned to portray it as a swift and ruthless killer.

Harold Brown, another former Edison employee, was enlisted to write an editorial about a man he saw accidentally electrocuted. Brown then conducted a series of public demonstrations in which he electrocuted dogs, cats, and even a horse to demonstrate the viciousness of alternating current. (In truth, direct current was also deadly.) Riding the wave of publicity, Edison's political forces pushed to have death by alternating current adopted as the legal means of execution in New York. Edison and Westinghouse then fought a proxy battle using convicted murderer William Kemmler and his travels through the legal system as the pawn. In the end, Edison got his day of spectacle, but not the swift death he desired.

Despite all of Thomas Edison's maneuvering, in 1893 the Westinghouse Company was awarded the contract to build a hydroelectric dam power plant at Niagara Falls. When construction was completed in 1896 and the switch was thrown, electricity was successfully delivered many miles to Buffalo.

For Thomas Edison, the battle was lost.


Go back to Part 8.

17 comments:

the individual voice said...

Back to the deer, my comment was meant as a joke. Sorry I made it sound so serious. See the comment's comment. Sorry.

jason evans said...

Individual Voice, peace, my friend. No worries. Sorry I misconstrued it. :)

Church Lady said...

Wow, this is really interesting. I read all nine parts, and wish there were more. Thanks for giving the history behind this as well. I had no idea there were 2 companies rangling for control.

Nikola Tesla--that's a familiar name. Did he have some theory about the magnetism of the earth's poles and something about manipulating these to make the planet explode? I'm going off a 20 year old memory of an article. I want to go look this up.

Anonymous said...

I just read a few things about Tesla--Church Lady will be speaking about him within the next couple of days. Fascinating person. Simply fascinating.

CL

SzélsőFa said...

A great finish to a good series.

I have to admit that I have just read part 1-7 when part 8 appeared, but I liked it very much.

The Anti-Wife said...

One of the more inhumane ways to die. Thanks, Edison!

Ello said...

I was waiting for this too long! I told you I'm not patient! I like that we got the horror of the audience and the fainting. Felt authentic. Great ending and especially with your historical note. Who knew electricity could be so fascinating? I had no idea Edison was such a (insert bad word). Your story has now got me interested enough to go check out his and WEstinghouse's biographies. Not that I don't have enough to read!

Soooooo, what are you writing next?

jason evans said...

Church Lady, yes, Nikola Tesla was fascinating. He was way, way before his time. One of his theories related to the transmission of electricity around the globe by matching the frequency of one of the regions of Earth's atmosphere. The current would strike upward, like lightening, energize this region, then be pulled back down by an antenna on the other side of the globe. His funding ran out before he could demonstrate it.

Szelsofa, thanks, my friend. :) I enjoyed writing it. I think my next fictionalized history piece will be about Tunguska.

Anti-Wife, the more I read about the physiological process, the more horrific it sounds.

Ello, just be glad you weren't reading the series at the beginning. There was a loooong layover because of my 6th contest. (I feel bad about that.) I'll start another fiction series in a bit. Maybe something scary for Halloween. Sometime, I plan on doing a fictionalized history piece about Tunguska. In the meantime, I'll do my best to keep you interested. :)

SzélsőFa said...

Hee, you foresaw my next question. In fact, I did write it into the comments section, but deleted it for it was so obvious.
Thank you for answering!
Now, I'm off to google who/what Tunguska was/is?

The Quoibler said...

Jason:

Bravo!

One note, though: Never read any of Westinghoused while eating toast.

I have three slices left.

I can't bear to taste them.

:)

Angelique

Vesper said...

I just read all nine parts of "Westinghoused" and have to say "Bravo!" - a topic not for the faint of heart you masterfully brought before our eyes in these tense fragments of cinematographic quality. Very very very well done, Jason!
I found very interesting the choice you made for Part 3, with the reader "listening" to the sounds coming from inside the building. Very good, indeed. If I may, I would only raise one objection: I would have preferred if you hadn't switched to "visual" in the last moments of the scene.
Thank you for an excellent story.

jason evans said...

Angelique, yeah, toast...that could be a little too close for comfort. :)

Vesper, thanks for the great comment!! I really appreciate when folks take the time to go back and start a series from the beginning. :) **Glad you liked Part 3. That was an experiment. The hatchet was the POV. In the beginning, the hachet was hanging in the shed, so it could only hear what was going on. It switched to a limited visual approach later, because the hatchet was in Kemmler's hand attacking his wife. (I know, I do a lot of weird experiements in writing here, lol! Thanks for bearing with me.)

Ello said...

Scary is good! I can't wait... here I go with trying to be patient again! ;o)

Vesper said...

The hatchet, yes, well that explains everything. I like it! Well done, Jason, do go on with your experiments. :-)

jason evans said...

Ello, ha! You're a good motivator. Not a bad thing.

Vesper, you and Ello got me thinking about the next series I want to do. It will be called "The Stairs" and will be suspense/horror with (and here's the shocker) an experimental element. Go figure. ;)

Ello said...

Oooh the stairs! It reminds me of an old Korean ghost story I heard long ago about a schoolteacher that murdered his student and hid his body in the school stairwell. The kid kept getting his multiplication table wrong, messing up when he'd get to the 9's table and the teacher had inflicted corporal punishment and killed him with one too many strokes. So every night the teacher would hear a ghostly voice emanating from the stairs as it tried to recite the times table and it would always get it wrong. Until one night the voice got it right and the ghost came out and killed the teacher. Never did like math myself after that. Well, as you can see, I'm definitely in the mood for scary stories!

angel said...

so interesting dude!