(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.)
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?"
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.
An eternity to watch someone die.
The next day, Thomas Edison danced to the newspaper headline.
The banner read, "Kemmler Westinghoused."
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.