Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Coney Island Baby

One hundred and nine years ago today, on January 4 1903, an elephant named “Topsy” was purposefully electrocuted on New York’s Coney Island. Topsy had been sentenced to death for wildly killing three men in as many years. At least one of the men Topsy killed was an abusive trainer who fed the elephant lit cigarettes for laughs. The sentence was initially to be carried out by hanging, but more rational heads prevailed.

Thomas Edison, who lost a bid to electrify New York City with his direct current electricity (DC) had been flamboyantly demonstrating the dangers of alternating current electricity (AC) ever since. Edison had been puttering about killing stray dogs, cats, cattle, and horses for his demonstration purposes, and he jumped at the chance to take on something larger. Edison referred to his process of AC electrocution as being “Westinghoused” (after the main proponent of AC).

In 1890 Edison’s technician Harold Brown (Edison himself was an outspoken critic of capital punishment) made the first electric chair. When the state of New York first used the chair on August 9th 1890 for the execution of William Kemmler they had set the current at 100 volts. This had been sufficient to kill a horse the day before so there was general confidence in the arrangement. After 17 seconds the current was turned off and Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka pronounced Kemmler dead. A couple of minutes later some of the spectators noticed that Kemmler was still breathing; though painfully. The apparatus was quickly reset to deliver 2,000 volts. During the second try Kemmler caught fire and filled the room with such sickening fumes that several spectators vomited upon themselves.

Westinghouse commented that: “They would have done better using an axe.” This may have been a slightly ironic reference to Kemmler as he had been convicted of killing his common law wife Tillie Ziegler with a hatchet (on March 29th 1889).

In order to prevent the Kemmler problems with Topsy Edison had the 28-year-old elephant fed carrots laced with 490 grams of potassium cyanide before the electrocution. It only took a few seconds at 6,600 volts to dispatch Topsy. 1,500 people witnessed the spectacle, and many thousands more have seen the film Edison made of it.

It is interesting to note that Edison’s nemesis George Westinghouse had actually procured the rights to the offending AC technology from Nicolai Tesla. Tesla had worked in Edison’s lab. Edison is famously quoted as dismissing his technician’s ideas: “[Tesla's] ideas are splendid, but they are utterly impractical.”

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