May 2nd, 2004


Edison Westinghouse and the Electric Chair

There was an interesting program on the ABC radio program "The Buzz" this morning about the conflict between Edison and Westinghouse as to the relative merits of AC and DC current.

"The Buzz" is located at:-

The program being referred to is dated Saturday May 1st and is called "Executioner's Current".

(The program is available for listening via audio over the Internet from the site above).


Executioner's Current

The electric chair is a killing machine. It is a vile and uncivilised invention, but it was originally sold to the American public as a more ‘humane’ way of killing. Even more bizarrely, the chair was an offshoot of a grim commercial competition between two electrical stands: Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC) and the men behind them, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison.

Richard Moran
Professor of Sociology
Mount Holyoke College


As I understand it Edison "invented" electricity and advocated Direct Current while Westinghouse was described as a "third rate engineer" and "nothing more than a technician" and he advocated Alternating Current on the basis that AC was more efficient over long distances.

Edison and Westinghouse seemingly argued the issue at great expense with Edison claiming that Alternating Current meant higher voltages which were dangerous.

In order to help prove this experiments were carried out on dogs and as a final test Edison gave the nod of approval to the Electric Chair as a method of execution (injection, crucifixion and stoning were also being considered as hanging had proven "messy") on the basis that it would (probably) use the "more dangerous" Alternating Current.

Both Edison and Westinghouse disapproved of the death penalty but Edison seeemingly endorsed the use of the electric chair as "proof" that Alternating Currrent was far more dangerous than Direct Current.

Here's a link to the excerpt regarding the execution.

Excerpted from Executioner's Current by Richard Moran. Copyright © 2002 by Richard Moran.
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