Thomas Edison (1847-1931) is best known as the inventor of the phonograph, the motion picture camera and a long-lasting, practical electric lightbulb. He is hailed and celebrated as a great technical innovator. While this is all true, not many people know of the ruthless measures he took to achieve a monopoly over the American electricity market, which involved, among other things, staging a series of gruesome animal executions. In the decades around 1900, he went around publicly electrocuting cats, dogs, horses, cows, an orang-utan and even an elephant.
He wasn’t mad, or, as far as we know, a sadist. The electrocutions were only the tip of a campaign he launched in the late 1880s against alternating current (AC) which was promoted by his business competitors George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Edison, who had established direct current (DC) as the standard for electricity distribution, was living off the royalties and in no mood to lose out to AC. Playing to popular fears, Edison’s main argument was that alternating current was much more dangerous than his own direct current. Westinghouse recalled Edison telling people that ‘direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice’. It was in order to illustrate this that he publicly electrocuted animals using alternating current – a procedure which he snidely referred to as getting ‘Westinghoused’.
The most publicised and extraordinary electrocution which Edison staged was the electrocution by AC of a 28 year old Indian elephant named Topsy, in Central Park on January 4th 1903. Many contemporary observers would have noted that Topsy ‘had it coming’, as she apparently had something of a chequered history. She had killed three trainers in as many years at Luna Park in Coney Island, where she would have been used for elephant rides. One of the trainers was severely abusive and had attempted to feed her a lit cigarette, but in the eyes of her owners this did not excuse her from punishment, and she was deemed too great a threat to live. A means of killing initially discussed was hanging, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested, and other ways were considered. Edison, who had pioneered the electrocution of human prisoners, suggested executing the elephant with the alternating current.
Topsy was restrained using a ship’s hawser fastened on one end to a steam-powered winch and on the other to a post. Wooden sandals with copper electrodes were attached to her feet and a copper wire was run to the AC plant, where his technicians awaited the go-ahead. In order to make sure that she would die regardless of the result of the electric current, Topsy was secretly fed cyanide-laced carrots moments before the electrocution. Edison needn’t have worried; the 6,600-volt AC current which was sent coursing through her body killed her instantaneously. According to at least one contemporary account she died ‘without a trumpet or a groan’. The event was witnessed by an estimated 1500 people and Edison’s film of the event, titled Electrocuting an Elephant, was broadcast to audiences throughout the United States as part of his anti-AC propaganda.
What did Edison actually gain from all this slaughter? The answer is, not much. In the end, Westinghouse’s alternating current won out. DC’s great disadvantage was that the generators could only deliver electricity to customers within a 2.4 km range, whereas high-voltage AC could carry electricity hundreds of miles with marginal loss of power.