Geek Trivia

Which Famous Inventor Allegedly Electrocuted An Elephant To Discredit His Competition?

Thomas Edison
Henry Ford
Orville Wright
Alexander Graham Bell
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Answer: Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a brilliant and prolific inventor, but he was also a cut-throat businessman who fought dirty to protect his patents and subsequent royalty money. Among his many accomplishments, such as inventing an incandescent light bulb with a long lasting filament, carbon microphones, and the first commercial fluoroscope, was the promotion of early electrical distribution networks based on direct current (DC).

Unfortunately, direct current is a fairly poor candidate compared to alternating current (AC) when it comes to wide range distribution since it is more difficult to transfer over long distances. Alternating current can be stepped up to high voltages with the use of transformers, transferred over thinner and less expensive wires, and be regulated at the destination. By contrast, direct current can only be transferred, economically, in about a one mile radius around the point of generation.

During the infancy of electrical distribution in the United States, Edison was a fierce promoter of DC over AC distribution. Opposite him were George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla (a significant contributor to the development of the AC distribution system) who promoted AC current as a more economical and practical method of achieving a wide-reaching power grid. Not one to be easily dissuaded (and in no hurry to lose his royalty money), Edison started what would later become known as the War of Currents.

How far would things escalate in the War of Currents? Edison sought to convince the public that alternating current was deadlier than direct current. Technically speaking, there is a marginally higher chance of cardiac arrest when exposed to alternating current, but the entire matter is akin to arguing that between two types of poison, one is more advisable to drink than the other—direct contact with an electrical distribution system is never advisable. To this end, Edison colluded with Harold Brown to electrocute animals using alternating current in order to demonstrate how dangerous it was. Initially, the animals were small, stray dogs, but things escalated quickly.

In 1903, a perfect candidate to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current was found. At Coney Island’s Luna Park, there was an elephant named Topsy that was slated to be put to death for killing three people—in fairness, one of the people killed by Topsy was her severely abusive handler. A public execution of the animal was set up wherein 6,600 volts of alternating current were passed through the elephant’s body (combined with poison and steam-powered winches to tighten two nooses as backup measures), killing it in seconds. It was a grisly scene. Decades later, Luna Park would burn to the ground, an event popularly referred to as “Topsy’s Revenge”.

Interestingly, although Edison had been directly involved in the electrocution of animals as part of his campaigning for the adoption of DC electrical systems, the close association of him with the particular events at Coney Island may be largely due to historical confusion over the matter. News reporting of the event simply said that Edison company electricians were on hand and films of the event had Thomas Edison’s name on them, but at the time of the Topsy execution, Edison was effectively retired from the company and it’s more likely the event was simply handled in the spirit of his efforts and not directly under his supervision. Given his history, however, you can see how the public simply assumed it was him at the helm.

Animal cruelty wasn’t the only component of Edison’s widespread smear campaign on alternating current (and on Westinghouse himself). Although Edison was opposed to capital punishment, he influenced the construction of the first electric chairs in order to steer the engineers towards using alternating current instead of direct current. He then attempted to inject “getting Westinghoused” into popular usage to refer to getting killed by electrocution. Ultimately, his efforts to discredit his opponents failed and pure economics won out. Although tiny pockets of DC distribution held out as late as 2007 (in the form of a small business district in New York City that relied on direct current), even those tiny distribution centers have vanished and the entire United States runs off of alternating current.

Image – Public Domain.