Geek Trivia

Which Famous Inventor Electrocuted An Elephant To Discredit His Competition?

Henry Ford
Orville Wright
Alexander Graham Bell
Thomas Edison
Which of These Sci-Fi Ships Was Once Slated for a Full-Size Replica in Las Vegas?

Answer: Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a brilliant and prolific inventor; he was also a cutthroat businessman that fought dirty to protect his patents and subsequent royalty money. Among his many accomplishments–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 as it is more difficult to transfer over long distances. Alternating current can be stepped up to high voltages with transformers, transferred over thinner and less expensive wires, and then regulated at the destination. By contrast, direct current can only be transferred, economically, in about a one and a half 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 (the promoter of and inventor of the AC distribution system, respectively) 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 be 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 hired technicians to electrocute animals using alternating current in order to demonstrate how dangerous it was. Initially, the animals were small, stray cats and dogs, but things escalated quickly.

In 1903 Edison found a perfect candidate to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. 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 his severely abusive handler. Edison set up a public execution of the animal wherein 6,600 volts of alternating current were passed through the elephant’s body, 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”.

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 participated in the construction of the first widely used electric chairs in order to steer the engineers towards using alternating current instead of direct current. He then went on to attempt 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 2005 (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 alternating current.

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