School taught me everything about Thomas Edison except the not so nice parts.
Growing up near the birthplace of Thomas Edison, I was able to learn a great deal about him. I visited the museum that was once his home in Milan, Ohio and viewed the tiny collection of inventions housed inside. As an adolescent, I admired and was impressed with the accomplishments and creations from the mind of Edison. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned the truth and changed my opinion completely.
In the classroom, I remember learning about Thomas Edison and all his grand inventions that forever helped humanity. The teachers raved about his brilliant mind and reminded us to be thankful to him for the advancements in electricity that we are able to enjoy today. However, I don’t remember learning about the countless animals tortured, electrocuted, and killed at the hands of Edison for the sake of proving a point.
I gained the knowledge about Edison’s less than admirable deeds when my own curiosity brought me to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. In that 3 page article, I learned more about Edison than I had ever been taught in school. Even though the darker moments of Edison’s history aren’t included in most, if any, classroom curriculums, that doesn’t mean the sinister moments did not occur.
War of the Currents
In the late 1880’s Edison waged the “War of the Currents” against George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla who proposed to existing power companies that their alternating current (AC) was more easily transmitted than Edison’s direct current (DC). Edison was determined and seemingly driven by profit to convince the public that his form of electricity distribution was superior. He devised a series of propaganda to validate his claims.
Edison’s main focus became showing the public that AC was much more dangerous to use than DC. Thereafter, he orchestrated a display of death and torture several times before thousands of eyes, even recording some of the events on video.
Thomas Edison’s Horror Show:
- Dogs, cats, cows, and horses were used in Edison’s demonstrations.
- The animals were first subjected to survivable electrocution by DC and finally, fatally electrocuted by AC.
- One of the first demonstrations involved a large breed dog named, Dash. Dash was first shocked with 1000 volts of DC and then horribly and painfully electrocuted to death by 300 volts of AC.
- An allegedly violent elephant named, Topsy, that was abused by her trainer was used in one of Edison’s public demos. The elephant was electrocuted for 1,500 people to see. The event was recorded and released under the title, “Electrocuting an Elephant”.
- The last victim was no cat, dog, or elephant…he was a human. Edison held one last demonstration which involved criminal, William Kemmler. Kemmler was electrocuted to death in the first electric chair. He burned from the inside out for 4 minutes and 17 seconds, finally bursting into flames and dying.
- All of these acts were done to support Edison’s self-serving agendas; to discredit Tesla, prove that AC is too dangerous for home use, and to keep Edison in big business with his DC.
Who won the war?
The fact of the matter is that there was no clear winner in the war of currents. Both sides benefited.
With Edison’s attempts to prove the dangers of AC, he successfully provided a new means of killing. Not only did he help create and promote the electric chair, he also demonstrated its capabilities for the first time. By trying to discredit AC and frighten its future users, Edison managed to do the opposite. He showed the world of the power of AC and made it desirable to those who sought to gain just that…power.
Today, Thomas Edison’s direct current is still used in most subways and powers computers, LEDs, solar cells and electric vehicles. However, the competitor, alternating current, replaced DC in most instances of power distribution and generation. DC just couldn’t match the efficiency and range that AC was capable of.
To learn more about the war of the currents, including newspaper clippings about the AC demonstrations, visit the Smithsonian.