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Edison, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrocution
October 12, 2011 6:18 AM   Subscribe

When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity “is a good idea,” Edison said at the time. “It will be so quick that the criminal can’t suffer much.” He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be “Westinghoused.”
posted by monju_bosatsu (54 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Edison was a lot of things, a colossal asshole was just one of them.
posted by tommasz at 6:28 AM on October 12, 2011 [21 favorites]


Poor Topsy.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:29 AM on October 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


Poor Topsy

And the calves, horses, and all other animals killed, maimed, or otherwise tortured in pursuit of science and progress.
posted by lpcxa0 at 6:31 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Say what you want about Steve Jobs, at least he didn't kill anybody.
posted by empath at 6:33 AM on October 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


Just because you can kill someone with electricity doesn't mean that you should.
posted by arcticseal at 6:36 AM on October 12, 2011


And I thought I was up-to-date on current events.
posted by mazola at 6:37 AM on October 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


Say what you want about Steve Jobs, at least he didn't kill anybody.

I believe that's written on his tombstone.
posted by mazola at 6:38 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


To his credit, Westinghouse never attempted to kill an animal with one of Edison's batteries.
posted by three blind mice at 6:39 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Say what you want about Steve Jobs, at least he didn't kill anybody.

Not directly anyway.
posted by three blind mice at 6:46 AM on October 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


Steve Jobs conducted himself well, despite having resisted electrocution lessons as a kid.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:58 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The article is good, but just a slight window into the rivalry between Edison, Telsa, and Westinghouse. If you want to read more, consider Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes. Not a technical book, it's a history of how the world got electrified, the people involved, and their relationships.
posted by Argyle at 7:03 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


WESTINGHOUSE HIM!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:07 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Edison was a jerk and he was obsessed with getting things done his way no matter what. He liked DC electricity and so, by God, the world would bloody well use DC electricity or Edison would act like a massive jerk.

The minor detail that absent modern HVDC equipment you can't actually transmit DC over much distance and that under Edison's plan you'd need a power station every few city blocks, meaning that electricity would be a playtoy of the rich didn't seem to bother Edison at all.

Note that Edison also sent gangs of thugs around to collect "royalties" from people who owned nickelodeons. Nevermind that their nickelodeons used a different technology from the one Edison patented, far as he was concerned he owned moving pictures and if they didn't pay Edison's thugs would smash their equipment.

Basically Edison is one of the most despicable people lionized by mainstream American culture. He also didn't invent most of the stuff he patented. He hired people, had them sign contracts saying that anything they invented Edison got all the credit for, and that accounts for most of his patents.
posted by sotonohito at 7:09 AM on October 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


So Edison was the Michael Vick of his day.
posted by VicNebulous at 7:21 AM on October 12, 2011


He also didn't invent most of the stuff he patented. He hired people, had them sign contracts saying that anything they invented Edison got all the credit for, and that accounts for most of his patents.

I've long been interested in Edison's reputation as a scientist/engineer when he was really the first "fully-realized scientific capitalist" -- ie, while other people had benefited from others' design work, Edison built it up into a going concern.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:23 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Steve Jobs exploited a regulation loophole and his private jet to get ahead of others in the transplant queue.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 7:25 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


He also didn't invent most of the stuff he patented. He hired people, had them sign contracts saying that anything they invented Edison got all the credit for, and that accounts for most of his patents.

This is unlikely. Under American law, inventors must be the real and true inventor or any patent issued would be invalid. Sure Edison hired engineers and the Edison Company took patents on their inventions, but this is what every engineering company does.

Westinghouse, on the other hand, had the nerve and imagination to reject "not invented here." Westinhouse would go out and BUY other people's patents and improve on them. Westinghouse bought Tesla's patents. This is how the Westinghouse company (which was built on pneumatic braking system for railroads) got into the power generation and distribution business.
posted by three blind mice at 7:26 AM on October 12, 2011


Say what you want about Steve Jobs, at least he didn't kill anybody.

"Did you see the new suicide machines?"
"Oh my god, they're gorgeous. I'm so totally killing myself. Just as soon as the lines die down."
"I know. My friend's already online at the midtown store. Tomorrow at 9AM he's going to be stone dead."
"Lucky bastard. He made out his will and everything?"
"NO! That's the thing, didn't you watch the video? They do all the estate planning and everything automatically. You just set cremated/buried/plasticized in the settings app."
"Fuck. That's unbelievable. I wish I were dead right now!"
posted by PlusDistance at 7:28 AM on October 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


Basically Edison is one of the most despicable people lionized by mainstream American culture. He also didn't invent most of the stuff he patented. He hired people, had them sign contracts saying that anything they invented Edison got all the credit for, and that accounts for most of his patents.

Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:30 AM on October 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sure Edison hired engineers and the Edison Company took patents on their inventions, but this is what every engineering company does.

This is true, but we don't generally claim that the CEO of a company "invented" its products, when they had little to nothing to do with them. Edison was a talented businessman, but he was no Ben Franklin.
posted by thegears at 7:35 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Considering Edison's propensity for brutal killing and stealing inventions, he probably murdered a time traveller and is hanging out in the stone age taking credit for fire and the wheel.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:35 AM on October 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Well, Edison may not have been perfect, but at least he took care of those pesky Martians for us. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19141
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:42 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Louis Le Prince possibly assassinated by Edison over first motion picture camera
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:48 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Considering Edison's propensity for brutal killing and stealing inventions, he probably murdered a time traveller and is hanging out in the stone age taking credit for fire and the wheel.

Someone needs to write that short story.
posted by aught at 7:50 AM on October 12, 2011


"I believe there has been a systemic attempt on the part of some people to do a great deal of mischeaf [sic] and creat [sic] as great a difference as possible between the Edison Company and The Westinghouse Electric Co."

Also -- Edison? Illiterate. Tesla wouldn't have made those spelling mistakes in any of the seven or eight language he spoke.
posted by aught at 7:57 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Steve Jobs exploited a regulation loophole and his private jet to get ahead of others in the transplant queue.

Yes, money buys improved access to limited healthcare resources. Regardless of where you are on the economic ladder, you'll get better access than those below you. The middle class get ahead of the poor in more or less the same way.

I have a hard time faulting anyone for taking full advantage of their personal resources in order to prolong their own life. The fact that he got a transplant early *does not* mean that someone died because of him. And my understanding is that he didn't cut in line, just that he had the means to wait in a lot of different lines.

There is absolutely no comparing Edison to Jobs. Jobs was a hardass who got ahead in life by being a visionary and good leader. He looked around and perfected a lot of other peoples' good ideas that were going to waste but he didn't steal them like Edison. Good people working for him still got credit for their contributions and intellectual property was generally acquired fair and square.

Edison was an evil bastard who got ahead in life by working hard, exploiting everyone around him, outright stealing inventions, manipulating government and physically hurting people and elephants. The list of great people he screwed or outright ruined is long. He had absolutely no moral compass. "His" people got to write history, too, so we probably don't know even half of all the despicable shit he did.

Both were technological enablers, but the comparisons end there.
posted by pjaust at 7:58 AM on October 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


he probably murdered a time traveller and is hanging out in the stone age taking credit for fire and the wheel.

e-ve-ry time that I flick my Bic
I thank Thomas Edison, thank Thomas Edison
when I jump on my bike, y'all, and get there quick
I thank Thomas Edison, thank Thomas Edison
Why? Cause he went to the Stone Age, you see
invented fire and the wheel, for you and for me
I thank Thomas Edison, thank Thomas Edison
I thank Thomas Edison, thank Thomas Edison
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:00 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Westinghouse bought Tesla's patents.

He also persuaded Tesla to tear up their contract and forfeit billions in royalties.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:06 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


He looked around and perfected a lot of other peoples' good ideas that were going to waste but he didn't steal them like Edison

I think some former Xerox employees might disagree with that charitable interpretation.
posted by Dark Messiah at 8:07 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's really facile to compare Jobs to Edision at any rate. This article is very unimaginative.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:14 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I didn't mean to derail the thread with the jobs thing, it was a one-line joke people, let it go :)
posted by empath at 8:17 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Capt. Renault: “Poor Topsy.”

lpcxa0: “And the calves, horses, and all other animals killed, maimed, or otherwise tortured in pursuit of science and progress.”

That wasn't the "pursuit of science and progress" – that was a blatant and frankly disgusting marketing stunt. And an unscientific one, too; it's become blindingly clear that alternating current is relatively quite safe for use in the home.
posted by koeselitz at 8:18 AM on October 12, 2011


When it comes to electricity, resistance is everything.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:19 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fact that he got a transplant early *does not* mean that someone died because of him.

Yes, I'm sure that they had an extra organ they were just gonna throw away.

Fanboism has limits, ffs.

/derail
posted by CautionToTheWind at 8:33 AM on October 12, 2011


Derails, meanwhile, apparently do not have any limits.

Therefore, this thread is now about Jean-Claude Juncker.

First, let us consider how his early years have informed his subsequent policies.

Empath, I believe you have the floor? Please guide us through the period between 1954 and 1974, with particular emphasis on his relations within the Christian Social People's Party prior to his joining that organization.
posted by aramaic at 8:41 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


So does this mean that if you're killed by lethal injection, you're been either "Mercked", "Roched" or "Abbotted"? We should pick one now before someone else does.
posted by scblackman at 8:46 AM on October 12, 2011


So does this mean that if you're killed by lethal injection, you're been either "Mercked", "Roched" or "Abbotted"? We should pick one now before someone else does.
posted by scblackman


We could just reference the governor of Texas. I propose "Perried." As in, "dead and Perried."
posted by George Clooney at 8:56 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Murder-by-electricity, when done properly, at least is rapid and immediately seizure-inducing, dissolving consciousness and producing an insensate death. Yes, the body jerks around a lot but that's a by-product of the direct and in-direct mycoclonic activation by the current.

By comparison, murder-by-drug-injection (at least the popular cocktails favoured by most US institutions) produces the appearance of placidity while ensuring death by asphyxiation, preceded by one of the most profound sensations we are evolved to experience as pain: air hunger.

The most consistently kindest way to murder someone probably remains the guillotine. No electricity required - unless you don't want to hand-crank the blade back up again and attach a little motor. Long-drop hanging is also relatively painless, but difficult to ensure consistent results.
posted by meehawl at 8:57 AM on October 12, 2011


> The most consistently kindest way to murder someone probably remains the guillotine.

People supposedly retain consciousness for up to 30 seconds that way, though.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:59 AM on October 12, 2011


All right, now that we got all that out of our systems, let's have a thread in here!
posted by shakespeherian at 9:09 AM on October 12, 2011


People supposedly retain consciousness for up to 30 seconds that way, though.

So, for those last few seconds, they're ahead of the game.

I guess it's kind of *detached* of me to make a joke like that...

Well, any way you slice it, capital punishment is rough.

It's a responsibility no decent society should have to shoulder

Sorry, no more jokes... too small to read 'em down here.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:10 AM on October 12, 2011


The most consistently kindest way to murder someone probably remains the guillotine.

Whatever happened to killing them with kindness? wokka wokka wokka *softshoes off stage*
posted by entropicamericana at 9:11 AM on October 12, 2011


Killing me softly with his song.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:12 AM on October 12, 2011


> Nevermind that their nickelodeons used a different technology from the one Edison patented, far as he was concerned he owned moving pictures and if they didn't pay Edison's thugs would smash their equipment.

Which gave rise to Hollywood.

Aspiring early filmmakers who wanted to avoid Edison's patents moved as far away from New York as they could in order to make movies.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:17 PM on October 12, 2011


> When it comes to electricity, resistance is everything.

Is it capacitance that's futile, then?
posted by mmrtnt at 12:23 PM on October 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Horselover Phattie: " People supposedly retain consciousness for up to 30 seconds that way, though."

I think the motions seen are autonomic responses and muscle spasms. With the severing of the head, there's a sudden, dramatic and instant fall in cerebral perfusion pressure to zero (because mean arterial pressure has just been reset to zero). People easily and predictably experience fainting/syncope as unconsciousness when CPP drops even slightly near or below the the low end (50 torr). I'm pretty sure that CPP dropping to zero within a second or so produces such a metabolic shock that consciousness is eliminated effectively instantly.
posted by meehawl at 1:04 PM on October 12, 2011


Edison is the quintessential American success story. He stole the work of others, patented it as own, squeezed every drop of money out of these patents, ruthlessly attacked any source of competition, and built a cult of personality around his success that survives to this day.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:33 PM on October 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


> I think the motions seen are autonomic responses and muscle spasms

Huh. I could've swore I read something where a beheaded man was seen to track a doctor's finger with his eyes, but that might be nonsense. Here's a Straight Dope column about it.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:40 PM on October 12, 2011


OK, wait a second everyone: we need to appreciate mmrtnt's remark, above.

...because, yeah, that's going in the joke file for future usage. You're all thinking the same thing, admit it.
posted by aramaic at 5:05 PM on October 12, 2011


while resistance might be futile, capacitance is rutile.
posted by oonh at 6:28 PM on October 12, 2011


Oh goddamn you.
posted by aramaic at 7:49 PM on October 12, 2011


The article is good, but just a slight window into the rivalry between Edison, Telsa, and Westinghouse. If you want to read more, consider Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes. Not a technical book, it's a history of how the world got electrified, the people involved, and their relationships.

Or just watch this.
posted by St. Sorryass at 8:48 PM on October 12, 2011


Listen, say what you want about Edison the man, but Edison the inventor of the electric hammer is pretty awesome.
posted by antifuse at 7:02 AM on October 28, 2011


Hey, that anti-tipover chair was pretty inspired also.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 7:07 AM on October 28, 2011


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