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“Westinghousing”: The kind of experiments that would never take place today (thank goodness!)

In the 1880s Harold Brown set up a series of “Westinghousing” experiments to which newspaper photographers were invited. They were to take pictures of stray cats and dogs being electrocuted.

In the late 1880s the two giants in the burgeoning field of electricity, namely Thomas Edison and Georges Westinghouse, squared off in what has been called The Battle of The Currents. Edison was the champion of transmitting electricity by direct current, whereas Westinghouse thought that alternating current was a far more efficient way of delivering electricity since it could be transformed to higher voltages, which meant a lower loss of transmission over distances. History, of course, would prove him right; but Edison would have none of it, even though it was apparent that he had a problem lighting bulbs as little as half a way mile away with his direct current. Edison was a great inventor, but pity anyone who disagreed with him. The Wizard of Menlo Park could be ruthless, as Westinghouse found out. Edison mounted a campaign to convince people that alternating current was dangerous, and the best way to do this was by publicly demonstrating its lethal effects.

Working behind the scenes, Edison helped his former assistant Harold Brown organize a series of grotesque experiments. Stray dogs and cats were secured onto metal plates which were then connected to a 1000 volt alternating current supply, and were then duly “Westinghoused.” Edison’s real coup though came when through Brown, who had become a member of New York State’s commission to investigate executions that would be more humane than hanging, he suggested execution by means of alternating current. He was sure that when the public heard about this, they would associate Westinghouse’s current with death, and his direct current would triumph. Brown eventually executed two calves and a horse by the use of alternating current and convinced the New York Department of Prisons of the effectiveness of the method. It wasn’t as bloody as decapitation, as barbaric as hanging, or as “pleasant” as injecting a high dose of morphine. The first man sentenced to death by means of the electric chair was William Kemmler, a murderer. The execution on August 6th 1890 did not go smoothly and it took 15 minutes for the victim to die horribly. Edison was probably pleased, but he did of course lose the Battle of Currents for the simple reason that he was wrong about direct current being superior for transmitting electricity.


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