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American Inventions - Game 11, Rutgers - The Electric Chair

Now what we have here . . . is an invention . . . that's near and dear to every Floridian's heart.

Now here's a mix of characters that you don't see every day. A beloved but egotistical inventor/entrepreneur feels that his empire is threatened by a rival company. A governor feeling icky about hanging people. A dentist in the right place at the horrifically right time. What resulted was an invention that would have an impact on the development of electricity, corrections, and furniture forever

Let's take a step back to the 80s. The 1880s. New York Governor David B. Hill has a commission started in 1881 to find out a more humane way than hanging to carry out state executions. One of the members of the commission was Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a dentist from Buffalo. Earlier that year Southwick witnessed a drunk man touch a live electric generator, and die almost instantly. So he pushed the commission to use electrocution as an alternative means of execution.

At the same time, world famous inventor Thomas Edison, in New Jersey, was developing direct current (DC) electricity in New Jersey. Think batteries. Power goes in one direction, into the electrical device. His grand plan was to use DC electricity to power an electricity grid. Only problems were DC electricity depended on thick copper wires, at a time when copper was very expensive, and DC power could only power homes within a few miles.

On the other hand alternating current (AC) electricity was being developed by Edison's rival, George Westinghouse. AC power didn't need thick copper wires, and since the currents went in both into and out of the electrical device, it could be used over longer distances. The rivalry between Edison's direct current and Westinghouse's alternating current was called the War of the Currents.

At first direct current was the standard. Early AC systems were unstable; if you turned off one light in the house, there would be a surge to all the other devices on the same line.

However, Westinghouse, with the help of Nikola Tesla, a former employee of Edison's, developed a more stable form of AC transmission. As Westinghouse's AC power was gaining market share, Edison needed a way to show that DC power was still preferable, or else his patents would be worth considerably less. Edison hired Harold Brown, a salesperson and aspiring inventor, to show that AC power was more dangerous.

Edison gathered the press to his lab in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1888 to show the dangers of alternating current. Brown and Edison displayed a macabre publicity stunt. Taking animals as small as mice and as large as an elephant, they first showed what happen show what happens when direct current is sent into an animal; basically very little happened to it. They then showed what happens when alternating current is sent into an animal: death, almost instantly. People were horrified! But his stunt didn't work and AC power is the standard today.

However, one group of people thought the stunt was excellent: the commission in New York whose job was to find an alternative to hanging. The commission adopted the AC electric chair as a means for execution in 1889.

You can watch a hilarious depiction of the Edison-Tesla rivalry in Drunk History (warning: foul language).