The strange origins of the electric chair

"Nebraska's electric chair." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Nebraska’s electric chair.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

One thing I love about the study of history is its little weird surprises — such as finding out that a certain notorious invention came with a hidden agenda that had little to do with the death penalty, and a whole lot to do with Thomas Edison’s desire to protect his market share against a superior technology.

First used in 1890, the electric chair is part of a longer humanitarian trend away from acceptance of capital punishment. For much of human history, executions were usually a public spectacle, were widely employed for a wide range of offenses, and were often designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering on the condemned person. Devices like the gallows or the guillotine were actually humanitarian developments because they offered a relatively quick death. And the electric chair was promoted as just such a device — a modern, scientific update for a traditional practice that might otherwise look like a barbaric holdover from more primitive times.

But that isn’t really what the electric chair was about, at least as far as America’s most famous inventor was concerned. Recently I’ve been reading War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination by H. Bruce Franklin. This fascinating 1988 book (I understand there’s a newer edition) traces the history of the idea that military technology will somehow end war by making it too terrible. I’ll write about that some other time, but for now merely want to quote Franklin’s description of Thomas Edison’s clever tactic in his “war of the currents” against George Westinghouse and the alternating current technology of Nikola Tesla.

The rivalry began in 1886. Franklin writes (pp. 58-59):

“Edison had staked all his investments in electric-power distribution on a direct-current system that was restricted by the available technology to low voltage incapable of transmission beyond a few miles. Tesla’s polyphase alternating-current system, on the other hand, allowed for stepping up the voltage to very high levels for long-distance transmissions and then stepping it down for safe use. Equipped with Tesla’s inventions, Westinghouse was rapidly displacing Edison’s DC with the AC system that was to become standard in the United States. Edison’s response was a frenetic campaign to prove that alternating current is intrinsically lethal.

“In addition to articles, pamphlets, and rumors, Edison and his agents used public demonstrations in which cats, large dogs, and even horses were electrocuted with AC. Simultaneously, a powerful movement had developed in New York State against capital punishment, a movement that focused on the excruciating agony of hanging. Seizing this opportunity, Edison’s lieutenants in 1889 bought three Westinghouse generators, resold them to three New York State prisons, and engineered the first use of the ‘electric chair.’ Staged to show that AC was so deadly that it would kill instantaneously, the execution of William Kembler on August 6, 1890, instead turned into a gruesome scene in which the condemned man writhed under repeated shocks.”

State governments, in other words, wanted to show that the death penalty could be modern, humane, and scientific, while Edison wanted to show that alternating current was too dangerous to have in one’s home or business. And for a brief moment those interests coincided. Edison lost the “war of the currents,” but the electric chair (despite its botched premier) remained a fixture in American capital punishment for a century. Now rare, it has been used as recently as 2013 in Virginia.


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