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. Continue reading