The Convict and the Currents

By | February 12, 2013

On March 29th, 1889, William Kemmler murdered his common-law wife, Matilda Ziegler, with a hatchet. He wasn’t a good guy.

If you’re a believer in a well-balanced universe, or maybe just sort of a gross person, you’ll be delighted to know Kemmler himself was put to death in a congruent, disgusting manner. A year or so later, Kemmler was tried, convicted and slated for the death sentence by means of the New York prison system’s newest form of capital punishment: electrocution.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

At the very same time, two of America’s most powerful minds were engaged in an ongoing battle that would eventually shape our country’s infrastructure: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were viciously competing to popularize their rival forms of electricity distribution. Edison, the patent holder for the incumbently-used direct current (DC), held a serious contempt for Tesla, the creator of the newer, more dynamic alternating current (AC), and vice-versa.

At a young age, Tesla had immigrated to America to work under the tutelage of Edison himself. Quickly defining himself as a young starlet in the scientific community, Tesla refashioned many of the projects Edison had already posited and developed. After making significant improvements to Edison’s generator and motor systems, Tesla left to start his own company (it’s claimed Edison offered a massive cash prize for Tesla’s innovation, but then claimed it to be a joke and instead proposed a $10 per week pay raise – that was a serious insult to Nikola).

Nikola-Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Soon enough, Tesla was up and running with the monetary support of George Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur who was looking for an inventive, updated vehicle for electrical power. Tesla secured an American patent for the AC system, and furthered its development while working as a contractor for Westinghouse. The perks of AC distribution were pretty evident from the get-go: it facilitated power delivery over longer distances and at greater speeds. Edison’s direct current, however, still owned merit. Not only was it the preferred choice of the era’s metropolitan hubs, it was also a fair bit simpler for the average consumer.

Kemmler, however, wasn’t your average consumer. He was a murderer who was probably less than concerned over two currents’ discrepancies once he found out he was to be removed from society on a permanent basis. As part of a smear campaign, Edison promoted Kemmler’s electrocution to be carried out via alternating current, rather than his own direct current, as a way to prove that Westinghouse and Tesla were creators of murderous, unsafe electrical current which couldn’t stack up to his own.

Thanks to a few connections and financial backers who involved themselves with the New York justice system, Edison got his wish. On August 6th, 1890 Kemmler was put to death by AC in one of the most painstaking, inhumane executions from modern history. It lasted eight minutes and required two attempts, since the first bout had only used enough voltage to do little more than slowly burn his flesh and leave him unconscious, but still breathing.

Westinghouse, repulsed, commented, “They would have done better using an axe.” But in spite of seeing his name attached to the botch, the American public soon adopted the AC system as its preferred mode of power transmission thanks to its viability over long distances. DC, however, is still employed today in smaller, closed systems which are better served by its attributes. In fact, much of our current-day focus centers on using the two in tandem, or converting one to the other in order to maximize efficiency.

It’s a shame Tesla and Edison couldn’t live to see the maturation and partial reconciliation of their duel. As for Kemmler, he shouldn’t have to worry much about electric currents anymore. I’m relatively sure that hell is powered by furnace.

Sandy Moore

Blogger at PennsylvaniaEnergy.org

3 thoughts on “The Convict and the Currents

  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I’m not sure if you know the answer, but wouldn’t they have tried the electric chair out first, on, say, a dog or a pig? Folks back then were a lot less humane when it came to animals and given the newness of the technology, I would think they would want to have tried it out on something besides a person before the initial execution. Of course, getting an animal to stay in the chair in order to replicate a person might have been an issue.

    Very interesting history lesson. Thanks for posting.

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  2. Grant

    They did. In fact, the day before they tried it out on a HORSE! (With no problems.) There is an article on Wikipedia that talks about the decline of the electric chair and its botched attempts at being a “more humane” form of execution. Surprisingly, the electric chair is still in use. The last person to be executed by electric chair was Robert Gleason, on January 16, 2013. (Here is the article I was referring to. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_chair#Decline )

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