At the turn of the twentieth century a war was erupting between two powerhouses. Thomas Alva Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, had earlier developed direct current (DC) as a means of delivering electricity to neighborhoods in New York City. However, another famous entrepreneur, George Westinghouse, had teamed up with Nikola Tesla to promote their alternating current (AC) as a more reliable infrastructure. Edison was appalled at the thought of losing his electrical monopoly. So he set out to discredit AC.
Now, Edison had a lot of reasons to be proud. Light bulbs, film cameras*, the phonograph, he invented them all. But his pride stretched into hubris. In fact, Tesla had actually worked underneath Edison for a while, but quit when Edison both failed to acknowledge him in patents and failed to pay Tesla for his work. Tesla and Edison quickly developed a harsh rivalry.
In order to discredit Tesla’s AC Edison tried to convince the public that alternating current was unsafe. “I remember Tom [Edison] telling them that direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice,” said Westinghouse. In order to prove its danger, Edison took to publicly electrocuting small animals. Cats, dogs, rodents, even a horse, this continued for years.
Until, one day, the following article appeared in The Commercial Advertiser.
BAD ELEPHANT KILLED.
Topsy Meets Quick and Painless Death at Coney Island.
“Topsy, the ill-tempered Coney Island elephant, was put to death in Luna Park, Coney Island, yesterday afternoon. The execution was witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who went down to the island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts and cakes in summers that are gone. In order to make Topsy’s execution quick and sure 460 grams of cyanide of potassium were fed to her in carrots. Then a hawser was put around her neck and one end attached to a donkey engine and the other to a post. Next wooden sandals lined with copper were attached to her feet. These electrodes were connected by copper wire with the Edison electric light plant and a current of 6,600 volts was sent through her body. The big beast died without a trumpet or a groan.
Topsy was brought to this country twenty-eight years ago by the Forepaugh Circus, and has been exhibited throughout the United States. She was ten feet high and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Topsy developed a bad temper two years ago and killed two keepers in Texas. Last spring, when the Forepaugh show was in Brooklyn, J. F. Blount, a keeper, tried to feed a lighted cigarette to her. She picked him up with her trunk and dashed him to the ground, killing him instantly.” -January 5th, 1903
A video of this can actually still be found floating around. It’s pretty blurry, but if you don’t want to see an animal die, you might not wan to watch it.
Edison’s campaign ultimately convinced prison authorities to implement the electric chair as an execution method (the word electrocution is actually a portmanteau of electric and execution). Funnily enough, AC still persevered. It’s ability to travel long distances proved simply too useful to ignore, something DC simply couldn’t do.
*Fun fact: The reason that the majority of the film business is located in California is due to early directors trying to flee as far away from Edison and his patent laws.