Friday, January 04, 2008

Shock Tactics

On this date in 1903 Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant called Topsy. He was making a lot of money from the patent for direct current and this was threatened by the proposed use of the new-fangled alternating current. He had embarked on a series of staged electrocutions of various unfortunate animals in an attempt to show how dangerous alternating current was.

Topsy the elephant had squashed 3 handlers in 3 years, and park officials at Luna Park on Coney Island decided that enough was enough. They considered hanging the poor beast, but the SPCA vetoed this. Edison was only too glad to provide an alternative means of execution.

In order to ensure that Topsy definitely died, she was fed cyanide-laced carrots moments before a 6,600-volt AC charge. Officials needn't have worried. The elephant was killed instantly and Edison, in his mind anyway, had proved his point. The "event" certainly provided a lot of publicity: a crowd put at 1,500 witnessed Topsy's execution, which was filmed by Edison and released later that year. Ultimately, of course, alternating current proved superior and became the standard.

Greed is a terrible thing, isn't it?