The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 18, 2008

Ruthless Inventor

Sometime in junior school during Hindi class we were taught the story of Thomas Alva Edison and his invention of the audio recorder. The fact that he shouted out a nursery rhyme into the microphone endeared him to us, and, later, when we learned other tidbits about the life and achievements of the great inventor, affection was tinged with a bit of awe.

It turns out that Edison was not the cuddly absent-minded inventor of this interpretation. He was a ruthless businessman, acutely sensitive of competition, and fierce in his pursuit of infringers of his patents. Considering he had almost 1100 patents in his name, one wonders where he got the time.

Here's one egregious example of his drive to succeed. He was - as is reasonably well-known - the inventor of electric transmission, using direct current to do so. He managed after considerable expense to popularise the domestic use of electricity. Meanwhile, Westinghouse productised Tesla's alternating current technology, which, evidently, was superior to Edison's. Alternating current can carry eletricity longer distances with less loss, and Edison was quick to realise the threat to his own domination.

In Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money, Terence Kealey recounts the story. Edison claimed that AC was dangerous. "Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months," he said. He electrocuted dogs and cats in public, purposely using small currents to prolong their agony for dramatic effect. Some animals took over half an hour to perish. His series of executions peaked with the filmed murder of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant.

When William Kemmler was sentenced to death in New York in 1890, Edison saw his chance for a final demonstration of the danger of AC. He offered to electrocute the convict himself - using AC. Westinghouse was concerned enough to pay for Kemmler's appeal, but the execution went ahead as scheduled. Edison once again passed too low a current to kill Kemmler, so he tossed and writhed in horrific pain. When the current was turned off, he was still alive, so he was subjected to a further quarter hour of this torture, parts of his body bursting into flames, until he died.

This is inhuman behaviour, and puts Edison, as far as I am concerned, beyond the pale of forgiveness.

The tale is differently told in Wikipedia. There, we read that a thousand-volt charge was applied on Kemmler; his chair had been successfully tested on a horse the previous day. Although the attending doctor pronounced him dead, attendants noted he was still breathing. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2000 volts and this time he caught fire and perished. In all, it took 8 minutes for the entire execution. Westinghouse later commented: "They would have done better using an axe."

See here as well.


Rajesh said...

coincidently i was 'allegedly' helping my son with his history exam when i came across a picture of Edison... i sure looked at him differently...

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