A court battle under way in California brings to mind one of the more bizarre moments in American science, the birth of the electric chair. Both events, 100 years apart, have to do with that granddaddy of all oxymorons: humane execution.
Last week, various experts testified that death in the California gas chamber is (a) swift, painless and merciful, or (b) slow, painful and cruel.
The 1880s event saw one of our great American heroes testifying on behalf of electrocution in a way that advanced his own inventions and tainted a rival's work. He was Thomas Alva Edison, already father of the phonograph and the electric light, and the man who would give us the movies.
During the early 1880s, Edison put all his energy into a system for delivering electricity. His light bulb had captured the country's imagination, but it was useless without juice. Edison controlled, and profited from, every segment of the system, from generators and cables to motors and light bulbs. Downtown New York City was his first big customer; there was another fortune to be made if other cities signed on.
Unfortunately, direct current couldn't be sent more than a few blocks; most users had to have their own noisy generator. Still, DC seemed to be the best thing around, and the magic name of Edison made many ignore the weaknesses.
The threat to this dream of profit came from another successful inventor with big money to spend: George Westinghouse, developer of the railroad air brake. By the mid-'80s, his Westinghouse Electric Co. was pushing a delivery system based on alternating current, or AC. AC could be transmitted for many miles; generators could be bigger and fewer, and built far out of earshot, even out of town. Soon Westinghouse was competing with Edison for the franchise in dozens of cities. The contest between the two stubborn and proud tycoon/inventors has been called "the War of the Currents."
Fear became a weapon. Edison believed AC was far more dangerous than DC, and soon started a campaign to make AC illegal. He flooded cities with pamphlets warning of AC's danger to families.
An aide, H.P. Brown, began experimenting with alternating current "electricide," killing dogs and cats brought to him by local kids who got a quarter per pet. Brown said he was doing research on the dangers of AC, but made sure the press got to watch a killing or two.
Up in Albany, the governor saw the accounts. The state had been looking for a better form of execution than hanging, which had been known to cause slow strangulation if the rope was too loose, and to tear the prisoner's head off his body if it was too tight.
The Commission on Humane Executions asked Edison for data, but he turned them down; he didn't believe in capital punishment. Later, after thinking it over, he gave his full backing to execution by wire, strongly affirming it as the most humane form of execution. He was even kind enough to recommend the best generator for the job: "Alternating machines, manufactured principally in this country by George Westinghouse."
The legislature soon passed a bill making "electricide" the official state form of execution.
The person who viewed all this with the most interest was William Kemmler, 28, a convicted killer who was next up for execution. Kemmler's lawyer tried to stop the execution, arguing that using electricity would be cruel and unusual punishment. Edison testified for the state, assuring the judge that electrocution would be painless. That was all the judge needed to hear.
Kemmler was strapped into the chair on August 6, 1890. The first jolt of alternating current lasted 17 seconds. Kemmler continued struggling. A second jolt lasted more than a minute, until smoke was seen rising from the body.
It was, TheNewYorkTimes said, "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." The state commissioner on humane executions saw it differently. It was, he said, "the grandest success of the age."
Ira Flatow, the science reporter whose lively 1992 book, TheyAllLaughed . . . has the best account of the Current War, writes: "Kemmler was more than a victim of his crime; he was a pawn (in) a vicious battle between two giants of the industry . . . to control the future of electric generation."
Edison's strange behavior is a good reminder that homicide, whether in war, in the gas chamber or on the mean streets, is likely to be the result of politics, emotion and greed, not the reasoned intent with which we like to credit ourselves.