1879: Kate Webster, of the Barnes Mystery 1812: Hölzerlips, Blood Court prey

1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Animals,Borderline "Executions",Electrocuted,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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2 Responses to “1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison”

  1. 1
    JCF Says:

    MY GOD, couldn’t we just have a nice Draw&Quartering, or “Torn With Hot Pincers” execution?

    There’s GOT to be a *Hell*, so Mr Brown can be, well, FRYING in it! (This universalist is kidding, but *barely*)

    Poor, sweet Newfie… :-(

  2. 2
    Meaghan Says:

    I love Newfies — my family has had two of them — and I’d have loved an opportunity to give a few swats to Mr. Brown with a baseball bat, but l but I find it kind of funny that this blog post has gotten more outraged statements from friends of mine and other readers (I cross-post on the Charley Project blog) than any of the grisly executions of HUMANS that I’ve written about.

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