Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 179:
ELECTRIC CHAIR

by John H. H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 179.

Today, the strange origin of the electric chair. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1875 the inventor Nikola Tesla was a student at the Austrian Polytechnic Institute. When he brashly suggested that electric motors would run better on alternating current, his professor asked where a bright student came up with such claptrap. There was no way to make an AC motor. Six years later, in Budapest, Tesla walked through the park at sundown, reciting sad lines from Goethe's Faust. The aging Faust, who'd failed to uncover the secrets of nature, thought about sunset and the end of life:

The glow retreats, done in the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil,
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!

Then it hit him. Maybe Faust was stuck, but he wasn't. He suddenly saw what to do with the electric field of a motor to make alternating current work.

Three years later Tesla went to work for Edison in the United States. He tried to interest Edison in AC but was told that the idea was downright un-American. Tesla and Edison soon parted company. Tesla managed to get funding from the financier J.P. Morgan, and he issued a series of AC patents starting in 1887. He soon convinced George Westinghouse to put his money into the development of AC power systems.

Edison's response was downright maniacal. He launched an appalling campaign to discredit Westinghouse and Tesla. The idea was to show that AC was too dangerous to use. He invited reporters to demonstrations where stray dogs and cats were placed on metal sheets and electrocuted with 1000 volts of AC.

Next, Edison took out a commercial license to use AC. The world found out why after he'd made clandestine visits to Auburn Prison. He'd built an electric chair. Now the American public would see what AC could do to a human being. Before the chair was first used on a fellow named William Kemmler, Edison's people started killing larger animals in their demonstrations. "Is this what your wife should be cooking with?" they asked.

When poor Mr. Kemmler was taken to the chair to be -- as the Edison people put it -- "Westinghoused," the voltage was too low. A half-dead Kemmler had to be electrocuted a second time to finish him off. All this served Edison's purpose, of course. There was no need for Kemmler's passing to be a pleasant one.

In the end, Tesla's AC prevailed, but it took twenty years for Edison to admit defeat. The electric chair also prevailed. I strongly doubt that capital punishment really springs from any desire to see justice done. It surely comes from some much darker corner of our collective psyche. And the invention of the electric chair certainly leaves us with little to be proud of.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Cheney, M., Tesla: Man Out of Time. New York: Dell, 1981 (note especially Chapter 5).

O'Neill, J. J., Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, New York: David McKay Co. 1944.




The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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