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Blood & Volts: Edison, Tesla and the Invention of the Electric Chair Paperback – February 1, 1996
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This book is basically a history of how electrocution came in the use, as well as the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over which system would be used to affect the execution of humans. Edison, as it is well known, was a huge proponent of the direct current system, while Westinghouse had employed Nikola Tesla who had invented alternating current. Both believed that the system they were utilizing was best, and each were in a hurry to prove the others system was more dangerous.
Both men, in order to prove the safety of their system, wanted the opposite system used to undertake electrocutions. If they could demonstrate that the opposing system could electrocute a human, then it would demonstrate that their system was safer. Although the logic seems a little twisted, that is what was going through their minds.
The book details several executions, as well has numerous animal experiments that were done by Edison in order to prove how lethal the alternating current system was. The book culminates with the first of several electrocutions. To put it mildly, the first several executions by electrocution did not go well. Little was known about the proper way to hook up wiring to a human, and little was known about the effects of voltage versus amps. While Edison was successful in using Westinghouse's system for the first execution, he ended up with a public relations nightmare on his hands.
This book is extremely well written and is fascinating to read. It is truly amazing the lengths that corporate individuals will go to in order to prove or disprove another system and to gain a foothold in the marketplace. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the death penalty, electrocution, the history of alternating current versus direct current or anyone who is interested in either Edison or Westinghouse.
Metzger must be congratulated for not simply pandering to the morbidly curious. Sure, there's a lot of gory detail -- necessary in describing such a technological enigma as the electric chair -- but Metzger moves beyond this. He gives us an uncannilly lucid view of the society, the people, and the politics that spawned the electric chair. He shows us not only the self-congratulatory PR of the day, but also the soul-searching criticism leveled at the electric chair by scientists, doctors, and the popular press. We assume that capital punishment advocates all hailed this new "scientific" method of killing. Not so, as Metzger shows us. After learning of the actual results of its use, many seriously proposed a return to hanging as more humane.
It takes much to explain a period of history in which most homes (and prisons) were lit by kerosene lamps, yet prisoners were executed by technology so exotic that experts had to be shipped in just to operate it (as the author points out, no one ever knew how much voltage or current actually killed the first victim of the chair, and the duration of shocks to be given had to be "guessed-at" by two physicians minutes before the execution).
If you want to truly understand how the electric chair came about, and why it remains today, Blood and Volts is a good place to start.