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Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death Hardcover – August 1, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Thomas Edison was deeply concerned about public safety and stoutly opposed to capital punishment. Yet except for the rivalry with George Westinghouse, he would have remained a closet humanitarian. Or so historian of science Essig argues in his first book. The race between Edison, advocate of direct current (DC), and Westinghouse, champion of alternating current (AC), to build an electrical empire in the 1880s is a classic example of runaway Gilded Age capitalism. Essig recounts Edison's early work on electricity and the opening of Manhattan's Pearl Street power plant in 1882. Just four years later, Westinghouse opened his own plant and quickly outpaced Edison in acquiring municipal contracts. Edison publicly decried AC as a safety hazard and convinced New York legislators that electricity offered the cleanest execution method available-provided it was done with AC. Thus in 1890 William Kemmler became the electric chair's first victim. He was not, however, the first victim of electrocution. Around this time, a spectacular series of fatal accidents triggered a citywide panic; and New York ordered unsafe wires cut down. Westinghouse protested while Edison applauded: DC cables were underground. Nonetheless, AC triumphed in the end. Whereas Essig recites the well-known history of public execution and follows the death-penalty debate into the 1990s, he passes over the opportunity to discuss the history of risk and regulation, leaving readers to deduce for themselves the significance of the "battle of the currents" for all citizens condemned to live-and die-in a modern technological nation. 40 b&w illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


“A thoroughly modern view of Edison, removed from his pedestal.” ―The Washington Post Book World

“. . steeped in historical scholarship and written with sober elegance.” ―Newsday

“Reads like a good novel.” ―The Economist

“[An] engaging and meticulously researched book. Edison & the Electric Chair delivers a thrilling jolt of discovery.” ―Entertainment Weekly


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books (August 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802714064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802714060
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,856 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It's a good thing Thomas Edison invented the electric bulb. I couldn't put Edison and the Electric Chair down, so it was well after dark by the time I finished.
Whether you're a fan of books about history, science, and/or technology; curious about Edison and his role in the invention and promotion of the electric chair; or just like to get involved in a great story, you've got to read this book.
Essig does far more than simply explain the contradiction between Edison the man opposed to the death penalty and Edison the expert witness in New York's hearings on adopting the electric chair as a method of execution. He goes much further than merely pointing out the business reasons underlying Edison's advocacy of the chair (reasons explained far less entertainingly in a couple of other books).
Essig makes real the fascinating people involved -- like William Kemmler, the first man to die by electrocution, and George Westinghouse, Edison's major rival in bringing electricity to American homes, not to mention Edison himself. He gives you just enough information about how electricity travels to our homes and the difference between AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current) to illuminate the story. And, while providing unflinching details about the science of killing, he also managed to make me laugh at loud with this disturbingly absurd episode in our country's continuing saga of government-sanctioned execution.
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Format: Hardcover
Two inventors and industrial giants grappled in commercial combat over primacy in the emerging electric power industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. They were Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. The strategic hill of the battle was whether direct current (Edison) or alternating current (Westinghouse) would prevail. Edison made the safer system, but Westinghouse made the more economical system, because alternating current could be transmitted over longer distances with fewer generating stations.
While the marketing battle raged, New York had the inspiration to move from execution by hanging to electrocution. Hanging was notoriously fallible (necks did not snap so the victim strangled slowly, or necks snapped too well, decapitating the victim). New York solicited the opinion of the foremost authority on electricity, Edison. Edison, an opponent of the death penalty, demurred at first. But the temptation to dramatically equate his enemy's system of electricity with death proved too strong. Yes, Edison said, electrocution is just the thing, and alternating current is the best method of electrocution.
So New York's electrical execution law passed, and the appeal progressed of the first victim of the electric chair. His attorney, W. Bourke Cockran, secretly paid by Westinghouse, argued that electrocution was cruel and unusual under the Constitution, and so could not be imposed. Expert witness and secret Edison shill Harold Brown disagreed. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
This book tells the story of how a convicted murderer, William Kemmler, became a pawn in a battle between electrical titans. But the book is much more.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I should raise a warning flag to start this review: if you are squeamish, or an animal lover, this book might be a bit too much for you. There are several horrific episodes involving detailed descriptions of botched executions, as well as descriptions of electrocution experiments performed on dogs, calves, and horses. Mr. Essig's intent is not to be sensationalistic. He wants to show us that when Thomas Edison said that death by electrocution would be quick and painless, he was engaging in wishful thinking. (At least to start with. After experiments on animals showed that this form of execution was not an exact science- nobody knew, really, what voltage to use or for how long; nor were they sure of how electricity killed - he may have stooped to being disingenuous. Edison thought alternating current was dangerous, plus he didn't like George Westinghouse. Westinghouse kept infringing on Edison's patents. Edison was pushing alternating current for use with the electric chair, to drive home to the public his belief that alternating current was too dangerous for commercial use.) This book works well on many levels. We see Edison trying to get alternating current used with the electric chair, while Westinghouse tries to fight back, via his lawyers, by showing execution via electrocution was messy and unreliable, and hence was "cruel and unusual punishment." The book is also good at describing the more general competition between Edison's direct current and Westinghouse's alternating current. It takes some careful reading, but you get to learn the advantages and disadvantages of both systems at that time, and how elbow grease and creativity were used to overcome some of the problems. Also, considering that this is not really a biography, Mr. Essig gives a pretty well-rounded portrait of Edison.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
While I am not usually drawn to books about technological history, the combination of narrative power and illuminating research made Edison & the Electric Chair a thoroughly engaging read. It reads like a tightly-drawn novel with compelling -- and sometimes repellent -- characters and plot. I couldn't wait to see how the story would unfold.
As someone only marginally familiar with the science and history behind the development of electricity, I found myself fascinated by Essig's cogent explanations both of how electricity works and the myriad dangers and difficulties of implementing direct current as a means of electrification. Essig deftly weaves the complex personalities of the major players (most centrally Edison and Westinghouse) into the escalating debate over direct and alternating current.
As the story of the first electrocution unfolds, Essig broadens the discussion to include not only the ethics of capital punishment and the relative humanity of the electric chair, but also larger implications of industrial competition, the rise of electric companies, and the illuminating of America.
Bolstered by meticulous yet accessible research, Essig clearly lays out the changing attitudes and approaches to capital punishment. As he explores such volatile issues as the shift from public to private execution by the state, the role of capital punishment in the moral education of the citizenry, and the irony of the state's attempts to make execution humane, Essig always gives the reader room to reach her own conclusions.
The greatest strength of this book might lie in its sensitively and lucidly wrought conclusion. Essig bridges the years from the first electrocutions to the present and shows how we are still involved in the same basic debate.
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