High-voltage investigation into the politics of invention and the marketing of science.
Imagine what might happen if, say, razor-blade manufacturer Billy Bob Gillette proclaimed that razor blades produced by archrival Silas Schick were the very best instruments to use when cutting someone’s throat. That’s much what Thomas Edison did, writes Essig in this promising debut: though an opponent of capital punishment, he turned his attention in the last decade of the 19th century to the development of the electric chair, which, he argued—at least publicly—was the most humane way to dispose of condemned prisoners, certainly more so than the noose or the bullet. Edison had killed a couple dozen dogs and several horses and calves in his New Jersey laboratory to prove as much. But, he urged, the best way to kill said condemned was not through his direct current, which was a safe form of electricity, but through hated archrival George Westinghouse’s alternating current, which was deadly, he hinted, to anyone who approached it. As for the prisoners who came into contact with AC, he said, “When the time comes, touch a button, close the circuit, and . . . it is over.” A brilliant marketing ploy: American states went for capital punishment via the electric chair in a big way, as they did for the cheaper if admittedly more dangerous alternating current. Whereupon, Essig writes, Edison returned to his former position of condemning capital punishment as a barbarity and denied that he’d ever had anything to do with the electric chair, saying, “I did not invent such an instrument.”
But of course he did. Essig’s fine account, like L.J. Davis’s Fleet Fire (p. 653), doesn’t diminish Edison’s reputation as a scientific innovator and entrepreneur, but it certainly lessens our estimation of him as a human.