Monday, August 20, 2007

Echo from an Era When Industrial Tycoons Killed Animals in Public Just to Make a Point

So my friend ZCC, another professor, has sent me a link to a fascinating event in American history: The Death of Topsy. And who was Topsy, you innocently ask? Why, only Coney Island's most beloved elephant. A crowd favorite African female who met an untimely end...when she was electrocuted by Thomas Edison. At a public event. On film.

Topsy, in her more glamorous days

Yes, despite the fact that there was no ancestor of Old Sparky large enough for dear Topsy in which to park her capacious rear, Edison and his crack techs administered the killing dose in 1903 of that ole devil called alternating current.

This was, of course merely the climax in the long-standing industrial war between the Sage of Menlo Park and his longtime nemesis, the brilliantly mustachioed George Westinghouse. It seems our man Edison wanted the national standard for electrical power to be based on his own direct current, while George saw the natural advantages of an alternating current system, moderated by a transformer. And from then, it was on.

The War of the Currents was waged across the country, with Edison using his considerable public fame (he had invented the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb, after all) to force the nation to adopt DC electricity. He wisely tried to use public skepticism of electrical power (it shocks people to death doesn't is?) to scare them away from AC. Desperately trying to convince one and all away from this questionable new technology, he hired an engineer to perform a series of public demonstrations in which he intentionally electrocuted dogs and cats with AC power, always in front of an attentive audience.

Which brings us back to Topsy. As it turns out, New York State had recently decided to switch from the gallows to the electric chair for the purposes of execution. Not surprisingly, it was Edison who convinced officials to make the switch, and to use - you got it - Westinghouse's "deadly" AC current at the modus mortorum. Along the way to the first execution, Coney Island animal wranglers decided that Topsy (after herself causing three deaths) needed to be put down. When arsenic-laden carrots failed to do the trick, they called in the man who at this point was well-known for publicly electrocuting animals (though always with his competitor's brand of electricity).

So on the appointed day, Edison's crew show up, got things juiced up, waited for the cameras to start rolling, and let the (alternating) current fly. In a triumph of modern animal kindness, it only took ten minutes for Topsy to fry from the inside.

Edison, of course, lost the Current Wars to Westinghouse for obvious engineering reasons, but at least he got to prove that the deadly AC could even bring down an elephant.

RIP: Thomas, George, Topsy and all.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Collegiate Hotness

Normally, I find Newsweek magazine tedious, boring and largely irrelevant. This is only reinforced by the fact that this week's cover story is about Facebook (I expect them to discover this whole YouTube thing any year now). But, they do give a strong shout out to my distinguished alma mater in their "25 Hottest Schools" feature. Despite the fact that it is an obvious attempt to steal back the smart-parent tuition shopper attention back from U.S News & World Report, I'll take it anyway. Here's the glory:

Hottest for Election Year
Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, Calif.

Two of every five CMC students major in government/international relations. Most of the rest are also talking politics, the campus obsession. Few selective colleges in America have such ideologically balanced faculties and student bodies. Speakers like Bill Clinton and Justice Antonin Scalia dropped by last spring, and neither was tarred and feathered. CMC, one of the five Claremont Colleges, is vibrating with anticipation of the 2008 presidential race. Andrew Lee, a recent graduate and political junkie who created the Fantasy Congress Web site, says that on long campus weekends he and his friends would skip the beach and drive to a state with a hot election and knock on doors for their favorites.

In short, CMC is both the old and the new hotness. Most recently we were the USN&WR #12 liberal arts college in the country. Look out, Williams. We're gunning for your crown.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

San Diego Firefighters Are Delicate and Sensitive

When is a strapping, manly firefighter not a strapping manly firefighter? When he's filing a sexual harassment complaint after being encouraged by a spectator at a Pride parade to "show me your hose."

Yes, and that inter-department complaint is soon to be followed by a lawsuit against the city. You see, despite the fact that the San Diego Fire Department has been marching in the Pride parade for 15 years, four of the city's bravest have decided that hearing the innuendo-laden chatter of sidewalk observers qualifies as "vile sexual taunts."

While no one should be forced to participate in a public event event they're not comfortable with, I can have only so much sympathy for these guys. And I certainly hope none of these four men has ever made an unwelcome sexual remark to a woman in public. Because that would be, you know, kind of hypocritical.