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.


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