Most of us know that Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb. When I first heard about the background of this invention, I was totally shocked! (No pun intended.) This spurred me to conduct some research into the matter and I found the results to be almost unbelievable. How could this happen?
At the same time that Thomas Edison was inventing his light bulb, George Westinghouse was also working on his version of the light bulb. Westinghouse was using AC (alternating current using a generator - the same form of electricity used in our homes today.) and Edison was using DC (direct current using a battery) Of course, each inventor wanted his invention to be the winner. In addition to royalties on the light bulb themselves, money would be made from selling of generators and motors. There was lots of money to be made by the winner.
Edison was aware of Westinghouse being his competitor and decided to take drastic matters to discredit the Westinghouse light bulb. Both were competing to obtain franchises to provide lighting to communities.
Edison knew that people using Westinghouses light bulb were in great danger of being electrocuted by potentially having thousands of watts being run through them. However, Edisons battery operated light bulb, if misused, would only send minor wattage through the user. At most, they would only receive a tingle for a short period.
Edison took this disadvantage as the pathway to discredit Westinghouse. He hired a man buy the name of H. P. Brown to travel around the Eastern United States and put on demonstrations of how dangerous AC was. Brown would gather reporters and proceed to electrocute dogs and cats to tout the dangers of Westinghouses light bulb. (Where was the ASPCA then?)
The governor of New York read of these accounts in the newspapers. Edison contacted the governor and suggested that he could invent a humane method of killing convicts. He made the first electric chair and took it to the penitentiary in Albany for the next scheduled execution. Up to this point in time, hanging was the preferred method of execution. If the noose was too loose it caused slow strangulation. If the noose was too tight , it could tear the prisoners head right off. Edison was consulted and he advised the state to utilize "those alternating current machines" -- Westinghouses method of producing electricity. As one can image, Edison packed the witness room with the press. The first jolt of current lasted 17 seconds. A second jolt lasted almost a full minute. It was turned off when the convicts body began smoking. Edison took full advantage of this and related to countless reporters that it was Westinghouses method of producing the electricity for the chair and that his method was much more gentle and couldnt even kill a person if used incorrectly. With this, Edisons light bulb gained wide acceptance and Edison got the contracts to light dozens of cities.
DC had its faults. DC had the disadvantage of being able to provide service for only a few miles from the generator and required thick copper wire that was expensive. AC could be transmitted over long distances and it was cheaper to string power lines. Edison knew, and admitted many years later, that AC was superior. The irony is that Edison ended up utilizing Westinghouses AC method -- the same method he lobbied as being dangerous to use!