Corporate rivalry was darkest during the industrial revolution. If you think that the rivalry between Facebook and Google is bad, then you should hear about Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
During the 19th century, Thomas Edison noticed that there were problems with his direct current electrical system, and enlisted Nicholas Tesla to “design a more practical form of power transmission“. Tesla told Edison that “the future of electric distribution” was in alternating current rather than direct current.
Edison didn’t take Tesla’s advice.
But he should have because at the same time, George Westinghouse introduced his own alternating current generators across the country. “By 1887, after only a year in the business, Westinghouse had already more than half as many generating stations as Edison,” said Gilbert King of Smithsonian.com.
Edison decided that there was only one thing to do: to prove that Westinghouse’s generators were more dangerous than his own.
In order to prove his claim, he held public executions — often times in front of reporters — of animals such as dogs and horses.
Around this time, a dentist from Buffalo, New York named Alfred P. Southwick was hoping to develop a “more humane” method of execution than hanging, and after seeing a drunkard accidentally kill himself by touching a generator, he decided that electrocution was the best idea. He reached out to Edison for help with his contraption.
Edison was publicly against capital punishment and instead directed Southwick to Westinghouse, hoping the name “death machine” would become synonymous with alternating current generators. In fact, “Westinghoused” pretty quickly became a slang term for death by electrocution.
Westinghouse, naturally, did not want his generator to be associated with the death penaty, and he refused to sell his generators to public officials. As a result, New York state commissioned another man, Harold Brown, to build the first official electric chair.
Despite publicly denouncing capital punishment, Edison secretly financed Harold Brown’s project in order to ensure that the first electric chair would be constructed using alternating currents.
Eventually, the day of the first electric chair execution came; the hapless guinea pig was a convicted murder named William Kemmler. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Southwick was ceremoniously invited to attend the event.
For 17 agonzing seconds, electricity coursed through Kemmler’s body, and then he was pronounced dead. And just as Arthur Southwick announced: “This is the culmination of ten years work and study. We live in a higher civilisation today,” everyone noticed that Kemmler was still alive.
It took some time for the electric chair to rebuild its current, but when Kemmler was shocked for the second time, the current completely cooked his already damaged body. Some horrified witnesses fainted or ran out of the room from the smell of burning flesh. Others claimed to see smoke “at the top of his head“.
Westinghouse reportedly said: “They could have done better with an ax.”
However, this was not enough for Thomas Edison, and he sought to prove that alternating current actually can kill quickly. At a demonstration that he held at Coney Island, he electrocuted and killed a circus elephant named Topsy.
In the end, despite all of Edison’s devious schemes that attempted to destroy his competition’s success, Westinghouse’s alternating current proved to be the greater of the two.
“For his part, Edison later admitted that he regretted not taking Tesla’s advice,” wrote King.