Electric Chair - History - Early Development

Early Development

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In 1881, the state of New York established a committee to determine a new, more humane method of execution to replace hanging. Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines. As Southwick was a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on subjects in chairs, his electrical device appeared in the form of a chair to restrain the inmate while being electrocuted.

The first electric chair was produced by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly. Brown worked as an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and developing the electric chair. Kennelly, Edison's chief engineer at the West Orange facility was assigned to work with Brown on the project. Since Brown and Kennelly worked for Edison and Edison promoted their work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself.

Brown intended to use alternating current (AC), then emerging as a potent rival to direct current (DC), which was further along in commercial development. The decision to use AC was partly driven by Edison's claim that AC was more lethal than DC.

To prove the danger of AC electricity and its suitability for executions, Brown and Edison publicly killed many animals with AC for the press in hopes of associating alternating current with electrical death in the midst of the current wars with George Westinghouse. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. The term "electrocution" originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for the latter process, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death with the new rise of commercial electricity. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in 1888. The demonstrations of electrocution apparently had their intended effects, and the committee adopted the AC electric chair in 1889.

Read more about this topic:  Electric Chair, History

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