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Geek Trivia: Current history

What device did Harold Brown develop to discredit alternating current?


Many people hail Thomas Edison as one of the greatest inventors in American history, but modern society should also be very thankful that—at least in one case—Edison was spectacularly wrong. As most technogeeks know, Edison was a proponent of direct-current electrical power, as opposed to the alternating current used by every major consumer-electrical utility in the world.

Edison backed the wrong horse, and technology was the better for it. For those of us without an intimate knowledge of electrical engineering, you can sum up the problem with direct current very simply: It's difficult to send over long distances.

By comparison, you can efficiently distribute alternating current by wire over vast distances. A direct-current power grid would require electrical generators at regular intervals throughout the network, while alternating current allows for central power generation that you can then distribute to remote locations.

So why did the acclaimed "Wizard of Menlo Park" subscribe to the DC model, when AC was obviously superior? For money, of course. Edison held all the early patents on DC power distribution, while rival inventive genius Nikola Tesla developed the AC model and marketed it with the financial backing of industrial magnate George Westinghouse.

If the AC model became the American standard, Edison stood to lose an untold fortune in patent royalties. Thus, the late 1880s and early 1890s bore witness to a so-called "War of Currents," and Edison went to great lengths to eliminate the financial threat of alternating current to his own direct-current ambitions.

To that end, an inventor and former Edison employee named Harold Brown became a pivotal public figure in the current war, thanks to his personal crusade to discredit AC power in the eyes of the public and the press.

Though no concrete proof has ever been produced to show that Brown was acting under Edison's explicit direction, Brown certainly took Edison's AC-phobia to heart, going so far as to design and advocate a famous (and still controversial) device that showcases the "dangers" of alternating current.

WHAT DEVICE DID HAROLD BROWN DEVELOP TO DISCREDIT ALTERNATING CURRENT?

What controversial, famous device did Harold Brown invent to highlight the "dangers" of alternating current during the years of rivalry between Thomas Edison's direct-current technology and Nikola Tesla's and George Westinghouse's AC designs?

Brown was the inventor of the alternating-current electric chair, which the state of New York first adopted as an official means of criminal execution on Jan. 1, 1889. Brown's primary tactic in his crusade to discredit alternating current was to highlight the possibility of electrocution from AC power lines.

Brown made quite the public spectacle of himself by touring the country and electrocuting small animals in front of large crowds using alternating current, while only torturously injuring other test subjects using direct current. Thanks to these exhibitions, the term "electrocution" entered the public consciousness, though Brown was probably more satisfied with the popular slang term for the process, "being Westinghoused."

His gruesome but press-friendly efforts earned Brown the notice of the New York criminal justice system, which was looking for a more humane method of executing prisoners. Deemed an expert, Brown subsequently developed the AC electric chair for the state.

The electric chair was controversial with the public from the beginning, a fact made even worse by the horrific spectacle of its first use on convicted axe murderer William Kemmler in 1890. The execution was sloppy and required several minutes to complete, and The New York Times described the process as "far worse than hanging."

Still, the AC electric chair stayed in service, marking a Pyrrhic victory for Edison and Brown, who had largely lost the war against alternating current by this point. Westinghouse Corp. underbid Edison's General Electric Company for the power supply contract for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, otherwise known as the Columbian Exposition.

Historically significant as the first "fully electric" World's Fair, the Exposition was the perfect public showcase for the technical superiority of AC over DC, and the adoption of AC as the de facto power distribution standard proceeded quickly after this event.

Years later, Edison would admit that alternating current was the superior power distribution method.

The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

Surprisingly, no one posted a quibble for the Feb. 3 Geek Trivia, "A bridged version,"—you're slipping, people! However, TechRepublic member Scott.brenner did politely ask permission to furnish some additional detail:

"Would it be possible to add a picture of the bridge or the da Vinci designs?"

Tell you what, Scott: We'll share your kindness with the whole group by including the link you supplied. Visit The Leonardo Project Web site for a picture of the bridge and da Vinci's original design sketches.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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