Sunday, September 03, 2006

How To Hang An Elephant [Exclusive]

Most people have heard of Thomas Edison and what we credit as his contributions to our world today. If nothing else, you find his name still hanging as part of many electric companies in our country. Edison’s General Electric remains as one of our great American institutions. We also have heard of George Westinghouse, and while we may not credit him with as many contributions, his name also hangs around on appliances and electrical devices. Many people haven’t heard of their contentious rivalry and how it affected our lives.

Edison’s work with direct current founded his legacy in the world of electricity. We learned from our history lessons that Edison “invented” the light bulb. However Edison’s light bulb was illuminated by direct current, the same type of electricity derived from batteries and used in our vehicles. Westinghouse gave his allegiance to the Nikola Tesla’s work with alternating current. Few people realize Nikola Tesla, a Serbian inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer and electrical engineer, contributed more to our modern form of electric power transmission. While Tesla was extremely intelligent, he didn’t have the marketing charisma held by both Edison and Westinghouse. He did receive much respect and recognition in history leading the United States Supreme Court’s recognition of him in 1943 as the inventor of the radio. But, alas, Tesla died at 86 years of age broke and with little recognition.

Westinghouse recognized Tesla’s alternating current as the best means to minimize power generation facilities and transfer energy over great distances. For rural America alternating current’s ability to transform to different voltages provided the benefit of electric power. But Edison strongly disagreed. Edison held that direct current was safer for home use. But we know today that at the same higher voltages direct current can be just as lethal and painful as alternating current. Yet, at the time, people were not privy to the world of electric power and were left to the trust or marketing ability of those promoting the industry. In fact, marketing is where Edison and Westinghouse both held strength and went to unthinkable lengths to compete.

Edison may have believed direct current was safer, but he also had invested a sum of money into his factories to build and sell electric apparatus for direct current. Westinghouse, holding to Tesla’s work, invested in building and selling apparatus for alternating current. Thus the “War of Currents,” as it has been labeled, began.

Edison spent great energy in trying to discredit Westinghouse’s efforts by pronouncing and “demonstrating” the hazards of alternating current. Edison’s research company at Menlo Park actually provided the state of New York with their first electric chair. Edison opposed capital punishment, but found it a means to discredit his competitor. Edison had already tried other means to prove the hazards of alternating current which leads to the headline of this article.

In 1902 Topsy the Elephant resided at Coney Island’s Luna Park. She previously worked for the Forepaugh Circus. It is widely held that a trainer at Luna Park attemped to feed Topsy a lit cigarette. As a result Topsy delved her punishment upon the trainer which ended with his death. Unfortunately this was Topsy’s third homicide in as many years. Regardless of cause, Topsy was judged a hazard and sentenced to die. Her owners proposed a hanging, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested and won a reprieve for Topsy from this cruel death. Next her owners attempted to feed Topsy a carrot laced with cyanide. Topsy refused the carrot and defied her owners. It was Edison who presented the solution deemed most humane and effective. Topsy would be electrocuted with 6,600 volts of alternating current. For some reason people considered Edison’s idea humane. Edison found an opportunity to once again discredit Westinghouse. To make sure people fully contemplated the idea Edison obtained permission to film the execution.

On January 4, 1903 Topsy was led by her trainer to her place of execution and was shackled to the wired chains. Topsy died a rather fast death that provided dramatic footage for Edison’s documentary. Edison had already experimented on other animals with electrocution so the effective outcome was certain.

Edison’s use of Topsy’s electrocution to discredit Westinghouse was a vain effort. Westinghouse won the contract to harness the power of Niagra Falls and proclaimed the power of Niagra Falls could electrify the entire Eastern United States. Westinghouse built the hydroelectric generators using Tesla’s patent and the generators actually bore Tesla’s name. The 60 hertz frequency used by Niagra Falls’ generators set the standard for the United States. Within five years Westinghouse had completed a transmission line to Buffalo, New York and powered industry there. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 had already used Westinghouse and Tesla’s alternating current to provide light for the fair and introduce electric illumination to the world. Edison had bid a price of one million dollars to “power” the fair. Westinghouse offered his power for half the price. Alternating current and Tesla’s polyphase systems were much more efficient than direct current, giving Westinghouse a cost advantage. By the time of Topsy’s death Edison had already lost the war.

Edison’s companies continued to use direct current whenever possible and many cities maintained their investment in Edison’s distribution methods until new investments were absolutely necessary. Consolidated Edison of New York City continued to supply direct current power until it announced the end of direct current availability in January, 2005. Until then the company had claimed to maintain the availability of direct current due to the number of direct current elevator motors remaining in service from the early twentieth century.

The world finally got to witness the spectacle of a hanging elephant when Mighty Mary, a five ton Asian elephant from the Sparks World Famous Shows circus was executed in 1916. Competing accounts told of how Mary had killed Red Eldridge, a hotel worker hired as an assistant elephant trainer. Newspapers helped sell the story that Mary was a dangerous killer elephant. Mary was condemned to die. To save face the circus owner decided to publicly execute the elephant. On September 13, 1916 the circus held a full show while Mary remained chained outside the tent. After the circus ticket holders were given the opportunity to follow the parade of elephants, with Mary in the line, and watch an elephant hanging. The audience included children of all ages. The first attempt failed when the chain around Mary’s neck broke and Mary fell in agony with a broken hip. The workers rigged a second chain and Mary successfully died hanging from a chain held by a railcar-mounted crane.

The wiles of marketing can lead to many interesting and entertaining events. Few forget Coca Cola teaching the world to sing or Wendy’s bringing “Where’s the beef?” to popular culture. But fewer remember that the motivation of gain and self promotion can lead to darker conclusions. And now we know how to hang an elephant.