On January 4, 1903, Thomas Edison performed a shocking demonstration at Luna Park, Coney Island. It was an attempt to prove the deadliness of alternating current, backed by Edison’s competitors George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.
Edison himself was looking to preserve the use of direct current, and jumped at any opportunity to discredit his competition.
Topsy the Elephant
Topsy the elephant had killed three of her handlers in as many years, and the officials at Luna Park Zoo decided it would be best to put her down. They considered hanging, but later felt that electrocution would be a more “humane” method. It had, after all, been used successfully as capital punishment in the United States since 1890.
So, on January 4, 1903, they gathered at the park and chained Topsy to a post. They placed electrodes on her feet, and ran a copper wire over to an electric light plant. Then, they flipped the switch, and 6,600 volts of alternating current flooded through her body. Edison’s movie company filmed the event.
Topsy never had a chance, and died instantly.
Here’s a video of the event, but fair warning: If you don’t want to see a poor elephant get electrocuted, don’t watch.
Sidenote: The first electric chair was created by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly, under the employ of Thomas Edison. Alternating current was used for a similar purpose as the above: to discredit and display the true “deadliness” of AC. The first electrocution as a means of capital punishment was performed on August 6, 1890, with the execution of William Kemmler (which is itself a terrifying story, really).
Edison (or Brown and others in his employ) also electrocuted dogs, cats, horses, an orangutan…and some cattle.
Of course, it was all for naught; AC won out in the end.
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