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The Electric Chair

December 30, 2003

A public radio commentary

America prides itself on its technological prowess, but sometimes we overreach. To take a controversial example: The electric chair.

The electric chair rose in the 19th century from an odd mixture of technology-worship and industrial sabotage. At the time capital crimes were punished by public hangings. They were civic lessons for teaching the perils of lawbreaking. But many felt that these executions had become rowdy spectacles, which "brutalized spectators and turned them into criminals."

As these concerns rose, electrical inventions rapidly took over domestic life. Electricity was a new and glamorous technology. It was, above all, modern. This modernization tied in with the American image of itself as a nation becoming more civilized, less barbarian.

So, many felt that although capital punishment was still needed, the morality play should be tidied up - no need for long, public spectacles, instead something neat and orderly, something reflecting the technological order of the day. And that is how the electric chair enters, although what happened was anything but orderly.

Thomas Edison's light bulb created a demand for the electrification of homes. His first power stations used something called direct current through lines buried underground, but just as Edison began to lay his wires, he was confronted by a competitor named George Westinghouse, who used an AC or alternating current system. Each system had advantages - the AC was cheaper to deliver, but the DC seemed to be safer. The public became concerned about the danger when a New York lineman got caught in a web of Westinghouse wires and was electrocuted in front of thousands of onlookers. While this incident appalled, it also highlighted that death by electrocution was instantaneous. Edison saw an advantage here. Although claiming to be opposed to capital punishment, he argued that if it were to be done, it should be done with AC current - very conveniently, the technology used by his main competitor. Edison, in a losing battle with Westinghouse, wanted AC current to be closely associated with killing. So, Edison secretly funded "independent" research into the killing effects of the DC and AC current that laid the groundwork for creating an electric chair.

Death by the first electric chair, was neither swift nor painless. William Kimber, the first man to die in the electric chair took several minutes to die and was singed by the arc of the voltage, which filled the room with the stench of burning flesh. The New York Times captured the result with the headline "Far Worse Than Hanging."

Yet the modern aspects of electrocution reassured Americans that killing was a legitimate state function, so long as it was done gently. So paradoxically by making executions seem easier and more scientific, it made the death penalty more acceptable and less likely to be abolished as had been done in most of the Western World - the part of the world that, in the 19th century, was less technologically advanced.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises