Electric Elephant

My guess is the majority of people asked to name the “father” of electricity would answer Thomas Edison. Edison was a remarkable man; he held over 1000 patents, gave us phonographs, light bulbs, DC electric currents, and an electrocuted elephant.

Edison ruled the roost during early industrialised electrical power; his light bulb the best invention since steam engines. An astute visionary, he still struggled with technical bumps in his road. Enter Nicola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant to America in 1884.

Edison hired Tesla as a electrical engineer at Edison Machine Works. Tesla proved his value almost immediately;  basic work quickly abandoned by a request to redesign Edison’s DC generator. Tesla claimed he knew how to re-work designs for Edison motors and generators – Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if his redesign proved to be efficient and economical as promised. Tesla kept his end of the bargain, Edison laughed it off, saying Tesla didn’t understand he was joking, and lacked the ability to grasp American humour. Edison offered a raise of $10 a week  (Tesla was receiving $18 a week) – Tesla walked, the feud was on.

1886 saw Tesla form the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing company – based on arc lighting systems patented by Tesla. He knocked heads with investors by insisting AC was the current of choice. Their lack of vision saw him fired, penniless and digging ditches until 1887 when Tesla Electric Company formed on the bank roll of more enlightened money. By 1888 he patented his AC induction motor. George Westinghouse caught wind, bought the design for $60,000, stocks perks and a $2.50 royalty for every AC horsepower each motor spat out. iced with a $2000 dollar a month salary to work at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh designing AC powered street cars. Ultimately Tesla failed to incorporate his AC vision to Pittsburgh street transportation and Edison’s direct current prevailed. Despite a minor street car victory, Edison read the writing on the wall.

Edison had a plan – a grand standing circus side show of a plan – he would demonstrate the danger and folly of Tesla’s current. He would put on a “show”, a campaign worthy of mention in the spin doctoring publicist marketing hall of fame. Edison decided public demonstrations of death by alternating current were the answer to waning interest in DC power applications.

Edison began tentatively – public electrocution of stray dogs and cats. A few cows and horses followed – each event built around an exuberant “this could happen to you” theme. On January 4, 1903, Edison staged his final “show” for 1,500 onlookers. Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island had an uppity elephant to dispatch – Edison sent “Topsy” to her grave – feeding her cyanide soaked carrots moments before death ( a little insurance on the deal) – the execution caught on film and contained in the link below. I haven’t the stomach to watch it myself.


Below are links from inventors.com – first Edison, then Tesla.



9 thoughts on “Electric Elephant

  1. Ha, you touched a nerve in an old(ish) engineer turned geek inventor. Tesla is my hero! Edison leaves a bad taste in my mouth (although he did a lot of valuable stuff)

    Tesla and Edison are like Jobs and Gates, genius vs commerce. Genius dies young, it seems and commerce has the last crooked laugh.

    In spite of that, one nice feature in history is that Tesla was forever honored by naming a science unit after him: the Tesla, unit of magnetic flux density. Edison on the other hand is forever stuck with dated inventions of phonographs and light bulbs.

    Tesla rocks!

      • I’m sure people had no idea that Edison was misleading them with his electrocution shows.

        The same is happening today by the anti-nuclear lobby who stirs great fear in us with radiation deaths from nuclear accidents. History will teach us that the destruction of our planet from burning fossil fuels and the millions of (fuel) pollution related deaths was such a massive elephant in the room that we will wonder how on earth we fell for the “nuclear is scary!’ message.

        Why are geniuses such lousy salesmen?

    • As geneticfractals said above – why are geniuses lousy salesmen? He hit the nail on the head – Edison was no more an a-hole than countless CEO’s and corporations today. Edison was clever and driven – Tesla was in a league of his own.

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