Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice has launched a blog series on issues raised by mass incarceration and the death penalty. This week's post is by Kelly Oliver, W. Alton Jones Chair of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University. Oliver describes the "war of currents" between Edison and Westinhouse that led to the invention of the electric chair and the domination of the electricity market by a company backed by Edison:
Edison had invested himself in direct current electricity while Westinghouse had invested in alternating current, which could be more easily transmitted at higher voltages over cheaper wires. In a campaign to discredit alternating current, Edison tried to convince people that it wasn’t safe, first by using it to electrocute animals and eventually by endorsing it for use in executing humans. Edison reasoned that people would not want the same current flowing into their homes that was used in the electric chair.
In public demonstrations to discredit Westinghouse, Edison reportedly executed so many stray cats and dogs, often in circuslike spectacles involving first shocking the animals with direct current and then killing them instantly with alternating current, that the area near his lab in Menlo Park New Jersey was almost devoid of strays. In 1887, he held a public demonstration in West Orange New Jersey, where he used a Westinghouse generator to kill a dozen animals at once, which spurred the media to use a new term to describe death by electricity, “electrocution.”
Oliver's post, and her further work on the death penalty in The Southern Journal of Philosophy and in her book, Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment, offers a much-needed historical context for recent legislation allowing a return to electrocution in Tennessee, and for ongoing debates about capital punishment across the US.
Read the full post here.