Cover image for Edison & the electric chair : a story of light and death
Edison & the electric chair : a story of light and death
Essig, Mark, 1969-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Company, 2003.
Physical Description:
358 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV8696 .E87 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV8696 .E87 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Grosvenor Room-Buffalo Collection Non-Circ
HV8696 .E87 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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A Discover magazine Top Science Book

Thomas Edison stunned America in 1879 by unveiling a world-changing invention--the light bulb--and then launching the electrification of America's cities. A decade later, despite having been an avowed opponent of the death penalty, Edison threw his laboratory resources and reputation behind the creation of a very different sort of device--the electric chair. Deftly exploring this startling chapter in American history, Edison & the Electric Chair delivers both a vivid portrait of a nation on the cusp of modernity and a provocative new examination of Edison himself.

Edison championed the electric chair for reasons that remain controversial to this day. Was Edison genuinely concerned about the suffering of the condemned? Was he waging a campaign to smear his rival George Westinghouse's alternating current and boost his own system? Or was he warning the public of real dangers posed by the high-voltage alternating wires that looped above hundreds of America's streets? Plumbing the fascinating history of electricity, Mark Essig explores America's love of technology and its fascination with violent death, capturing an era when the public was mesmerized and terrified by an invisible force that produced blazing light, powered streetcars, carried telephone conversations--and killed.

Author Notes

Mark Essig earned a doctorate in American history from Cornell University. A native of St. Louis, he now lives in Los Angeles. This is his first book.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

How fitting it is that Komunyakaa, a bold and brilliant poet from the African American South and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, selected the year's best poems for the seventeenth volume in this exciting series, given the unusually conspicuous role poetry played in the news, including the poets' protest against the war in Iraq, as observed by series editor Lehman in his trenchant foreword. And there is, indeed, a palpable urgency and sharp awareness of the precariousness of life in the potent and diverse poems Komunyakaa has so astutely gathered. Brigit Pegeen Kelly's The Dragon, a stunning description of a startling sight--two swarms of bees fly a snake over a garden--is followed by Galway Kinnell's intense remembrance of 9/11. Richard Howard's martini-dry wit plays in enlivening counterpoint to the down-home heat of Rodney Jones, and Wendell Berry and Michael Goldman unflinchingly assess the state of our species. By the close of this superbly edgy collection, the reader is torn between wonder and despair over humankind's capacity for beauty and horror. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Thomas Edison was deeply concerned about public safety and stoutly opposed to capital punishment. Yet except for the rivalry with George Westinghouse, he would have remained a closet humanitarian. Or so historian of science Essig argues in his first book. The race between Edison, advocate of direct current (DC), and Westinghouse, champion of alternating current (AC), to build an electrical empire in the 1880s is a classic example of runaway Gilded Age capitalism. Essig recounts Edison's early work on electricity and the opening of Manhattan's Pearl Street power plant in 1882. Just four years later, Westinghouse opened his own plant and quickly outpaced Edison in acquiring municipal contracts. Edison publicly decried AC as a safety hazard and convinced New York legislators that electricity offered the cleanest execution method available-provided it was done with AC. Thus in 1890 William Kemmler became the electric chair's first victim. He was not, however, the first victim of electrocution. Around this time, a spectacular series of fatal accidents triggered a citywide panic; and New York ordered unsafe wires cut down. Westinghouse protested while Edison applauded: DC cables were underground. Nonetheless, AC triumphed in the end. Whereas Essig recites the well-known history of public execution and follows the death-penalty debate into the 1990s, he passes over the opportunity to discuss the history of risk and regulation, leaving readers to deduce for themselves the significance of the "battle of the currents" for all citizens condemned to live-and die-in a modern technological nation. 40 b&w illus. History Book Club alternate. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

For believers in capital punishment, Essig recalls some of the technical controversy in the 1880s over whether lawful human killing should be done by electrocution. For nonbelievers, the true terror of the electric chair can be seen as scientific but more horrifying. Thomas Edison himself said, "I think that the killing of a human being is an act of foolish barbarity." Yet he had no qualms about creating a better way to kill and promoted electricity as "more certain and perhaps a little more civilized than the rope." Mired in the controversy over which type of electricity--his DC current or George Westinghouse's AC current--should be used for street lighting, etc., some historians suggest that Edison supported AC current sources for state executions in order to trigger government regulations to limit AC current uses based on its danger to human life. The US's love for technology and its fascination with violent death are certainly captured in this technological history of early electricity. Enormous reference list; some pictures and diagrams; useful index. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels. F. Potter formerly, University of California, Irvine