Read Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death by Mark Essig Online


A Discover magazine Top Science BookThomas 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 deviceA Discover magazine Top Science BookThomas 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....

Title : Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death
Author :
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ISBN : 9780802777102
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 368 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death Reviews

  • Ava Strange
    2019-05-27 21:23

    In a fascinating combination of science and history, Edison and the Electric Chair reveals a fast-paced account of how the electric chair came to be with the help of the brilliant inventor Thomas Edison. While some may find the specter of death to be the most alluring aspect of this book going in, it is much rather Edison himself whom we find ourselves very much wanting to learn more about. He’s a man of child-like curiosity and endless enthusiasm, clever from the very start. The book recounts a story of his early days in the telegraph business, when some men at a new job tried to haze him by sending over messages they hoped would be far too quick to translate. Edison couldn’t be tripped up, and when the correspondent on the other end started going so quickly he made mistakes, Edison replied “You seem tired, suppose you send a while with your other foot.” From then on, he was fully accepted into the group.But apart from being a lively, ebullient man of science, Edison was also incredibly intriguing. He was fiercely competitive, and even devious. He was strongly against capital punishment, and yet he did what he could to push electrocution as a humane new method of execution in order not only to ease the sufferings of the condemned, who until then had been hanged, but to discredit his competition, Westinghouse Electric. This web of intrigue and legal battles form the heart of the book and leave us wondering even more who exactly Edison was and what made him tick. Most of all, throughout the descriptions of his huge array of inventions, I was left wondering what exactly he would think of the technology of the world today. What would the man who invented the light bulb and the electric typewriter think about computers, for instance? This book could easily serve as a gateway to a full blown fascination for all things Edison.For those of you far less scientifically-minded, the details of how dynamos, transformers, and voltages work might prove to be a little on the dry side. And they are extremely detailed, though thankfully keeping in mind that very few readers are electricians and going to have an ingrained understanding of them. I suspect it may also serve as a gateway in this sense in encouraging some readers to start dabbling more in science books, and if I had a better grasp of these things, and not such a strong disposition towards history above all else, I may be one of these people. In fact I’m sure a great deal of you will find these sections to be altogether delightful.Those who pick up the book based on their taste for the macabre won’t be disappointed when the fatal moment arrives. The account of the first execution by the electric chair is riveting. Large undertakings such as these rarely work the very first time, and the results can be gruesome. I won’t say any more about this and ruin it for you, it’s arguably the best part of the book.One thing I personally found missing was Edison’s relationship with Nikola Tesla. I know almost nothing about the man, but knowing at the very least that he existed and that there was a rivalry between them made me curious to know more, especially since each inventor has quite a following with very strong feelings against the other. This omission to me is glaring, but I suppose will have to remain a subject for another book. I wonder if others will feel the same way. It seems to contribute to the book somewhat going out with a fizzle instead of a bang, offering just one teasing glimpse to remind us that there might be more to the story than we were given.So Thomas Edison, against capital punishment, encouraged the electric chair as a form of execution. In this way he professed to save lives as it would warn the world about the dangers of alternating current and therefor cripple Westinghouse electric. It didn’t work, and instead of being a step towards the abolition of capital punishment, the new method only encouraged it because of its relative humanity, and America’s culture of fondness for all things new and improved propelled it on a different course than the rest of the Western world. It is exactly as the title says, a story of light and death.

  • Todd Martin
    2019-06-15 22:28

    Edison and the Electric Chair is a melding of a biography of the famous inventor Thomas Edison and a history of capital punishment and the adoption of the electric chair in place of hanging. Though these topics might appear on the surface to be unrelated, it’s the figure of Edison that bridges the gap. During the late 1800’s Edison was engaged in a vicious battle with George Westinghouse over the use of alternating vs direct current for lighting and power (with Edison championing the latter). Alternating current had the advantage of being able to be transported long distances over thin copper wire with little loss in power. This was possible because of its higher voltage and current that could be stepped up and down through the use of transformers. Unfortunately, in an era when insulation was poorly understood and only marginally used in practice, this efficiency came at the cost of safety and several people died as a result of contact with exposed wires. Edison and those in his employment, in an effort to expose the dangers of this technology, suddenly decided to become leading proponents of electrocution to carry out capital punishment using … wait for it … alternating current. Hoping to bind his competitor’s product together with death by electrocution in the mind of the public, he staged public demonstrations in which dogs, calves and horses were electrocuted to prove the danger of Westinghouse’s technology. There are two possible explanations for Edison’s behavior. Either he truly believed that alternating current posed a grave public health risk and felt it necessary to go to extreme lengths to prove his point. Or, he was a cynical opportunist, willing to compromise his scruples (he opposed capital punishment) to gain a business advantage. Essig leaves the question hanging, choosing only to provide the historical evidence available and let the reader decide. However, looking back through the lens of history, two things are abundantly clear:1. Edison was wrong. Though direct current initially showed promise, the advantages of alternating current handily won the day and its risks have largely been managed.2. Edison was a despicable person. Incredibly, despite its unreliability, the suffering it’s caused, and the fact that it occasionally sets the condemned person’s head on fire, the electric chair is still used to carry out state sanctioned executions in the US with the most recent (as of this writing) occurring in January of 2013. In fact, not only is this barbaric remnant of the 19th century still with us, the US remains the only western country that still has a death penalty at all, executing 43 prisoners in 2012. That puts the US fifth in the world in absolute numbers behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen, but ahead of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Bangladesh and Somalia (the company we keep in this regard speaks volumes). Edison and the Electric Chair is a fascinating look at the life of a great inventor as well as his flaws. Essig does a great job both telling the story and explaining the scientific and historical context in which the events took place. The story is a compelling one, not only because it reveals the machinations that are involved in the most important political decisions involving life and death of real human beings, but because the consequences are still with us.

  • Polly
    2019-06-19 21:22

    I found this book when I was searching through for Thomas Edison for my research essay. The title attracts me with the electric chair because as in all my research I never read anything about Edison inventing or relating to the electric chair. The book starts off with a biography of Edison. He married twice and has a total of six kids. He invented the light bulb and starts the under ground electricity wire. He invented phonograph, better batteries for storage of energy, and the long legged Mary-Ann dynamo.His lighting system inspired many other new inventions like electric cocktail, the use of electricity to cook. The electric chair was also invented because the lose of electric current shocked and cause the death of many people, inventors start thinking about using electricity as a death machine. The book also captures the business part of Edison’s life not just his inventions. Thomas earned a lot of money through his invention but he did face a lot of challenges. He had once been a monopoly with his electricity company. Also Edison loves his wives, he cried and takes a year to recover from his first wife’s death and he was in love with his second wife.

  • Frederick Bingham
    2019-05-22 21:33

    This book is the story of the coming of the age of electricity. It discusses Edison, Westinghouse, the "war of the currents", the development of early public electric systems, the invention of the light bulb, early experiments with electrocution, etc. It describes the history of capital punishment in the 19th century from hanging to the guillotine to electrocution and Edison's backing of electrocution as a "humane" means of capital punishment.I enjoyed the description of early attempts to wire cities for electricity, telegraph and telephone. Before they were made to bury them, the wires were strung on poles with many wires to each pole. The profusion of wiring often lead to terrible accidents, including one of a New York lineman, fried while hundreds of people looked on in horror. The book includes lots of pictures and illustrations, including pictures of cities with and without all of these wires.

  • Gphatty
    2019-05-20 17:34

    Very enjoyable book. It was both a good narrative of business concerns that shape science and policy, as well as a good history book -- and a bonus refresher course on basic electrical theory and design. Major quibble: the author spent too much time re-inforcing the main idea that Edison was a proponent of electrocution for purely business reasons. It popped up in practically every chapter. Also, the florid eye-witness accounts of electrocutions -- however accurate -- got to be repetitive, too. Felt like a bad horror story.Still, another great -- and sobering -- account of how science typically moves forward. Highly recommended to lovers of science history, and even those who like histories of early industrial U.S.

  • Lori
    2019-06-19 19:16

    This is a fascinating book not only about how electricity was invented, but also how cities started using it, and even how Edison was horrified that it was eventually used for the electric chair. I thought it was neat to read about how back in the day workers at the electric company that installed the lines didn't know much about electricity and there were a lot of accidents. And what it was like for the average person to get this new invention in their home.

  • Volker Neumann
    2019-06-12 21:17

    A very readable history of Electricity in the USA, DC vs. AC, etc... and how the politics of it played out in capital punishment, of all places. Sort of a history of technology/policy/politics/business mishmash.

  • Lindsay Hicks
    2019-05-29 22:37

    Capitalism/competitiveness alive and well even in our American heroes. A great story on the history of electricity and the role it's founding competitors played. Do I need to say it was "electrifying" or is that just going too far?

  • Oliver Hazan
    2019-06-10 17:29

    Behind the sensationalistic title you will find a solid book about the Edison / Westinghouse rivalry at the dawn of the electric age. There are some gruesome passages about early capital punishment experiments.

  • Kusaimamekirai
    2019-05-30 22:25

    This is not a bad book by any means, but one that took a while to find its stride.The first half of the book briefly looks at the early lives of George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison and how they would come to be rivals. Unfortunately for the reader not scientifically inclined, a great deal of time is spent on the scientific differences between direct and alternating currents and how they were created. For those who enjoy or are comfortable with scientific jargon this is probably enjoyable. For those looking for more emphasis on the men themselves, you will probably be disappointed. The 2nd half of the book picks up considerably with some fascinating looks at the invention of the electric chair and its politics. I found myself cringing more than once at the astoundingly botched early attempts at execution and how the business rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse played such a large role. In short, this is mostly an enjoyable read. But part of me couldn't help feeling like it could have been so much more.

  • Ron
    2019-06-19 22:35

    A rather tediously told tale of Edison and Westinghouse battling it out over direct and alternating current, along with late 19th century debates over capital punishment and the search for a modern way to kill criminals humanely. the difference between alternating and direct current was never clearly enough explained to my mind, nor was the limitation of direct current (the need for generating stations every few blacks, it seems) dramatized well enough. The pictures of the remarkable frenzy of overhead wires in NYC were an amazing testimony to what we still have in too many areas of the country: wires in sight, ready to be crashed down in storms, instead of being buried. The descriptions of the poor guys in the chair were sad indeed.I wish he had mentioned that the nickname for the electric chair was "Ol' Sparky."

  • David Meyer
    2019-06-12 22:22

    This was an interesting and well told read. The book gave a decent introduction to Edison's life and to the science of electricity, thoroughly went through the journey Edison and others took leading to electricity and its widespread use, and then stayed pretty true to the story of the rise in use of the electric chair (and Edison's role). The most interesting story lines involve Edison and his main rival in the distribution of electricity (no, not Tesla), and the lies that were told along the way. Edison's aversion to capital punishment, but belief that it should be done in a humane way if done at all, led him to believe electrocution was the best way for a civilized society to execute prisoners.

  • Emily Ann Meyer
    2019-05-22 19:27

    Really interesting book that intertwines the history of progress in the harnessing electricity with death penalty policy and the contest between Westinghouse and Edison regarding alternative-current vs. direct-current as a standard. I walked away hating both men, honestly--in particular Edison really fell in my esteem based on what he did to animals (dogs!!) to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current and ascertain just how much was a lethal dose. There were some gruesome depictions of human electrocutions, too (both accidental and as part of the death penalty), so it's not a book for the squeamish, but an edifying read nonetheless.

  • Brian
    2019-06-14 17:17

    I was very impressed with this book as the details were well written in a way so not to lose the reader to a ho-hum yawn of history but exciting as it drew you into Edison's life as he invented the many things we take for granted today.Then the book turned to the electric chair and the politics that surrounded it. Overall and very good read !

  • Chris
    2019-06-04 14:23

    Bought it because I was friends with the author in college, ran into him at the Grad unexpectedly, started it but set it aside when I had my baby. Since the kid's four now, I should pull it back out....

  • Shaun
    2019-05-19 19:23

    Great story about one of America's greatest men. Author's ability is only mediocre.

  • Alicia
    2019-06-06 21:21

    Poor writing, but interesting subject matter.

  • Kim Stallwood
    2019-05-26 16:38

    Detailed and authoritative account of Edison and his role, with others, in the development of the electric chair.

  • Brett
    2019-06-03 19:17

    It's not Hemingway by any stretch, but it connected two things I had never connected in my head before now. And that deserves 4 stars.

  • Steven Spector
    2019-06-16 22:35

    A good early history of state-sanctioned killing with a great analysis of the competing corporate interests behind the device. That Edison, he sure did get around!