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

by

Edison & the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death Cover

 

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Thomas Edison stunned America in 1879 by unveiling a world-changing invention — the lightbulb. 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. In the 1880s, as he feverishly wired Manhattan and other cities with his revolutionary direct — current lines, his bitter rival, George Westinghouse, was undercutting his business with a less expensive alternating-current system.

As the battle for electrical dominance raged, a number of accidental electrocutions caused by alternating current caught the public's attention — none more graphic than the 1889 death of Western Union lineman John Feeks, whose corpse dangled for hours in a tangle of wires in lower Manhattan, to the horror of thousands of onlookers.

The debate over the safety of alternating current peaked just as New York's legislators were seeking a more humane alternative to the gallows. Called on for his expertise, Edison helped persuade state officials to reject the guillotine and lethal injection in favor of electricity. He conducted dramatic tests on animals to determine the deadliest formula and asserted that "it will be so lightning-quick that the criminal can't suffer much." But there was a catch: Edison insisted that his own direct current was perfectly safe — only Westinghouse's alternating current could cause certain death in the electric chair.

Was Edison genuinely concerned about the suffering of the condemned? Was he waging a campaign to smear 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, Edison & the Electric Chair brings to life an era when the public was mesmerized and terrified by an invisible force that produced blazing light, powered streetcars, carried telephone conversations — and killed. Mark Essig's colorful narrative is thick with surprising twists and vivid details — including Benjamin Franklin's slaughter of turkeys with static electricity, industrial espionage involving letters stolen from a locked office, experts who proposed execution by electric hut or table before settling on a chair, and the gripping story of hatchet-murderer William Kemmler, the first man to die in the electric chair.

With dark humor, original research, and dynamic prose, Edison & the Electric Chair explores America's love of technology and its fascination with violent death, opening a new window on a pivotal moment in American history.

Review:

"Whereas Essig recites the well-known history of public execution...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.'" Publishers Weekly

Review:

"Essig?s fine account...doesn?t diminish Edison?s reputation as a scientific innovator and entrepreneur, but it certainly lessens our estimation of him as a human." Kirkus Reviews

Synopsis:

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 Americas 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 Westinghouses 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 Americas streets? Plumbing the fascinating history of electricity, Mark Essig explores Americas 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.

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.
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.
"A thoroughly modern view of Edison, removed from his pedestal."—The Washington Post Book World
 
"Steeped in historical scholarship and written with sober elegance."—Newsday
 
"Reads like a good novel."—The Economist
 
"[An] engaging and meticulously researched book. Edison & the Electric Chair delivers a thrilling jolt of discovery."—Entertainment Weekly
 
 

Synopsis:

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 Americas 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 Westinghouses 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 Americas streets? Plumbing the fascinating history of electricity, Mark Essig explores Americas 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.

About the Author

Born and raised in St. Louis, Mark Essig has lived in Virginia, upstate New York, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and recently moved to Los Angeles. Edison & the Electric Chair is his first book.

Table of Contents

Edison on the witness stand — Early sparks — The inventor — Light — Electricity and life — "Down to the last penny" — Wiring New York — The hanging ritual — The Death Penalty Commission — George Westinghouse and the rise of alternating current — The electrical execution law — "A desperate fight" — "Criminal economy" — Condemned — Showdown — The unmasking of Harold Brown — Pride and reputation — The electric wire panic — Designing the electric chair — The conversion of William Kemmler — The first experiment — After Kemmler — The end of the battle of the currents — The age of the electric chair — The new spectacle of death

Product Details

ISBN:
9780802714060
Subtitle:
A Story of Light and Death
Author:
Essig, Mark
Author:
Essig, Mark Regan
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
History
Subject:
United states
Subject:
Electricity
Subject:
Penology
Subject:
Science & Technology
Subject:
Electrocution.
Subject:
Edison, Thomas A
Subject:
Electrocution - United States - History
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
2001-10
Publication Date:
20051001
Binding:
Hardcover
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
52 BandW illustrations
Pages:
368
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.50 in

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Crime » Punishment
Science and Mathematics » History of Science » General
Science and Mathematics » History of Science » Technology

Edison & the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death Used Hardcover
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Product details 368 pages Walker & Company - English 9780802714060 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Whereas Essig recites the well-known history of public execution...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.'"
"Review" by , "Essig?s fine account...doesn?t diminish Edison?s reputation as a scientific innovator and entrepreneur, but it certainly lessens our estimation of him as a human."
"Synopsis" by ,
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 Americas 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 Westinghouses 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 Americas streets? Plumbing the fascinating history of electricity, Mark Essig explores Americas 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.

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.
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.
"A thoroughly modern view of Edison, removed from his pedestal."—The Washington Post Book World
 
"Steeped in historical scholarship and written with sober elegance."—Newsday
 
"Reads like a good novel."—The Economist
 
"[An] engaging and meticulously researched book. Edison & the Electric Chair delivers a thrilling jolt of discovery."—Entertainment Weekly
 
 

"Synopsis" by ,
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 Americas 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 Westinghouses 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 Americas streets? Plumbing the fascinating history of electricity, Mark Essig explores Americas 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.

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