Thomas Edison vs. The Elephant

July 25, 2013

In 1903, Thomas Edison used 6,600 volts of electricity to kill an elephant. Why? Because he was kind of a jerk. But more than that, he was concerned about losing the “War of Currents” to his rival, George Westinghouse.

Thomas Edison ElephantBy the beginning of the 20th century, electricity was spreading to homes and businesses across America. The preferred method was AC, or “alternating current” electricity, devised by entrepreneur George Westinghouse. One guy not too happy about that: Thomas Edison, who came up with DC, or “direct current” electricity. Edison was still unwilling to accept his defeat and wanted to stage a publicity stunt to prove that his method was the superior method.

Edison went about promoting DC power, and showing that it was safe and effective, in a very bizarre way—he’d publicly electrocute animals. Through the 1890s and into the 1900s, Edison killed cats, horses, an orangutan, and once helped the state of New York execute a convicted ax murderer.

But the pinnacle of Edison’s peculiar crusade was the execution of Topsy, a 28-year-old elephant who had killed three people and had to be put down. Topsy hadn’t actually killed those three people, though. She’d acted in self-defense, stomping an abusive trainer who, among other brutal acts, tossed a lit cigar into her mouth. Nevertheless, 1,500 spectators came out to Luna Park on Coney Island in January 1903 to witness Topsy’s execution.

Topsy was first fed carrots laced with potassium cyanide (a “backup” in case the execution didn’t work), before Edison hooked her up to a series of electrodes. He flipped the switch and down poor Topsy went.

And what was the aftermath? Did Edison prove once and for all the greatness of DC power by using it to kill one of nature’s most powerful beasts? Not exactly—AC remained the industry standard. One hundred years after the Topsy event, in 2003, a memorial to the elephant opened on Coney Island. There’s another memorial. Edison, one of the pioneers of motion pictures, filmed the execution. Title: “Electrocuting an Elephant.” Here is the link to the video…but be warned…it’s pretty sad and gruesome.