Dr. Fred Bortz

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

by Mark Essig

(Walker, $26.00, 368 pages, 40 b/w images, September 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In Edison & the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, historian Mark Essig makes his literary debut by juxtaposing the story of a classic clash of American industrialists with an ongoing cultural struggle in American society. The combination seems odd -- the technological question of electrification by alternating or direct current, and the political debates that have swirled about capital punishment for more than a century -- but with Thomas Edison at the center of both, the book earns the right to be called "illuminating."

Edison's triumphs as inventor, entrepreneur, and self-made man are well known, but Mr. Essig relates a battle that Edison ultimately lost to another industrial giant, George Westinghouse. Though alternating current powers today's homes, businesses, and factories, its ultimate triumph over direct current was not an easy one. Edison was an icon who had made electric light safe and practical, and he was developing direct-current electrical distribution systems that could not only light homes and businesses but also power the machines of factories.

But d.c. had a serious limitation. The user had to be within a mile or so of the generator; otherwise, too much electrical energy would be lost to resistance in the copper transmission lines.

Westinghouse saw a way out of that problem. Transformers could easily raise the voltage (electrical pressure) of alternating currents, driving more energy through less copper. Though aware of the dangers of high voltage, Westinghouse believed that alternating current technology could be made safe. He also believed that a.c.'s other significant limitations -- the inability to build a.c. motors and to meter its use -- would also be overcome.

The battle between the two technologies played out on an odd stage. Capital punishment advocates saw execution by electricity as quick and painless, and therefore both more humane and more acceptable politically. Death-penalty opponent Edison seized the opportunity to wage industrial war against Westinghouse by going on record that alternating current was the technology of choice for executing ("Westinghousing") the condemned.

Though the machinations of both Edison and Westinghouse make for a fascinating tale, perceptive readers are likely to become uncomfortable with a presentation that grows persistently more unbalanced. Mr. Essig presents Edison as a fully fleshed-out protagonist while antagonist Westinghouse remains largely a caricature.

In the end, the book excuses Edison's ethical lapses by cloaking them in moral superiority. In contrast, Westinghouse, who could be legitimately viewed as visionary for his successful promotion of a.c. technology, emerges as unfeeling and therefore not entitled to respect. That gives the book a didactic feel, which is amplified by a final chapter on the history of capital punishment up to the present and an epilogue that heavy-handedly presents the author's view of the death penalty. Even readers who share that opinion are left with an uncomfortable sense of not being permitted to form their own.

Dr. Fred Bortz is a physicist who writes electrifying science books for young readers.