Paul B. Israel, The Papers of Thomas Edison — Volume 8, New Beginnings, January, 1885, to December, 1887. Edited by Israel, the director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers, with Louis Carlat, Theresa M. Collins, Alexandra R. Rimer, and Daniel J. Weeks. Johns Hopkins University Press, www.press.jhu.edu.

Rutgers’ Piscataway-based Thomas A. Edison Papers Project claims it is “one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken by an American university.” It’s hard to argue. The project began in 1978 and seeks to create order out of 5 million pages of documents associated with the life and achievements of Thomas Alva Edison.

In this, the eighth out of a projected 15 volumes, the letters and documents cover the years 1885, 1886, and 1887. Just two decades after the Civil War, America was turning its attention to inventors and entrepreneurs. Edison was a leading player in both roles from his home base in West Orange, New Jersey. The years 1885 to 1887 “were transformative in Edison’s life and work, as his career branched out into diversified fields and he married for a second time,” as the editors note in the preface.

One of Edison’s professional challenges was the challenge to his direct current (DC) electrical distribution system being posed by George Westinghouse, who was building a rival company based on alternating current (AC) distribution.

The editors describe Westinghouse’s breakthroughs in late 1885 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, that led directly to a successful demonstration of an AC system there. After forming the Westinghouse Electric Company early the next year he put up a demonstration system near Pittsburgh in the fall of 1886 and another at Buffalo, New York, that November. As the editors write:

“Edison quickly identified Westinghouse as the primary high-voltage AC threat. Edison . . . redoubled his ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency of the incandescent lamp, a goal he would pursue relentlessly in his new laboratory. The great problem, after all, was simply to reduce the amount of copper needed to carry current for a lighting system without disproportionately increasing electrical losses. Edison saw the greatest gains to be made not in the means of generation or transmission of electrical power, but in its consumption. The lamp was an integral part of his entire system, and devising lamps to use only half the power they did at the time, which he was confident of doing, would make it ‘positively impossible’ for AC rivals to compete with his own system.

“Edison could summon from lengthy experience reasons to distrust the approach taken by Westinghouse, a newcomer to electricity. . . Foremost among them was the possibility that alternating current, both by its nature and by dint of the high voltages proposed, could threaten the safety of the public and electrical linemen. Though these concerns may now appear self-serving, and Edison did later push them to incendiary extremes, they were also part of larger discourse about the safety of electrical wires in cities. Edison did not refer to medical authorities to support his arguments about the outsized physiological effects of AC but his beliefs seemingly were in earnest.

“Responding in 1882 to an animal welfare advocate’s inquiry about humane euthanasia, he unhesitatingly recommended an alternating current generator to ‘kill instantly without suffering the very largest of animals’.”

With that background in mind, the editors provide a letter sent in late 1887, in response to a supporter of capital punishment, who had been writing to Edison in hopes of getting technical data on how much current would be required to kill a man. While Edison apparently was reluctant to support the death penalty on moral grounds, he did point out the fatal consequences associated with this rival’s method of distribution. Edison’s response:

Dear Sir:

I am in receipt of y[our] letter 5th inst. In further reference to E[lec]tricity as an agent to supplant the gallows, and have carefully considered your remarks.

Your points are well taken and though I would join heartily in an effort to totally abolish capital punishment, I at the same time realize that while the system is recognized by the State, it is the duty of the latter to adopt the most humane method available for the purpose of disposing of criminals under sentence of death.

The best appliance in this connection is, to my mind, the one which will perform its work in the shortest space of time, and inflict the least amount of suffering upon its victim. . . The most suitable apparatus for the purpose is that class of dynamo Electric machinery which employs intermittent currents.

The most effective of these are known as “Alternating Machines,” manufactured principally in this country by Mr Geo. Westinghouse, Pittsburgh, and the cost of appliances sufficient for the work above would hardly exceed $2500; the cost of maintenance would be a mere trifle owing to the infrequent use of the apparatus.

The passage of the current from these machines through the human body, even by the slightest contacts, produces instantaneous death, practical evidence of which has been supplied during the past six months in the city of New Orleans, where two men have been killed and others injured by this quality of current. The details of this circumstance I cannot myself furnish, but doubtless the New Orleans authorities would provide you with accurate data, if you consider it would assist you in arriving at a solution of the problem you have commenced to work out.

Yours very truly

Thos A Edison

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