Thomas Edison…Kills an Elephant?

One of our favorite topics here at Guerrilla Explorer is what we like to call “Dark History,” or the ugly bits of the past that get papered over by modern scholars eager to tell hero’s tales. Case in point…the man who killed Topsy the elephant via electrocution…none other than Thomas Edison himself.

Thomas Edison: Killed Topsy the Elephant via Electrocution

Thomas Edison: Killed Topsy the Elephant via Electrocution
Attribution: Victor Daireaux (1880s)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Edison: Inventer or Patent Abuser?

According to the history books, Edison, aka The Wizard of Menlo Park, was a prolific inventor responsible for creating many wonderful things, including the light bulb. Except Edison didn’t create the light bulb. He just took Sir Joseph Swan’s working design and made a few small modifications. Then he patented it in America and proceeded to publicize himself as the true inventor. Indeed, Edison’s abuse of the patent system is reason he’s credited as the 4th most prolific inventor in history.

The Electrocution of Topsy the Elephant?

But today we’re focusing on something else, namely the War of Currents. The War of Currents was a long-pitched ferocious battle to determine the future of electric power distribution in the United States. It pitted Edison’s direct current (DC) against the alternating current (AC) promoted by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. By January 4, 1903, Edison had essentially lost the war. But he refused to give up. Instead, he resorted to fear-mongering and attempted to show the dangers of AC. How? By electrocuting an elephant named Topsy.

Of course, standards were different back then. Still, the death of Topsy showed the lengths the desperate Edison was willing to go to win the War of Currents. It was a brutal demonstration. For the curious ones among you, here’s a clip from Edison’s film, Electrocuting an Elephant. Warning: It’s not for the faint of heart.

Here’s more on Edison’s electrocution of Topsy from Wired:

Edison’s aggressive campaign to discredit the new current took the macabre form of a series of animal electrocutions using AC (a killing process he referred to snidely as getting “Westinghoused”). Stray dogs and cats were the most easily obtained, but he also zapped a few cattle and horses.

Edison got his big chance, though, when the Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island decided that Topsy, a cranky female elephant who had squashed three handlers in three years (including one idiot who tried feeding her a lighted cigarette), had to go.

Park officials originally considered hanging Topsy but the SPCA objected on humanitarian grounds, so someone suggesting having the pachyderm “ride the lightning,” a practice that had been used in the American penal system since 1890 to dispatch the condemned. Edison was happy to oblige…

(See Wired.com for more on Edison’s electrocution of Topsy)

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