One hundred and twenty-three years after Luigi Galvani electrocuted a dead frog, making its muscles contract and its legs twitch, a crowd gathered at Coney Island waiting to see an execution. Topsy the Elephant had killed three people, and even if one of them had fed her a lit cigarette, no one was much interested in granting clemency. Luna Park on Coney Island featured a number of elephants who gave rides to the amusement park’s guests, and there was no way that they were going to let a rogue elephant remain at the park. The concept of animal cruelty being a more flexible one then; the ASPCA had objected to the original plan to hang Topsy, so unlike Mary the elephant, hanged in 1916, Topsy was going to die in the most modern and humane way possible: she was going to be electrocuted. The man behind Topsy’s execution was the "Wizard of Menlo Park" and father of direct current electricity, Thomas Edison. The electric chair had only recently been adopted by New York State, and Edison saw it as a chance to strike a blow against alternating current. Edison’s patents on electrical generation all covered direct current; he had over a hundred power plants up and running by the 1880s, but due to the limitations of direct current, which could be transmitted only a few miles, Edison was really more in the business of selling generators. Enter prototypical mad scientist Nikola Tesla. Tesla, who was revolted by human hair, thought that he received transmissions from extraterrestrials, and obsessively calculated the volume of food that he ate, also happened to be perhaps the greatest single inventor of the twentieth century, recipient of literally hundreds of patents. He developed a remote-controlled boat in 1898, discovered how to transmit power wirelessly (reportedly this plan was scrapped when he and his partners couldn’t figure out how to charge for it), devised plans for wireless news transmissions, and according to Tesla: Man Out of Time, once caused a localized earthquake in New York while experimenting with harmonic resonance. His radio experiments predated Marconi’s invention of the radio (the Tesla coil could be used for transmission), and he invented both the step-down transformer that made the system of high-voltage, long-distance electrical transmission work and the AC motor that made it practical.
Tesla’s business partner was George Westinghouse, no slouch of an inventor hmself; having invented the air brake at age 22, Westinghouse had built a commercial empire. And now Tesla, with Westinghouse’s backing, was poised to challenge Edison to see who would wire America. Tesla, Westinghouse, and Westinghouse’s employees designed the equipment that made Niagara Falls into a hydroelectric power source and Buffalo into a huge industrial center, and the War of the Currents had begun. Alternating current, which changes the direction of its flow many times per second, had many commercial advantages over direct current. On the other hand, it could kill; Tesla liked to demonstrate AC’s safety by running current through himself, but he was a man who played with ball lightning; alternating current really was dangerous, and it really could kill people. Edison, always a man who knew how to sell things, hired an outside engineer named Harold Brown to demonstrate the efficiency of electrocution in killing animals. When New York State adopted the modern means of killing criminals (starting with a modern murderer named William Kemmler), Edison and Brown had an opportunity to cement the relationship. In the public’s imagination, they wanted to make sure that alternating current stood for death. Westinghouse refused to sell the state the generators needed to make the electric chair work, but to no avail; Brown bought secondhand equipment on the sly, and one history of the early power industry notes that for years, people referred to death by electrocution as being "Westinghoused".
But the technical advantages of the AC system couldn’t be overcome. Tesla, Westinghouse, and Westinghouse’s employees designed the equipment that made Niagara Falls into a hydroelectric power source. In 1896, Buffalo began receiving power generated at the falls, and it slowly transformed into an industrial center. Perhaps more important than the technical successes were Westinghouse’s public relations triumphs, most notably lighting the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Westinghouse team was able to dramatically underbid Edison to provide electric lights that were seen by millions of people. The Exhibition may have marked the beginning of the end for DC transmission. Topsy’s execution was something of a desperate attempt to discredit a technology that had already won out. By 1928, the Edison Electric Luminating Company was advertising their ability to wire houses for AC transmitted from distant power plants. Samuel Insull, once Edison’s personal secretary, had grown into bare-knuckled titan of industry in his own right, controlling numerous electric utilities across the nation (and building Chicago’s El while he was at it) before his business empire’s collapse during the Depression.
Edison lost the war to stop alternating current, but the vast array of his commercial interests and an eye towards mythbuilding served him well. He quite literally left his mark on American commerce; General Electric has grown to be America’s largest corporation, but Edison’s name lives on in electric companies like Consolidated Edison, Commonwealth Edison, and Edison International. Westinghouse’s corporate namesake shattered years ago, turning into a nuclear energy company, a division of Sweden’s Electrolux appliance company, and CBS, among others. But George Westinghouse’s name remains familiar; despite the efforts of people like Laurie Anderson, Tesla is more likely to be identified as a hair-metal band than as a highly eccentric genius. Tesla’s solitary nature and his failures as a businessman probably ensured that he would never have been a fixture in the American entrepreneurial pantheon. Edison might not have been a once-in-a-century genius like Tesla, but he understood promotion. William Dickson, as assistant in Edison’s lab, was responsible for the majority of the experimentation that led to the development of the motion picture, but today, by and large, it is Edison who is largely associated with the birth of cinema. (How many schools are named after William Dickson? How many statues have been erected to Insull, who after fleeing the country and the wrath of his creditors, was extradited, found innocent, and then largely forgotten?) If only Tesla had been a better businessman, he might have commercialized radio a decade earlier, funded his experiments into the duality of the photon, even developed the Professor Frink-ian death ray that Tesla enthusiasts out on the fringe wonder about today. Then again, perhaps it would have made no difference. After all, despite his immense talents for both invention and self-promotion, Edison never managed to build a device to allow him to capture the voices of the dead. And that’s probably for the best — just imagine, for instance, what Topsy would have had to say.