Monday, August 6

AC, DC - Three Strikes and You're Out

A DC electric chair -
it's the same, but different.

By Art Cashin

On this day in 1890, a piece of Americana began.  And, it being America it had to do with violence, punishment, technology and enterprise.  In Auburn Prison, in New York, a man named William Kemmler (a/k/a Johnny Hart) was the first person executed in the electric chair.  And, as often happens in most American initiatives the first try went bad.  And, all because he made the simple mistake of accidently hitting his mistress, Tillie Zeigler, in the head, with an axe, 12 times.

But America wouldn't be America without partisans to an issue.  And, Kemmler's electrocution had lots of pros and cons.   One activist pushing for the execution was Thomas Alva Edison.  On the other side was his business adversary, George Westinghouse.  And, while the debate was  officially about capital punishment, in America naturally, the basis was commerce.

Edison had the head start in electricity. But his system was direct current (DC). Westinghouse had introduced a challenge with alternating current (AC).  The AC was gaining on Edison.  And, although the original electric chair was developed at Edison's laboratories, the NY Legislature approved an experimental model that used the Westinghouse (AC) method.

But, lest you think that made Westinghouse the winner, recall one more fact.  Both sides wanted folks to put electricity in their homes.  And, nothing could kill that idea easier than newspaper headlines of an electrocution in a chair proving electricity can kill. (Not in my house.)

So, for months, Edison fostered comments that said - - "Kill the Killer!"  And, Westinghouse, whose system was used, feared economic defeat.  So, he fostered vibrant comments to prevent the use of capital punishment.  Perversely, even today, both sides of the capital punishment argument use variations of what the two competitors presented.

In the end, Kemmler was electrocuted - - they had to throw the switch three times - - and in the end AC won out anyway.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

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