In July 1820, Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted published a groundbreaking pamphlet on the relationship between electric current and magnetic fields, effectively kicking off our modern electric age. You may think about electromagnetism every July when you look at your power bill and see how it spikes when your air conditioner is on. In honor of everyone getting zapped by the electric company this month, we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to set us straight on some high-voltage misconceptions about electricity, correcting all of our shocking ignorance. He knows "watts" up. He keeps current.
The Debunker: Did Thomas Edison Electrocute an Elephant to Discredit AC?
In the late 19th-century land rush to light America's cities with electricity, the two biggest players were Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. The Edison Electric Light Company was expanding its direct current (DC)-based system, but Westinghouse Electric Company had licensed inventor Nikola Tesla's patents for an alternating current (AC) grid. This was VHS vs. Betamax writ large, with the future of the 20th century at stake. The stakes were so high, in fact, that the competition quickly got ugly, with Edison's company colluding with "activists" to convince the public that AC was a public health hazard that would soon be electrocuting consumers left and right, and even manipulating the State of New York into executing criminals with Westinghouse AC generators in hopes of sullying the brand.
Today, many who remember the so-called "War of Currents" associate it with an eye-popping kinetoscope from Edison Studios called Electrocuting an Elephant. In the 74-second film, a Coney Island circus elephant called Topsy is euthanized for bad behavior. Copper sandals are fitted to Topsy's feet, and her body soon stiffens and begins to smoke as 6,600 volts of alternating current are pumped through her. When the current is cut, she topples over, dead.
This bizarre curio of a film is hard to watch today, especially when you know that Topsy's "crimes" were mostly instigated by her cruel, drunken handler William Alt, and that the execution was a public spectacle dreamed up by the owners of Luna Park to sell tickets. But one thing the execution was not was anti-Westinghouse propaganda. Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, a decade after the War of the Currents had already ended! By 1903, the practical advantages of alternating current were clear. Edison had stepped down from his power company (which abandoned his DC fervor and became General Electric) and was nowhere near Luna Park when stuff went down. But because he got a screen credit on the Electrocuting the Elephant film, and technicians from his old company were on-site, the Wizard of Menlo Park has recently been taking the rap for an elephant murder he had nothing to do with.
Quick Quiz: Topsy was named after a memorably naïve character in what bajillion-selling 1852 novel?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.