From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
a portion of Edison’s film Electrocuting an Elephant, taken from a
German television show
“Topsy the elephant was electrocuted at Luna Park Zoo on Coney Island
in 1903. Captured on film by Thomas Edison, the event was one of a
string of animal electrocutions Edison staged to discredit a new form
of electricity: alternating current.”
Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point
BY Tony Long / 01.04.08
1903: Thomas Edison stages his highly publicized electrocution of an
elephant in order to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current,
which, if it posed any immediate danger at all, was to Edison’s own
Edison had established direct current at the standard for electricity
distribution and was living large off the patent royalties, royalties
he was in no mood to lose when George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla
showed up with alternating current.
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.
When the day came, Topsy was restrained using a ship’s hawser fastened
on one end to a donkey engine and on the other to a post. Wooden
sandals with copper electrodes were attached to her feet and a copper
wire run to Edison’s electric light plant, where his technicians
awaited the go-ahead.
In order to make sure that Topsy emerged from this spectacle more than
just singed and angry, she was fed cyanide-laced carrots moments
before a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body. Officials
needn’t have worried. Topsy was killed instantly and Edison, in his
mind anyway, had proved his point.
A crowd put at 1,500 witnessed Topsy’s execution, which was filmed by
Edison and released later that year as Electrocuting an Elephant.
In the end, though, all Edison had to show for his efforts was a
string of dead animals, including the unfortunate Topsy, and a current
that quickly fell out of favor as AC demonstrated its superiority in
less lethal ways to become the standard.
Topsy, Electrocuted by Edison
Died 1903 – Coney Island, New York
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, one of the biggest
attractions at Coney Island’s “Luna Park” was its private herd of
elephants, which roamed freely. A favorite was Topsy, a three-ton
tusker whose great strength had been put to use building the
attractions that made Coney Island so much fun.
But Topsy had a temper. She killed three men in three years, the last
a drunk trainer who had fed her a lit cigarette. Topsy had to go. But
how? The authorities fed her carrots laced with cyanide. She wolfed
them down without effect. Topsy was one tough elephant.
Thompson & Dundy, who owned Luna Park, decided to turn Topsy into a
moral issue — and to make a profit at the same time. They announced
that man-killer Topsy would be publicly hanged for her crimes. The
ASPCA protested: Hanging was cruel and inhuman punishment. After all,
hadn’t New York State just replaced the gallows with a modern electric
All right, said Thompson and Dundy. Coney Island has a powerful
electrical plant — we’ll FRY Topsy! But to pull it off, they needed
top-shelf technical support. And that’s where Thomas Edison came in.
Edison at the time was engaged in his own free-for-all, battling
George Westinghouse for control of America’s electric infrastructure.
Edison had declared that his direct current system was safe, but that
Westinghouse’s alternating current was a deadly menace. To prove it,
Edison had been publicly electrocuting dogs and cats for years. And it
was Edison who had convinced New York to use Westinghouse’s “deadly”
AC for their electric chair.
Topsy offered an opportunity that Edison couldn’t resist. What better
way to demonstrate the horrible consequences of alternating current
than to roast a full-grown elephant?
Topsy juiced.Edison sent over a crack team of technicians — and a
film crew. Topsy was led to a special platform, the cameras were set
rolling, the switch was thrown. It took only ten seconds. Edison later
showed the film to audiences across the country to prove his point.
In the end, it made no difference. AC beat out DC, but both Edison and
Westinghouse prospered. In fact, Westinghouse was awarded the Edison
Medal for “meritorious achievements in the development of the
alternating current system.”
That wasn’t much consolation to Topsy, who was dead, nor to Luna Park,
which was eventually destroyed in a horrible fire. Today, nothing
remains of either except for Edison’s film.
from The Commercial Advertiser, New York, Monday, January 5, 1903.
BAD ELEPHANT KILLED.
Topsy Meets Quick and Painless
Death at Coney Island.
Topsy, the ill-tempered Coney Island elephant, was put to death in
Luna Park, Coney Island, yesterday afternoon. The execution was
witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who went down to the
island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts
and cakes in summers that are gone. In order to make Topsy’s execution
quick and sure 460 grams of cyanide of potassium were fed to her in
carrots. Then a hawser was put around her neck and one end attached to
a donkey engine and the other to a post. Next wooden sandals lined
with copper were attached to her feet. These electrodes were connected
by copper wire with the Edison electric light plant and a current of
6,600 volts was sent through her body. The big beast died without a
trumpet or a groan.
Topsy was brought to this country twenty-eight years ago by the
Forepaugh Circus, and has been exhibited throughout the United States.
She was ten feet high and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Topsy developed
a bad temper two years ago and killed two keepers in Texas. Last
spring, when the Forepaugh show was in Brooklyn, J. F. Blount, a
keeper, tried to feed a lighted cigarette to her. She picked him up
with her trunk and dashed him to the ground, killing him instantly.
Off Goes the Power Current Started by Thomas Edison
BY Jennifer 8. Lee / 11/14/2007
Today, Con Edison will end 125 years of direct current electricity
service that began when Thomas Edison opened his Pearl Street power
station on Sept. 4, 1882. Con Ed will now only provide alternating
current, in a final, vestigial triumph by Nikola Tesla and George
Westinghouse, Mr. Edison’s rivals who were the main proponents of
alternating current in the AC/DC debates of the turn of the 20th
The last snip of Con Ed’s direct current system will take place at 10
East 40th Street, near the Mid-Manhattan Library. That building, like
the thousands of other direct current users that have been
transitioned over the last several years, now has a converter
installed on the premises that can take alternating electricity from
the Con Ed power grid and adapt it on premises. Until now, Con Edison
had been converting alternating to direct current for the customers
who needed it — old buildings on the Upper East Side and Upper West
Side that used direct current for their elevators for example. The
subway, which has its own converters, also provides direct current
through its third rail, in large part because direct current
electricity was the dominant system in New York City when the subway
first developed out of the early trolley cars.
Despite the clear advantage of alternating current — it can be
transmitted long distances far more economically than direct current —
direct current has taken decades to phase out of Manhattan because the
early backbone of New York’s electricity grid was built by Mr.
Edison’s company, which had a running head start in the first decade
before Mr. Tesla and Mr. Westinghouse demonstrated the potential of
alternating current with the Niagara Falls power project. (Among the
customers of Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street power plant on that first
day was The New York Times, which observed that to turn on its lights
in the building, “no matches were needed.”)
But direct current clearly became uneconomical, as the short distances
that it could be transmitted would have required a power station every
mile or less, according to Joe Cunningham, an engineering historian.
Thus alternating current in New York began in the outskirts — Queens,
Bronx, Upper Manhattan and the suburbs.
The direct current conversion in Lower Manhattan started in 1928, and
an engineer then predicted that it would take 45 years, according to
Mr. Cunningham. “An optimistic prediction since we still have it now,”
The man who is cutting the link today at 10 East 40th Street is Fred
Simms, a 52-year veteran of the company. Why him?
“He’s our closest link to Thomas Edison,” joked Bob McGee, a Con Ed