200801topsy.jpgOn this very day 105 years ago Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant meant to give rides and carry heavy items on Coney Island...all in the name of science! His science. He came to Coney to prove George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla's alternating current (AC) was dangerous, whereas his competing direct current was completely safe. In fact, Edison was the one who convinced New York to use the dangerous and deadly AC for their electric chair.

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 Nicola 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.

The big PR push came when Edison made this journey to Luna Park Zoo on Coney Island to electrocute Topsy, "a cranky female elephant who had squashed three handlers in three years (including one idiot who tried feeding her a lighted cigarette)." After declaring that hanging the elephant was not humane, the ASPCA agreed to let Topsy "ride the lightning" to her death -- and 1,500 watched as Edison sent 6,600 volts through her body. He also filmed it, and it was later released as a film titled Electrocuting an Elephant, which has since shown up in more recent movies (you can view it here).

The headline in The Commercial Advertiser the day following Topsy's death read: "Bad Elephant Killed," and the paper reported that "the big beast died without a trumpet or a groan." As for Edison's direct current...the trail of dead animals didn't help him prove his point (shocking!) and "the AC demonstrated its superiority in less lethal ways to become the standard." In fact, Westinghouse was later awarded the Edison Medal for his achievements in developing the alternating current system.