Hanging to death with a thick rope was the way executions were carried out in the United States until the first execution with an electric chair in 1890 (Browning, 1995). A pivotal moment was when a report by two scientists was submitted to the New York Medico-Legal board on Dec. 5, 1988 with their results that Alternating Current (AC) was the best type of current to use for executions (Browning, 1995). AC works faster and needs a lower voltage to kill a human being than direct current (DC).
The national standard for electricity was yet to be chosen in before 1988. Thomas Alva Edison wanted direct current (DC) to be chosen. George Westinghouse supported choosing alternating current (AC) for the national standard. The type of current to be chosen would mean a lot of money and great success for the inventor. (Browning, 1995)
In order to make DC seem the better choice, Edison wanted to make AC look bad. He wanted to associate AC with prisoner executions so people would have a negative opinion AC. He couldn’t make the claim that DC was cheaper because DC required expensive copper cable.
On the other hand Westinghouse argued that AC would be the better choice because it was cheaper and more efficient.
Animals were used in test experiments to decide which current worked better. The tests were run by two Columbia University scientists who decided based on their experiments that AC was the best choice (Browning, 1995).
Although it seems reasonable to assume that the more voltage used the worse the damage would be to a human body that isn’t necessarily the case. Hsu (2000) notes that because the equation V=IR where V is voltage, I is current and R is resistance, people assume there is a direct correlation between Voltage and Current. But the danger for people is the current which flows between the two points, not the potential difference. (Hsu, 2000)
The equation V= IR also describes the magnitude of the current (I = V/R). Both the magnitude of the current and the resistance of different parts of the body affect the amount of current (Hsu, 2000).
Hsu quotes an article by Zizewitz (1995) which explains that a person can feel a current of 0.01 A. “A” stands for Ampere and is how current is measured. If the current is raised to 0.05 A the person feels pain. When the current is raised to above 0.015 A, a person loses muscle control and 0.07 A can be fatal. Hsu also quotes a study by Watson that 0.1 to 0.2 A causes death due to (heart) fibrillation (Watson, 1999).
Hsu (2000) concludes that “current is fatal to humans ranges from 0.06 A to 0.07 A, depending on the person and the type of current.”
Meanwhile back in the 1800s, Westinghouse was so angry about the bad publicity for AC, he refused to sell any equipment to the prisons. But the state was able to obtain the needed equipment in spite of him. On August 6, 1890 the first execution by electric shock took place in the state of New York. (Browning, 1995)
The prisoner being executed was William Kemmler who was guilty of murder with an ax. Ironically the first time the current was put through Kemmler’s body it was not the dose needed to kill him. The second time the current was applied he died.
After that electric chairs became popular and eventually were used by most states as the technique of execution. Now many states are deciding not to continue the death penalty. Those that still have the death penalty usually use lethal injection. Browning in 1995 reported that four states were still using the electric chair at that time; Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska. (Browning, 1995)
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Browning, Michael.1995. “2 Titans Clashed Over Electrocution. Inventors Disagreed Over Type of Current.” Palm Beach Post. 25 Nov.1995. Print.
Current and Resistance. n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2011.
Hsu, J. 2000. “Electric Current Needed to Kill a Human” The Physics Factbook™. Hypertextbook.com. 2000. Web. 29 Oct. 2011. Retrieved from <http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2000/JackHsu.shtml>.
Miller, R. 1993. Industrial Electricity Handbook. Peoria, Il. Chas. A. Bennet, 1993.
(From Hsu, 2000).
Zitzewitz, P.W. and Neff, R.F. 1995. Merrill Physics, Principles and Problems. New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 1995. (From Hsu, 2000).