Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
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But Edison was a ruthless business competitor. He frequently had vast legal fights over the precedence of his inventions over rivals. The best example is the telephone, where he was one of seven or eight rivals with claims against Alexander Graham Bell. Actually Edison's invention here was not the central idea that Bell and Gray had come up with independently of each other in 1876, but an improvement on the sound quality of the phone receiver and transmitter that Bell did not develop. Still it was part of the huge 1888 Supreme Court decision that was the longest U.S. Supreme Court decision (a single volume of their reports!) written by Chief Justice Morrison Waite - which, by the way, killed the poor Chief Justice from overwork within weeks of completing it.
In 1886 Edison found an equally ruthless competitor in the area of electric power grids for large cities. This was George Westinghouse, inventor of the railroad air break. Westinghouse's firm had gotten the assistance of a new inventor, and former Edison assistant, Nicola Tesla. Tesla developed "alternating current", which was a rival system to Edison's "direct current". Edison's system was basically a straight circuit system of electricity. Tesla's system allowed the current to be switched from one circuit to another - actually it was a better, and more efficient system. But Edison was determined to break this rival by a publicity campaign.
It started with electric power lines. Edison early on had his lines put underground, so that they would not be endangered by weather conditions. But Westinghouse was forced to have his lines out in the open - like telephone lines. When there were several accidental deaths by repair linemen on Westinghouse's lines (in particular one incident where the repairman was burned alive in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers in Manhattan's business district), Edison started insisting that A.C. current was far more dangerous that D.C.
One result of all this was Edison helping some subsidiary inventors with getting Westinghouse A.C. generators and dynamos for an electric chair. Edison himself always denied that he invented the electric chair, but he helped several lesser figures along the way - for the complete story read Mark Essig's EDISON & THE ELECTRIC CHAIR (New York: WALKER & COMPANY, 2003).
Edison experiment himself with cats and dogs (experiments he was glad to show the public). In the long run, despite assisting in the invention of a new method of execution, Edison failed to dislodge the public support of Alternating Current. But he never stopped trying.
In 1903 he had an opportunity to combine his campaign against Westinghouse and A.C. with his invention of the motion picture camera. He assisted in "putting down" a well known public elephant ("Topsy") who had killed several men. He did so by electrocuting the poor beast with A.C. But the entire killing is on film - and one can view it to this day. It is a pitiful looking film - whatever poor "Topsy" had done it was a poor beast - not a Machiavellian murderer. The moment we see the explosions of electricity sparks that show the death of the elephant, we are aware it will soon be over, but the sudden collapse of "Topsy" is still an unpleasant sight to view. The film leaves a bad flavor in the mouths of modern movie audiences. Yet, sad to say, it probably made a profit for Edison - his description of the film in his catalog of films shows real pride in his accomplishment here. In 1903 it may have been exciting entertainment for many Americans watching it. One is glad that more people are appalled by it today - sometimes one can sense the human race has improved a little bit.
the film can be seen in its entirety in Mr. Death, as the previous guy posted, and also in a PBS documentary about the rise and fall of Coney Island.
Reason number two? Look at the way that the camera is set up. It is placed in the best possible location to fully capture the full effect: long march forward of the elephant, perfect view of the electrocution platform and a cold and clinically dispassionate viewpoint of the elephant with smoke coming out of it before it finally collapses. Sickening.
Thomas Edison did many great things for civilization and his talents and intelligence aren't in doubt. Nobody is perfect, but when you realize that this film provided A) an opportunity for him to trump early cinematic competitors with a sensationalist film of an elephant being electrocuted and B) he filmed the execution to demonstrate the greater effectiveness of DC as opposed to AC, you can't help but wonder if the scientist in him was a little TOO dispassionate and cold. Any number of Peter Cushing's mad scientists would be proud. The rest of us should be ashamed and revolted.
Dont feel bad if you cant find it at Blockbuster's.
Edison: "Hey, an elephant killed some people, LET'S ELECTROCUTE IT BEFORE CAMERA!"
"Really, Mr Edison, is it decent?"
"WHO CARES! ELECTRICITY! ZAP! ZAP! ZAP!"
Seriously, this is a very odd piece for PETA to use in their campaign for animal rights. I'm not a very PETA-person, but I'm with them on electrocuting elephants, which Edison surely should have been. This is a very disturbing piece of work, especially when you see that the shock did not kill the poor animal.
Edison's involvement with the execution of the elephant is by providing the equipment and then filming the event. So making use of two of his "inventions". That he also makes a profit off the fate of the elephant has to be blamed to the nature of humankind that is still eager to see extreme violence. I only have to mention the success of the Faces of Death movies and you see that nothing has changed in 100 years.
What about the movie which in fact is a documentary or rather a newsflash. The filming is accurate en there is some historic significance. So it is important that this movie still exist and shows us a world where cruelty on animals (and human beings) was still a public affair.