I’m back from my trip. I spent almost all day yesterday sleeping. But today, we are back to the usual schedule, except, of course, that I didn’t get the birthday post up at midnight. What are you gonna do? I wasn’t going to crawl myself out of bed in the middle of night. And it was probably for the best, because today is not a great day for birthdays. I mean, I think Carole Lombard is cute as a really, really cute button, and also very funny. But I did her last year anyway.
On this day in 1846, the great inventor George Westinghouse was born. Of course, that was a time when it was pretty easy to be an inventor. There was a lot of stuff going on. That’s why the government has allowed the patent system to get so out of hand now. If you have enough money, you can get a patent on walking, and the rest of us would have to pay royalties to walk into the kitchen.
When it comes to inventors, people tend to think of Thomas Edison. They shouldn’t. To begin with, Edison was kind of a jerk. But more than that, he worked tirelessly to saddle our country with a terrible electrical system. You see, he had all the patents related to direct current (DC) electricity. Westinghouse had the patents related to alternating current (AC) electricity. DC is a perfectly good system for running small devices, but it is terrible for delivering electricity over large distances. There is too much line loss. Ultimately, Westinghouse won out and we got AC.
Part of Edison’s campaign against AC was to tie it to its use in the electric chair. This is quite interesting, because Edison was a very smart and knowledgeable man. He knew that for the purpose of large scale electricity distribution, AC was the way to go. But his own personal profits (Edison was already ridiculously wealthy) trumped the common good. And that brings us to the story of Topsy.
Topsy was a circus elephant in the New York area. She bounced around between owners, eventually ending up at Luna Park under the care of William Alf. Alf was caught abusing Topsy with a pitchfork, causing him to release her to roam free in the streets. This (and not the pitchfork), got Alf arrested. Later Alf tried to ride Topsy into the police station. Alf was apparently a drunk. Anyway, Luna Park fired Alf, but then they didn’t know what to do with Topsy, so they decided to kill her. They were going to hang her, but the ASPCA said that would be cruel. So they decided to electrocute her.
When Edison found out, he was thrilled. He sent a bunch of people out to help in the murder and to shoot the film, Electrocuting an Elephant. Obviously, the murder of Topsy did not win Edison the contract to create an electrical grid. But the truth is that Edison would have electrocuted half of the American people to get more money. Of course, none of this is to say that Westinghouse was a wonderful guy. But it would be hard to come close to Edison on the “evil greedy bastard” scale.
Happy birthday George Westinghouse!