As electricity began to light our world, resistance came from curious corners. “God had decreed that darkness should follow light, and mortals had no right to turn night into day,” wrote one German newspaper. “A lamp for a nightmare,” declared a Scottish poet. And Thomas Edison, the inventor who gave us the first commercial light bulb, tried his hardest to make people fear a competitor’s form of electricity. But here’s the strangest thing of all: Edison and his ilk failed quickly; their fearmongering just never stuck, and electricity, unlike every other innovation we’ve explored on this show, easily expanded into our world. Why? To understand that, we have go way back — to the very first spark.
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Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer. If you know anything about the history of electricity, you probably know about what's become known as the battle of the currents. It's a short window in time, the late 1880s into the early 1890s, when three of the world's most famous inventors duked it out over the future of electricity, Thomas Edison versus George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla, and the very, very simplified version of the battle goes like this. Edison was developing a system of electricity called direct current, and Westinghouse and Tesla backed a different kind of system called alternating current. And Edison took every opportunity to convince the public that alternating current was deadly and should be feared and resisted.
Jason Feifer: And this thing got heated. Edison claimed that alternating currents are "as unnecessary as they are dangerous." A headline in the New York Times on July 24th, 1890 reported testimony of the wizard, Edison's belief that alternating current of 1000 volts would surely kill a man. Edison's lawyer even proposed that when someone is electrocuted, it should be said that they were Westinghoused like a new verb. You die by being Westinghoused. And, boy, I am really excited to share this with you. I have tracked down never-before-heard audio of these three titans of industry arguing with each other on microphone. This is amazing. This is historical stuff right here. Okay. Take a listen.
Voice Clip (Movie): It's a parasite. His current kills people.
Voice Clip (Movie): Only because you said it would.
Voice Clip (Movie): Mr. Edison, if you say something about me or my company again, I would ask that you tell the truth.
Jason Feifer: It's crazy how well that audio from the late 1800s is held up, right? It sounds so clear, clear as day, really. All right. All right. I lied. It's a little snippet from the trailer of the current war, a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison. It was originally slated for a November 2017 release, but may or may not actually be seen by anyone ever again because it was made by the Weinstein company, and its release was put on, I guess, a deep freeze after Harvey Weinstein was revealed to be a monster. But don't worry because it was recently announced that Ethan Hawke will be starring in an upcoming Tesla biopic which also will dive into the war with Edison. And I know. I know you might feel a little ripped off by my little trick back there. So, here is just to satisfy you, Edison's actual voice from 1927 recording a nursery rhyme for whatever reason he did that.
Voice Clip (Edison): Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.
Jason Feifer: Feel better? Don’t worry. I take care of you. I got this. Anyway, the point of that little exercise was that the current war left a lasting pop culture-sized impression on the world. Many, many books have been written about it. And many, many more movies will surely be made. It was big. It was ugly. It was consequential.
Adam Allerhand: Not only did he fear monger about the dangers of alternating current. He went much further than that. He promoted the first electric chair in the world.
Jason Feifer: That's Adam Allerhand, a retired professor of chemistry from Indiana University who's written actual five-pound book called An Illustrated History of Electric Lighting. And we'll get into the whole electric chair thing more later. But for now, just to put a fine point on it, the electric chair was basically an orchestrated effort by Edison to make people think of alternating current as deadly. So, here's where on this show I usually start to go wide and get a little indignant and ask a question like, "So, why did people fear electricity? What caused them to see this transformational innovation, the technology that literally powers our world today as something worth resisting?" But Adam, he cut me off.
Adam Allerhand: I have listened to several of your podcasts.
Jason Feifer: Oh, great. Oh great. So, you got [crosstalk 00:05:09].
Adam Allerhand: And so, I'm familiar with the format. But let me say right away that this is a different case because people were not afraid of alternating current.
Jason Feifer: Electricity, Adam would go on to tell me, is different from every other innovation we've discussed on this show, different perhaps from most other consequential innovations across time which are feared and resisted before they're massively adopted. Unlike the bicycle or coffee or the car or the Walkman or other new things we focused on here, Edison wasn't able to summon many enemies of electricity. It wasn't something people broadly predicted gloom and doom about.
Jason Feifer: In fact, electricity as a whole wasn't something people actively resisted. And again, that's despite one of the world's most famous inventors waging a furious fear campaign and going so far as to actually have a man killed by that technology.
Jason Feifer: So, this is going to be a different kind of Pessimists Archive. Rather than ask why people feared electricity, we're going to ask why didn't they? If the history of innovation is marked by fear and resistance, how did electricity stroll right through and light us up? How did reason triumph so easily over Edison's howls? How can future technologies repeat this success? We're going to get into it all, and it's really interesting, and we go pretty deep.
Jason Feifer: But first, another new thing for Pessimists Archive, we have an advertiser break. This episode is brought to you by Coalesce our very first Pessimists Archive sponsor. Coalesce is a product shop in Manhattan, and they came to me with this idea because they're fans of the show, and they love a good experiment which means I love them. You'll also be hearing their team's voices throughout this episode. At their core, Coalesce is a team of innovators and technologists who love building products that solve problems, and that means they create things like apps, and websites, and VR experiences and custom software. But it also means that they do things like rent out billboards in rural Tennessee, and they develop strobe light apps just for fun and create companion visuals for podcasts. Oh, yeah, podcast just like, in fact, this one you're listening to right now. Check out those awesome electricity diagrams that they created. They are at coalesce.nyc/pessimists that is coalesce, C-O-A-L-E-S-C-E.nyc/pessimists. And if you are a business brand or brave soul in need of some smart technology and an innovative partner, drop them a line and tell them you heard about them from me.
Jason Feifer: All right. We're back. This episode is not going to be all about the current war. But it's a helpful place for us to start because it's really the moment of mass introduction of electricity. So, let's orient ourselves to it. First comes Thomas Edison. He began experimenting with incandescent light bulbs in 1878. And by the next year, he had his first successful public show. Here's the New York Herald on December 31st, 1879.
Voice Clip (New York Herald): Edison's laboratory was tonight thrown open to the general public for the inspection of his electric light. Extra trains were run from east and west. And notwithstanding the stormy weather, hundreds of persons availed themselves of the privilege.
Jason Feifer: This was in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and it would become a historical moment. I mean it wasn't that Edison invented the light bulb. People have been working on it in some form or another for more than a century. But he had created what would be considered the first commercially viable bulb. And just imagine how absolutely mind-blowing it would have been for people in 1879 walking into his laboratory that night having perhaps never seen artificial light before.
Jason Feifer: I mean he had 25 bulbs going in his lab, another eight in his office and counting room, and 20 others distributed around the building. I mean it would be like if I invited you all over to my apartment right now and everything was just floating in the middle of the air and I was like, "Check it out. I make things float…" But there was still a ways to go here. I mean seeing Edison's bulbs were one thing. Actually, having them in your home was quite another because where was the electricity going to come from? The answer was that you needed your own electric-coal powered generator.
Jill Jonnes: Electricity was a luxury. It was for rich people.
Jason Feifer: This is Jill Jonnes. She's a historian and the author of a book about the current wars called Empires of Light.
Jill Jonnes: The very first person to have electric light incandescent light in his house in Manhattan with JP Morgan who was one of the original investors in the Edison company, and he had an isolated unit installed in his former... He moved all the horses out of this stable and put a generator in there, and he literally hired people who would come as it got dark, and they would run this generator. And then, they had electric lights in their house.
Jason Feifer: But Edison knew this was not for everyone. He was creating electric generator stations which would power lights in surrounding homes. The first one he built was called Pearl Street Station in Lower Manhattan. And underground wires were run into surrounding homes so that they could use electricity to turn on their new lights. And at the beginning in 1882, 59 customers were using it. By the end of 1883, 513 people were using it. And the station had to be expanded to meet demand.
Jason Feifer: And here, right here is really the seed of the current war. For this generator station and then the many others that he began investing in and really for his entire vision of electricity, Edison was using what's known, as I said before, as direct current. And I'm going to spare you the technical details of what direct current means and how it's different from alternating current. But here's the really major fact that you need to know about this stuff. Alternating current or AC can travel along a wire for long distances, from the generator to its ultimate destination in a home or office or whatever. Direct current or DC only goes a short distance. So, that's it. AC versus DC. Cue the AC DC.
Jason Feifer: All right. That's enough of that. I don't want any copyright lawsuits. Anyway, Edison was not ignorant of AC. In fact, Nikola Tesla worked for Edison for a period of time, and Tesla was a developer of AC. But for whatever reason, Edison thought DC was the superior technology. At first, his DC could only go about half a mile. And then, he eventually got it to a mile.
Voice Clip (AC/DC): That meant that Edison's vision of the electrical world was that there would be a coal-fired plant every mile or so in the city.
Jason Feifer: What a weird alternate reality that is. It's like instead of a Starbucks on every corner in New York, you've got yourself a coal-fired power plant. And so, this is the opening that Edison leaves for his future competition. In 1886, four years after Edison opens the Pearl Street Station, Westinghouse starts buying up AC patents and developing his own generator systems that can send electricity way farther than Edison could.
Voice Clip (AC/DC): Edison was very unhappy to have Westinghouse as a competitor because he knew that he was a very successful businessman and actually also an inventor. I mean Westinghouse invented the air brake and other really significant technology.
Jason Feifer: It's hard to know exactly what Edison was thinking. But by the next year, he surely knew he was in trouble. By September of 1887, Westinghouse had installed 25 AC stations and had 16 more under construction. Sales of DC station equipment were shrinking. And one of Edison's own engineers wrote a letter to the Edison electric light company pleading that they get into the AC game. Here's an excerpt of that letter.
Voice Clip (Edison Electric Light): It is [inaudible 00:12:38] to scoff at the Westinghouse people as beneath notice as competitors. They are hard and persistent workers, and it behooves us to provide ourselves with means to fight them with their own weapons.
Jason Feifer: But Edison decided to fight instead with the politician's weapon of choice, insane fear-mongering. Sometimes, he'd get into the fight himself. The New York Tribune for example once reported that, "Mr. Edison has declared that any metallic object, a doorknob, a railing, a gas fixture, the most common and necessary appliance of life might at any moment become the medium of death." And other times, he'd have someone else do the work for him.
Jason Feifer: For example, he began working with this otherwise obscure engineer named Harold P. Brown who started picking a public fight with Westinghouse. Brown wrote letters to newspapers calling AC "as dangerous as burning a candle in a powder factory." And Westinghouse eventually responded to call BS. But like a Twitter troll, that only fired Brown up more. So, here's Brown in the New York Times on December 18, 1888 issuing what just has to be one of the craziest challenges the Times has ever published.
Voice Clip (New York Times): For reasons of a merely selfish commercial nature. Mr. Westinghouse advertises the death dealing alternating current as less dangerous to life and limb than continuous current. I therefore challenge Mr. Westinghouse to meet me in the presence of competent technical experts, and take through his body the alternating current while I take through my body the direct current. We will commence with 100 volts and will gradually increase the pressure 50 volts at a time. I leading each increase until either one or the other has cried enough and publicly admits his error.
Jason Feifer: Soon, Edison and Brown are promoting a new way to demonstrate to the public that AC is dangerous, the electric chair. Until then, if a criminal in New York was sentenced to death, they'd be hung. But Brown began demonstrating that AC could kill dogs, a young calf, a horse.
Voice Clip (New York Times): Edison was so revered and admired. He was successful in getting the state of New York to take up the electric chair as a way to execute criminals, and he also made it his business to get Westinghouse alternating current generators as the first electric chair would be used.
Jason Feifer: The first criminal to be executed this way was a murderer from Buffalo named William Kemmler, and it did not go well. The headline of the Times on August 7, 1890 read, "Far worse than hanging. Kemmler's death proves an awful spectacle. The electric current had to be turned on twice before the deed was fully accomplished."
Jason Feifer: But by this time, the war of the currents was functionally over. Edison had lost. His technology was worse. His company was struggling. In 1889, his company merged with another to become the Edison General Electric company, and they promptly began working on alternating current. And by the way, if you happen to be listening and thinking, "Wait, wait, wait. What about the elephant," then very quickly, and for those who weren't thinking this, now here's a little fun fact, this has become one of those stories that is attached to Edison and the whole current war thing but actually has nothing to do with it. In 1903, a Coney Island amusement park made a public spectacle out of electrocuting an elephant named Topsy from a zoo, and it was filmed by the Edison film company. But Thomas Edison himself had nothing to do with it, and this is more than a decade after Edison was out of the electricity business. The real legacy of Edison's war against AC is basically this.
Voice Clip (Edison): If you look at the actual things that were written when this was happening, there was no public fear of alternating current. People were buying alternate current systems.
Jason Feifer: AC is what you use today when, for example, you plug your phone in so you can recharge it and listen to Pessimists Archive over and over again of repeat which I appreciate by the way. So, nice of you. And now, it's time to really dive into the question why. Why did Edison's fear-mongering fail so completely? Why was electricity which had violently and brutally killed a condemned criminal not totally scaring the hell out of people? I asked this question to both historians, Adam and Jill. Here's Adam's take.
Adam Allerhand: Maybe, because it's invisible it doesn't create the same additives as visible things like the horseless carriage which is extremely visible when it moves fast.
Jason Feifer: I'll go a step further. It's also super complicated. People didn't know what electricity was. And I mean, hell, they still don't. Can you explain electricity? I'm not even going to try. And yes, we often fear the unknown. But we also struggle to marshal our passions against it. I'd say it's why today we aren't all mobilizing against climate change which actually is something to fear. It's just too abstract. But Jill's answer was the one that really got me thinking. So, before I tell you what it is, consider the moment electricity was having. Today, we think of electricity as the engine that powers our entire digital and mechanical world. But back then, electricity was basically the provider of two things. First, it was light.
Jill Jonnes: People already had light. It wasn't like light was a new experience. It's just that this light was a superior light and a far more convenient and, honestly actually, less dangerous.
Jason Feifer: And that's because people already had gas light in their homes. Instead of electrical wires, they had gas pipes that would fuel a flame. But that wasn't great because if the flame went out without you realizing it, you wouldn't turn the gas off, and you could die. So, the first thing electricity did was make light safer. And the second thing it did was it made motors run.
Jill Jonnes: It's hard to envision this. So, there were many places, say, in a place like Manhattan where you literally just had horses that were going round in circles for hours on end turning things that then made machinery operate.
Jason Feifer: So, electricity, Jill is saying, wasn't actually new. I mean it was new. But what it was doing was providing services that people already had. But it was providing safer, more efficient versions of those services. Electricity felt like a lesser revolution and more an upgrade. It wasn't the dawn of the smartphone era. It was like when the iPhone 2 came along and replaced the original or at least that's how this particular moment felt, the moment when AC and DC were duking it out, and the very first people in America were getting electricity. So, that leaves us with a big question, of course. How did people react when this stuff was brand new? And to answer that, we're going to look at three moments taken in chronological order.
Jason Feifer: Number one when electricity as a concept was new. Number two, when lighting was new. And number three, when AC and DC were brand new like maybe Edison's fear-mongering is just a big distraction and we're looking at the wrong thing here. So, let's start with when electricity itself was new. Here's the thing to understand. For most of human history, electricity wasn't thought of as an innovation or even an invention. It was like a phenomenon. Some sea creatures could give you a shock. There was lightning, static shocks. People were playing around with this stuff since at least ancient Egypt and probably far longer. It took a long time to learn how to harness it.
Jason Feifer: In the 1700s, this thing called a Leyden jar was invented which was basically an early capacitor. It was like a jar with water and metal that could store static electricity. And then, you could let it out in one big burst. So, of course, now the question is what do you do with that?
Matthis Kirshel: Some people are trying to cure things like paralysis or retention of urine by electroshocks.
Jason Feifer: This is Matthis.
Matthis Kirshel: My name is Matthis Kirshel. And I'm a lecturer in history of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Dusseldorf in Germany.
Jason Feifer: And, of course, I'm sure you're thinking exactly what I'm thinking. So, let's ask him. So, if somebody can't pee, you would just blast them with a jar full of electricity?
Matthis Kirshel: Yeah. That's the idea. You would shock the pee out of them.
Jason Feifer: Did that work?
Matthis Kirshel: We have some articles in medical journals that say that it worked.
Jason Feifer: So, electricity here is nothing to be scared of unless, I guess, you happen to be a massive amount of urine that prefers to stay in hiding. But the whole thing takes a quick turn. Thanks to a guy named Luigi Galvani who was a doctor and professor at the University of Bologna in Northern Italy. He started sending electricity through dead animal parts like frogs. And the legs would start moving like they were still alive. Soon, others were experimenting like this as well. And when Galvani died, a nephew of his started doing the same thing with, of course, human corpses.
Matthis Kirshel: He would allow in the general public. And then, he would have a table prepared with a corpse and often in demonstrations like this. Aldini and others used quite fresh corpses, for example, of men who had been executed after being sentenced to die. And then, he would put electrodes on different parts of the body and put currents through the electrodes. And then, the bodies would be animated. And people would watch some of them, I'm sure, would be scared. And then, Aldini used to also sell some of his books at events like that.
Jason Feifer: Oh, that's good stuff. I got a novel coming out later this year. It's called Mr. Nice Guy. So, I'm just going to take some notes on marketing. Hold on a second here. Get fresh corpse, make it move, sell books. Got it. Great. My publisher is going to love that. Okay. So, what were these people of the 1700s seeing when fresh corpses were being electrified?
Matthis Kirshel: I have a description from one of Galvani's books that I can read to you if you like.
Jason Feifer: Please.
Matthis Kirshel: It says the jaw began to quibble. The adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.
Jason Feifer: Other descriptions would detail heaving of chests as if breathing and a general sense that the body was moving like it was alive. And this got a lot of people talking as you can imagine. 15 years later, in fact, in 1818, Mary Shelley seemed inspired by it and wrote Frankenstein about a body that comes back to life with electricity. You can imagine how one led to the other, right? This is my own speculation here. But let's just go for it.
Jason Feifer: If electricity is reanimating the body in some herky-jerky manner, why wouldn't it also reanimate the mind in the same way? Both are just cells and tissue doing what they've been programmed to do. Weirdly enough, people in the 1700s weren't the only ones wondering this. I had once wondered about it myself. And let me take you on a small diversion here. I promise it'll wrap back around. Okay. So, there's a YouTube video that went viral in 2011 and has been viewed more than 10 million times.
Speaker 14: [crosstalk 00:23:21]
Jason Feifer: This is the audio from it. So, the camera is trained on this squid, dead and prepared to eat sitting in a bowl at a restaurant, and surrounded by some other food. And then, someone pours soy sauce on the squid, and its tentacles start moving around like it's alive. It's genuinely creepy, and there's plenty more like this on YouTube especially people pouring salt on frog's legs which sparks them to move as if still attached to a live frog. I first saw this video when radio lab co-host, Robert Krulwich, wrote about it on his NRP blog.
Robert Krulwich: Hi. I'm Robert Krulwich.
Jason Feifer: You know, that guy. He explained what was happening on the blog. I'm just going to quote it, "Because this squid was just killed, its muscle cells were still intact and operational. A live squid moves its tentacles by sending an electrical command from its brain to its muscles. The commands say, 'Contract or relax.' But since this animal lost its head, its brain can't send signals. Salt acts as a substitute. Extra sodium, the salt, sends ions to the cell that trigger the cell to open up creating a cascade of chemical activities that causes the cell to fire so the muscle twitches."
Jason Feifer: And then, I suppose the muscle moves the way that the muscle had. It moves by its own muscle memory which is why the squid looks like it's like a live squid. Anyway, this made me think something super creepy at the time. So, follow me here. If reactivated cells can cause a dead leg to do what it once did when alive, is it also possible that it would cause a brain to do what it did when it was alive? I mean just think of it when Galvani flooded a recently dead person with electricity. It could activate their legs and eyelids. Yes, we saw that. But what about their brain? Could it momentarily spark if only for a second in this way that the once dead man could never communicate something that resembled a thought like darkness, darkness, darkness, thought back to darkness?
Jason Feifer: The brain, this thinking machine of ours, would have been rebooted in some incoherent but still very real way synapses firing and cells activating to create an experience. Krulwich loved the question when I emailed it to him. But he didn't have an answer. And so, now seven years later, I put it to Matthis. Would a reanimated brain produce a thought?
Matthis Kirshel: I don't know because I've never been in the situation.
Jason Feifer: Which fair enough. So, then, I wrote to Ken Miller, the co-director of Columbia University's Center for Theoretical Neuroscience who told me, "Nah." First of all he said, "Neurons die within minutes of being deprived of oxygen. But also while electricity may be making muscles twitch, there's a big difference between that and actual coherent and coordinated movement." He wrote me, "The unstructured activity of just electrically driving neurons to spike or fire action potentials without intrinsically driven structured neural activity isn't going to be meaningful or conscious," which I guess is basically science speak for don't worry about dead bodies coming back to life. Still, that's an answer that comes with the benefit of modern science.
Jason Feifer: In the 1700s, they thought asthma could be cured by drying out a dead toad smashing it into powder and eating it in pill form. So, different times. Let's consider it then. This is the grand tradition of storytelling where we create monsters that reflect the fears of our time Godzilla, nuclear war, Dracula, and foreign invaders threatening the British Empire. And so, I wondered was Frankenstein really about electricity? Was this evidence of a deep panic about this mysterious new power? But Matthis says, "No, not really. Electricity just wasn't impacting enough people at the time." But you know what was?
Matthis Kirshel: Some of the things that people were probably more afraid of that you can find in Shelley's book is grave robbery because remember, Victor Frankenstein is getting his body parts from the local cemetery and from bodies used in teaching anatomy. And actually, that was something that people were concerned about in England, in the states because you had more medical schools. You had more education of anatomy. But you didn't have enough bodies.
Jason Feifer: That pretty well summarizes why people didn't fear early introductions of electricity, I think. They just had other things to worry about. And electricity may have been powerful and clearly could do strange and alarming things especially to corpses. But it also felt entirely contained. It wasn't let loose into the world or left for individuals to reckon with. We fear what seems inescapable, not what merely seems possible. So, that's the introduction to electricity.
Jason Feifer: Next, let's look at when lighting was new. It is actually impossible to say when the concept of lighting was new because we found oil lamps dating back to the stone age, and no records of wall paintings that were complaining about the millennials of the time with their newfangled oil lamps. But the lighting historian, Jane Brox, told me that every new phase of lighting technology, at least once we have reached recorded time, has caused some form of anxiety. So, let me take you back to the 1600s when people were walking around at night carrying their own lanterns. Cities are starting to talk about ways to create public outdoor lighting which is seen as safer and more convenient.
Jason Feifer: In 1697, there was a step forward here, New York requires every seven households to bound together and share the expense of lighting a candle in a lantern which would be placed on a pole and lit whenever there was no moonlight. Public-funded street oil lamps were introduced in New York in 1762. But not everyone thought street lighting was good. In 1819, a German newspaper declared-
Voice Clip (German newspaper): God had decreed that darkness should follow light and mortals had no right to turn night into day.
Jason Feifer: That piece claimed that artificial light causes health problems. The evidence of that was that it leads people to stay out at night and catch a cold presumably because they're so blinded by the light that they'd forget to wear a jacket. I don't know. Not clear. Anyway, humanity somehow survived this underdressed night walking epidemic. And then, gas would replace oil as the most popular form of lighting. And then, electricity would move in on gas. And here, despite electricity being the far safer way to light a home, we already get some wistfulness for the old ways. People today who claim vinyl records are somehow better than MP3. Here's Robert Louis Stevenson in 1878 in a piece called A Plea for Gas Lamps.
Voice Clip (A Plea for Gas Lamps): The urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye, a lamp for a nightmare, such a light as this should shine only on murderers in public crime or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror.
Jason Feifer: There was also plenty of wistfulness in Wabash, Indiana a little town that in 1880 staked a small place in history. As a reminder, 1880 is before Edison had built that first generator, and nobody had lights in their home. But another technology called arc lighting had just begun to spread. It was basically a super bright light that cities could put outside. And so, little Wabash population 3000 decided to install four of them and declare itself the first generally lit city in America. Many people of course, in town gathered around when they first turned the lights on. And one of the local papers, the Wabash Plain Dealer, reported what happened next.
Voice Clip (Wabash Plain Dealer): The people stood almost breathless overwhelmed with as if in the presence of the supernatural. The strange weird light exceeded in power only by the sun rendered the square as light as mid-day. Men fell on their knees. Groans were uttered at the site, and many were dumb with amazement. It drove the darkness back and out of the entire city of Wabash. So, now, the people could see to read on nearly all of the city's streets by night.
Jason Feifer: But you cannot actually take that at face value because the editors of the Plain Dealer were also the ones that orchestrated the lights going up in the first place. The lights were actually super controversial in town. First of all, it just straight up freaked people out. There was a report that one elderly man living on the edge of town saw the lights in the distance and ran running into the house with his eyes bulging yelling, "Down on your knees, Mary. The end of the world is here." But also, people worried about screwing with nature. I mean these were farmers after all. Here's one local who wrote a letter to the local paper.
Voice Clip (Wabash Plain Dealer): The plain dealer says, "The electric light will virtually turn night into day." And as chickens never sleep during daylight, it is only a matter of time when every fowl within the corporate limits of Wabash will die for lack of sleep.
Jason Feifer: Others wondered if seeds would become exhausted from the constant light. Some wondered the opposite and figured constant light would cause corn to double in size and require saws to harvest it. Others worried that raccoon hunting would become too popular in the area. Thanks to the light, and that would drive up the cost of the dogs that kill the raccoons. And the thing is, these people weren't wrong. I mean they were wrong about some of the specific stuff like the corn. But in general, they seemed to understand light was going to change their economy. People could work at night now. Supply and demand would be altered.
Jason Feifer: And as electricity would continue to seep into their lives becoming something that they'd rely upon evermore, the entire systems of knowledge would change. People would no longer have an oil lamp around. They'd no longer have candles. So, if the electricity went out, well, they were really in the dark. But despite these anxieties, arc lighting really acted as a kind of electricity gateway drug. It was a way to expose the lighting to the masses. And then, when Edison and Westinghouse came along and started producing indoor lighting, it was still like arc lighting in that most people experienced it first in a public space.
Jill Jonnes: Millions of people didn't have electricity in their house. But they encountered it everywhere. I mean hotels got electricity very early on. Officers got electricity very early on.
Jason Feifer: Which meant that by the time it was actually ready to enter our lives to be this very intimate thing that was a part of us, the exact opposite of where we'd left electricity during the era of reanimating dead bodies, it just wasn't scary anymore. People had seen it. They liked it. They were ready for it. Those anxieties from Wabash, Indiana were only a few years old at that point. But they would have seemed quaint.
Jason Feifer: So, now finally, let's look at our third moment of electricity being new, and this is just a different approach to the Edison versus Westinghouse thing and all that craziness. Instead of focusing on the battle between two men and Edison's fear-mongering, let's just look at the whole thing, the installation of electricity. Cities suddenly electrified. What do we see there? The answer is in fact some very real and legitimate reasons to be afraid. If you've ever seen photos of American cities from the late 1800s, you've seen these in insane jumbles of wires everywhere. There were all sorts of things there, telephone and telegraph wires and so on. None of them were especially dangerous. But then arc lighting gets installed bringing high voltage wires into the jumble.
Jason Feifer: For a few years, it's not really a problem. But then, the infrastructure gets older and the wires start to fall down and nobody understands how dangerous these things are. So, by 1888, newspapers are all repeatedly telling gruesome stories.
Jill Jonnes: This was just one of a number of such deaths, and it was quite a sad one because it was a little boy. For instance, one of the New York papers, the Daily Tribune, I'll read you what they wrote in their editorial. It is almost a pity that it wasn't a millionaire or other leading citizen that was killed by the electric light wire on Sunday morning. If it had been, the community would have been startled, and its indignation might have brought the wires underground. But it was only a poor peddler boy, a little fellow 15 years old, and on in that way.
Jason Feifer: This briefly played into the Edison Westinghouse thing. So, Edison had begun with underground cables, and he did it because the way he saw it, his electricity was replacing the gas pipes that were going into people's homes. And those pipes were underground. So, to make his innovation feel familiar, he wanted electricity to also come from underground.
Jason Feifer: Westinghouse's wires were above ground. So, Edison sees the moment and claimed all sorts of crazy things like if Westinghouse's alternating current wires were buried, it would simply electrify the ground and buildings and everything would become a death trap. And here's my own speculation here. I think people of the time were becoming skeptical of corporations of people who clearly had a financial incentive to say something.
Jason Feifer: This period, the late 1800s, is considered the rise of big business in America, and that also means the rise of big wealthy commanding men who were singularly focused on profits at the expense of, as people would find, everything else. For example, around the same time, there was this guy named John Henry Patterson who owned the National Cash Register company who kept coming up with all these schemes to make people distrust his competitors. They were sometimes run by an employee of his, Thomas Watson, who side note you know today as Watson, the IBM supercomputer because Watson would eventually go on to build IBM into a behemoth.
Jason Feifer: But back in the early days at the Cash Register Company, Watson would open up second-hand stores which would then sell used cash registers made by the National Cash Register company's competitors. And what would happen next? Here's Susan Spellman an associate professor of history at Miami University in Hamilton, Ohio and author of the book Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers And Innovation in American Small Business.
Susan Spellman: Watson would refurbish these machines, make them look shiny and new. But then, what they would do is to remove some of the steel and brass parts inside the machine, replace them with basically cardboard gears, resell them to unsuspecting retailers. They, of course, would work for a very short period of time. The retailer would get aggravated with the machine. And, of course, where would they go then to buy the quality machine?
Jason Feifer: Why? They'd go to the National Cash Register Company, of course. So, with all these shenanigans going on and big businesses doing whatever they can to separate people from their money, you can imagine that the people of the time might have seen Edison's fear-mongering in a very different light. They'd have focused on what was genuinely the big problem, not what he said was the problem. I mean I think people got it. They understood the real problem, and it wasn't alternating current. It was high voltage wires lying around in the street.
Jason Feifer: Between May 1887 and September 1889, reports claimed 17 New Yorkers were killed by electric current. The whole thing seemed to reach a peak in October of 1889 when a Western Union lineman named John E. H. Feaks was electrocuted while working on some wire. His body was up there for 45 minutes smoking and sparking as spectators below stood and watched in horror.
Jason Feifer: Following that, building owners started cutting the wires hanging from their houses. The New York world described the wires as going "straight to the river of death." A New York Tribune columnist said, "It would be far better for us to go back to the gaslights then thus to risk precious lives. The companies who make their fortunes in electric lights seem to have no regard for ought but their purses." Two months of legal battles followed. And then, when the city finally went around and cut more than a million feet of wire, wires began to be buried underground where they belonged.
Jason Feifer: Now that we know all this, let's think for one final time about the Westinghouse and Edison fight. Edison thought he could manipulate people into fearing a certain kind of electricity. Instead, people feared what they saw with their own eyes. It didn't matter what kind of electricity flowed through those wires on the ground. It just mattered that the wires were buried. The rest, I think, people understood could take care of itself.
Jason Feifer: Edison would try to destroy AC. And AC, it seems did destroy DC. But history would prove that there was, in fact, room for both. With technology, there often is DC is making a comeback as Adam told me, and he explained why.
Adam Allerhand: Direct current is more suitable for transmission in waterways because it doesn't leak. Alternating current is-
Jason Feifer: All right. It gets technical from there. And I don't totally follow what he was talking about. But the point is, in the end, there was room in the world for both. We use AC for most things and DC for some things. And most people spend absolutely zero time thinking about it. And that right there, I think, should be the major takeaway of this long electricity saga.
Jason Feifer: For such a smart inventor, Edison misunderstood how people think and, frankly, how innovations seep into the world. DC, AC, nobody could care about that. What we care about is something that feels controllable. We want to know the outcome of a new technology. What will change in our lives? What will it replace? Oftentimes, because of the slow way that electricity's impact spread across time and space, we knew the answers. Before the electricity actually arrived in our homes, the fear was directed at real problems with real solutions. The anxiety when it did pop up were all around the unknowable. Will corn grow to twice the size under the glare of nighttime light? Who knows until, of course, we did know. And then, that fear went away.
Jason Feifer: It's not just the product that people want. It's the result. It's the outcome when something new becomes available, people want to see where it's leading them. They want a light that illuminates the darkness in front of them. And then, as history is shown, they are willing to take that step forward, and that's our episode. Don't forget we have awesome companion visuals that you really should check out all made by our sponsor for this episode, Coalesce. You can find them at coalesce.nyc/pessimists. I'm going to spell that out for you, C-O-A-L-E-S-C-E.N-Y-C/pessimists with an S. And if you forget that address, you can also find the link at our website which is pessimists.co.
Jason Feifer: Hey, question for you. Do you like this show but you haven't subscribed to it on iTunes or another podcast platform yet? Oh come on. Please, do that. I don't want you to miss an episode. And also, we love getting feedback. You can find us on Twitter at @pessimistsarc, A-R-C, as well as by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a whole bunch of people to thank this episode, Jill Jonnes, Adam Allerhand, Susan Spellman, Matthis Kirshel, Jane Brox, Ken Miller, Robert Krulwich, and Calestous Juma's book, Innovation and its Enemies from which I drew a lot of the research for this episode. And the Archival readers you heard from Coalesce were-
Noami Piercey: Naomi Piercey.
Rodney Staton Piercey: Rodney Staton Piercey.
Alex Severino: Alex Severino.
Tucker Margulies: Tucker Margulies.
Justin Rancourt: Justin Rancourt.
Jason Feifer: Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. You can find more at babypantsmusic.com. And the other music you heard in this episode was from Tri-Tachyon, Art of Escapism, Loyalty Freak Music, and Jahzzar. We'll have links to them all at our site, pessmists.co. I'm Jason Feifer. And the Pessimists Archive team, this episode included Louis Anslow, Chris Cornelius, and Jennifer Ritter.
Jason Feifer: And here's where I have some terribly sad news to share. Jennifer Ritter whose name I just said and who has been a part of this show since its earliest days, passed away during the production of this episode. So, I'd like to take a moment and tell you about her. In one of our first episodes, I put a little call out in the credits asking for volunteers willing to help us make this thing. And Jen was the first to reach out. So, we hopped on the phone. She had basically no background in anything I was looking for. But it was just so instantly clear that she was smart, inquisitive, a joy to talk to and eager to learn.
Jason Feifer: She'd been recovering from an organ transplant and had time on her hands and was looking for something new to learn. So, I dubbed her a producer and asked her to help me track down sources and book interviews which was a role she jumped into in like the most delightful way. Here's a voicemail she left me a little over a year ago after tracking down some hard-to-find historian for one of our episodes.
Jennifer Ritter: Hi, Jason. It's none other than Jen Ritter, girl detective, calling you. I emailed. I was able to track down Dr. [inaudible 00:43:08] email. And I got a response from her. And I forwarded it on to you. But anyways, I just wanted to share that with you because it was really kind of exciting to reach out into the void and have somebody reach back. I'm sure that doesn't always happen. But it did happen this time. And so, yeah, check your email. Let me know what you think. I hope you and your family have had a wonderful holiday. And I will talk to you soon. Okay. Bye, Jason.
Jason Feifer: I remember listening to that voicemail, and thinking I am so lucky to have found this person. Over time, I came to value not just Jen's help but her perspective. The episodes you've heard over the past year were improved in ways large and small by her. She would give amazing notes on scripts and really push for ways the show could be more insightful and understanding. She was full of ideas and enthusiasm. But throughout this time, Jen's health never fully recovered.
Jason Feifer: Jen helped me find some of the people you heard in this episode. And a few weeks ago, I emailed her the first draft of this script hoping to get back another round of amazing Jen Ritter insights. Soon after, her dad wrote me with the news Jen had passed away on March 24th. One of the ideas that Jen had was to end every episode by saying what the next episode is about. Close listeners will notice that we did that for a few shows. Those stopped because frankly I was just not organized enough to always know what the next episode will be. So, in the spirit of that, I'll say first, thank you Jen, and we'll miss you terribly. The next episode of Pessimists Archive will come out soon. I don't know what the subject will be just yet. But I know it won't be quite the same without you.
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