Topsy and Thomas Alva Edison

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Teachers still teach their students that “Thomas Alva Edison was the inventor of light bulbs.” This is wrong. He did not invent it and neither did he claim to do so. He said that he had improved it and patented it under his name. But he did not really improve it either. Joseph Swan improved the bulb after 22 men had already worked on it. So why do we know the name of Thomas Alva Edison? Well it took almost half a century to unmask him, but finally the truth has been revealed. He was more of a businessman than an inventor. He hired people to invent things and ultimately he put the patent on it under his own name. Thus half of the things that he claimed to have invented, were actually created by inventors whose names shall forever remain unknown.


He stole inventions, and if that wasn’t bad enough- he tortured animals. Of course, according to him it was for the Greater Good. Nikola Tesla, who had worked for Edison for about a year, had failed to invent anything for him. But independently, Tesla invented the alternating current. While Thomas Edison had the direct current, he knew that the competition was harmful for his reign as “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” He tried his absolute best to prove that the AC current was harmful.

Logically, this did not make much sense. AC current was just as harmful as the DC current because electrical current was harmful in general. But Edison tried to convince the people that AC could kill through crude measures. He wrote to Henry Bergh of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and asked him to provide some ‘good-sized dogs’ to experiment upon. The experiment was simple. Edison’s men collected pets and stray dogs, cats and horses. In front of a crowd, Edison proceeded to electrocute these animals using AC current to prove that it was not safe. The research laboratories became slaughter houses. These murders had no scientific justification at all. It was a mere stunt to terrify the public.


The war of currents proved to be fatal for not only many such animals but at least one unfortunate human and Tesla. Though we consider Edison to be the father of the electric age, the title belongs to Tesla. Edison was famous for a reason- he knew how to earn money from the inventions(which however were not his own) while most of the other inventors were a bit eccentric and lousy businessmen. Tesla was a nice man, which often resulted in him losing out upon well deserved fame. The invention of the radio, the discovery of radar and the X-ray (for which Marconi, Watson-Watt and Rontgen are credited respectively) were all predicted by Tesla even if he was given zero credit. He discovered and invented tons of other things but died misunderstood and broke. Edison had his share of blame in the lack of Tesla’s popularity.


Instead of hailing a cruel and undeserving man as a hero, we must look at the facts. But till this day, most of the world know about Thomas Alva Edison and not Nikola Tesla. There is a valid reason for this- people only cared about the invention of things they needed immediately, not futuristic inventions that they could not understand. Tesla was way ahead of his times. Edison on the other hand rushed to the patent office as soon as his workers invented something useful. One of the most controversial inventions that Edison stole is the electric chair. It was invented by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly who worked for Edison. Some people noticed that death by electric shocks were normally quick and supposedly painless, so they wanted to use this attribute of electricity too.


Edison wanted to use the AC current to prove his point. After electrocuting several animals again, they decided to put finally use it on a man named William Kemmler, a convicted murderer. Appeals were made saying that this was an ‘unnatural’ method of killing but since there was no proof that it would be cruel, the court decided to proceed with the electrocution. Quick and painless was a myth. He did not die the first time he was electrocuted, he merely became unconscious. When he was electrocuted again blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and the areas around the electrodes were singed. The entire process took 8 minutes. George Westinghouse later commented that “they would have done better using an axe.” It was an awful spectacle.


But this entire article is not about any of Edison’s other victims- but Topsy. This is the story of Topsy that should be known. As a circus elephant, she was tormented throughout her life. The sensitive tip of her trunk was burnt with a lit cigar, she was attacked with pitchforks. One day she could tolerate no longer and revolted. She killed her tormentor. As a punishment, she was sentenced to death by hanging. It was considered impractical by some and ultimately Edison stepped up to deliver her punishment. He was still trying to prove that the AC current was bad. Electrocuting an elephant would prove how harmful AC current could be. It was a spectacle. People could watch how the majestic elephant was killed. A video of the execution still survives. An AC current of 6600 volts was send through her body. In the video, she is seen obeying the men’s orders to raise her feet to kneel. She then topples to the ground and is seen to move for several seconds. She died on January 4, 1903.

Topsy was innocent. She merely wanted to protest against the pain and she was gifted with more agony. Her story is not the only one in history. Chunee’s story is worth knowing too.


This article started with Thomas Alva Edison and I will end with a few words about him. He was not a hero and it’s about time we stop considering him to be one. Cruelty of such proportions can never be excused.