Today In Science History – August 6 – First Electric Chair Execution

Kemmler execution
Artist’s sketch of the execution of William Kemmler, the first man executed by the electric chair on August 6, 1890.

On August 6, 1890, murderer William Kemmler was executed by a new invention, the electric chair.

The electric chair was designed by Harold Brown while employed by Thomas Edison. Edison was currently waging a business war against Westinghouse over how electrical power would be supplied to customers. Edison owned many patents that relied on direct current (DC) as the method to transmit power. Westinghouse owned many of Nikola Tesla’s patents that relied on alternating current (AC). Both sides tried to convince the public and governments their way was the more effective, economical, and safer way to use household electricity. This “battle” became known as the War of Currents.

Edison was no stranger to showmanship and public relations. He would constantly tout AC as the dangerous and deadly current. Brown publicly electrocuted stray dogs and showing how 1,000 Volt DC did not kill, but 1,000 Volts AC would kill a dog.

When the state of New York set up a commission to find a new, more humane way to execute their death row inmates, Edison recommended a device that used Westinghouse’s alternating current. He had hoped to associate AC with the execution of criminals, not something you’d want in your house. Brown designed the chair using one of Westinghouse’s generators and was installed at Auburn Prison.

Kemmler murdered his common law wife, Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet. The State of New York sentenced him to death for this crime. After failing an appeal against the new method of execution, he was strapped into the chair and electrodes placed on his head and legs. When the switch was thrown, 1000 volts of AC electricity coursed through his body. This was the amount believed necessary to induce immediate unconsciousness and brain death. In fact, it had been successfully tested on a horse the day before. Kemmler was exposed to 17 seconds of current and pronounced dead. Unfortunately, Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physician verified Kemmler was still alive and ordered the current to be turned back on. This time, he was exposed to twice the voltage and his blood vessels under his skin began to burst and his hair and skin began to smolder. Witnesses reported the stench was unbearable. The execution was a disaster. When asked about it, Westinghouse said: “They would have done better using an axe.”

Westinghouse would eventually ‘win’ the War of Currents, and Edison would later admit he was short sighted when it came to alternating current.

Other Notable Events On August 6

2012 – NASA’s Curiosity rover lands on Mars.

Curiosity Selfie
Composite “Selfie” image compiled from images taken by the Mars Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA

NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars and began its mission to find evidence if life ever existed on the planet. The rover’s instruments would also search for water and study Martian geology and climate.

Curiosity’s success is serving as the basis for another planned Mars rover in 2020.

1979 – Feodor Felix Konrad Lynen died.

Lynen was a German biochemist who shares the 1964 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Konrad Bloch for research concerning the metabolism of cholesterol and fatty acids.

1945 – U.S. uses the first atomic weapon.

Hiroshima Mushroom
Mushroom cloud over the Japanese city of Hiroshima shortly after the dropping of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb. Credit: National Archives

The United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The “Little Boy” bomb was the result of America’s crash atomic weapons program under the Manhattan Project. The Department of Energy estimated that by the end of 1945, the death toll from this single explosion would exceed 100,000 and double over the next five years.

1930 – Joseph-Achille Le Bel died.

Joseph Achille Le Bel
Joseph-Achille Le Bel (1847 – 1930). Wikimedia Commons

Le Bel was a French chemist who was a co-founder of the study of stereochemistry. He was investigating the polarization of light when reflected off of organic compounds. He theorized a molecule in which four different atoms or groups were linked to a carbon atom could exist as mirror images of each other. He published his theory independently of Jacobus van’t Hoff, who was also working on stereochemical molecules.

1881 – Alexander Fleming was born.

Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955)
Credit: US National Library of Medicine

Fleming was a Scottish biologist who discovered the antibiotic penicillin. Penicillin was the first of many antibiotic drugs that successfully treated a variety of bacterial diseases. This discovery would earn him part of the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Ernst Chain and Howard Florey. Fleming was also the first to identify the enzyme lysozyme and identified its antibacterial effects.

1766 – William Hyde Wollaston was born.

Wollaston William Hyde
William Hyde Wollaston (1766 – 1828). Wikimedia Commons

Wollaston was a British chemist who developed the first method of producing pure platinum from ore. He also discovered the elements palladium and rhodium while researching platinum. He was the first to observe the Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum which led to the discovery of the elements in the Sun.