/ #Brown #Current war 

Icons of EE: Harold P. Brown

Although the War of Currents might seem a classic feud between Edison and Westinghouse, both Army Generals had their lieutenants. For Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla was an important player because of his advancements in alternating current inventions. Edison was far from alone in his fight, receiving unofficial cooperation from Harold P. Brown, feared by many as “The Executioner”. Brown rose when the competition was getting ever more heated, when Edison needed him the most.

Harold Pitney Brown was born in Janesville, Wisconsin on September 16, 1857, son to Civil War veteran General Theodore F. Brown and his wife, Frances Brown. After graduating at Chicago High School, his wish to study mining engineering at Harvard University was not granted because of his family financially suffering under the great Chicago Fire of 1871. He had to work at the Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago from 1876 to 1879, working on the manufacturing of several electrical devices, including Thomas Edison’s exclusive contract with W.E Mfg. Co. to produce his electric pen duplicating machine.

In 1884 he started his own electrical consultant business, Brown Electric Company, where he worked on inventing improved arc lighting equipment. The first competition with Nikola Tesla had begun when Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing Company was founded in December of that same year, which was focussing on arc lighting development at the same time [2]. Through Brown’s career he worked at several instances as a consultant, one of which as the advisor to the governor of New York on the development of an invention that could be seen as an important battle within the War of Currents.

The pamphlet published February of 1888 by Edison Electric president Edward Johnson, expressing a warning for accidental alternating current electrocutions and emphasizing on the safety of direct current solutions, had sparked a beginning to Brown’s crusade.

Meanwhile describable as an experienced electrical engineer, Brown used his authority to send a letter to the editor of New York’s post in the spring of 1888 which brought him to prominence. He wrote that he could not use any other adjective other than “damnable” in describing alternating current, and that its manufactures had nothing but profits rather than the public’s safety on their minds.

Stirring up the public and causing a storm of controversy, Brown entered the radar of Thomas Alva Edison himself. Brown obtained the permission to use one of Edison’s laboratories, to experiment with his unique range of equipment in the hopes of proving the fatality of alternating current .

The great reveal

After spending the whole month of July in Edison’s private laboratory, he presented his findings in a most spectacular way. On July 30, 1888, he gathered a large audience including members of the Board of Electrical Control, electrical industry and representatives of the press. After presenting his findings in a paper, Brown proved his thesis by having a 35 kg dog fed with subsequent 300, 400, 500, 700 and finally 1000 Volts of pure pain with an Edison dynamo. Many of the spectators had left the room after the dynamo had turned off, and Brown remarked: “The dog will have less trouble when we try the alternating current. As these gentlemen say, we shall make him feel better.” [3]

The direct current had indeed not killed the dog, but the 330 Volts alternating current and unknown amperage that were thereafter applied did put an end to the poor animal’s suffering. A spectator rightfully remarked that Brown’s experiment made a Spanish bullfight seem a moral and innocent spectacle by comparison.[3]

Westinghouse responded, saying firstly that Brown was biased because of his acclaimed payment from Edison Electric Light Company. Additionally, the experiments were not valid, since accidental shock would not be applied at the brain (where many of the experiments he had done were applied, apart from his presentation), but at the hands.

In response, Brown challenged Westinghouse in the most dramatic way, appearing to be inspired by a very weird Western: He challenged Westinghouse to a current duel, receive alternating current and Brown direct current through their respective bodies. Increasing the voltage with increments of 50 Volts, until one of the recipients cried “enough” and would publicly admit his errors. Westinghouse did not dare to engage, and Brown observed that also in his home, Westinghouse did not dare to use alternating current.

The execution

Meanwhile, the State of New York experienced a sudden ethical awakening, and decided on sourcing an alternative to execution by hanging for it being inhumanly painful if the condemned was still conscious after the drop. Since it depends on many factors if the hanged would retain his or her consciousness, Brown was lobbying to research the possibilities of electrocution, hoping to achieve a more humane solution to the death penalty.

On January 1, 1889, the world’s first electrical execution law came into affect, and in March the state prison officials authorized Brown to supply, install and put into operation the apparatus for its execution. Brown was determined to use Westinghouse dynamo’s, although he didn’t have the money on his own, as the state would not finance the project until it was proven successful. Through a competitor of Edison, Thomson-Houston Electric Company, Westinghouse generators were bought, possibly with the help of Edison. In disguise, the generators were transported to the prison, to prevent any Westinghouse people from destroying the dynamo if it would be identified.

Judge Childs sentenced William Kemmler to be executed by electrocution on the 13th of May. In order to execute the sentence, the State of New York had to defend death by electricity. Various hearings under physicians and electrical engineers were held, including all the major players in the War of Currents. One point on which serious doubt was upheld, was the possibility of any mutilation of the victim’s body, as it would be argued to be cruel by Kemmler’s attorney. This was disproven by showing prepared results from Edison’s employees by an accurate determination of the electrical resistance of the human body, which allowed for accurate determination for the amount of current needed to mutilate it substantially. It was concluded to be higher than the amount of current Brown was planning to channel through the convicted.

Judge Day decided Kemmler to be executed by electricity in August 1890. The official report of the first legal electrocution gave August 6, 1890, as the date of Kemmler’s death. Before 25 officials, it was described as sudden and painless, except it was noted that after 17 seconds of current and within half a minute, slight movements could be observed. After 2 minutes, a second contact of 70 seconds was applied, after finally taking Kemmler out of the chair and officially being declared dead.

This resulted in conflicting opinions, where discussion was had on the amount of pain the executed had received. What both parties did agree on was the fact that Kemmler might not have been dead, but senseless after the first application.

Ending of a conflict

After the AC-war had died down, Brown continued working as a consultant. He took part in the invention and manufacturing of a plastic rail bond electric contact alloy and invented a method of applying concrete with compressed air or steam, until he retired in 1912. He lived on to the age of 62, when he died in Volusia County, Florida , 1932.

The execution practically ended the conflict, as alternating current had acquired much fame and infame during Brown’s most active period. Brown’s name disappeared as quickly as it appeared in the newspapers, and the question resides if the strategy of Brown’s warmongering methods prevented the adaptation of alternating current in any way.

Cover image source: “Une exécution par l’électricité à New-York”. Unknown author - Le Petit Parisien - Supplément littéraire illustré, 17 août 1890. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

[1] Harold P. Brown, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_P._Brown)

[2] Nikola Tesla, The Robinson Library (http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/technology/electrical/biography/tesla.htm)

[3] T. P. Hughes, “Harold P. Brown and the Executioner’s Current: an Incident in the AC-DC Controversy,” Bus. Hist. Rev., vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 143 to 165, 1958.