Electric Utility Marketing

These days it’s not unusual to see the local utility advertising on TV or to receive a solicitation in the mail from a competing retail supplier of electricity. But do you know…

What was the first utility marketing campaign?

Reddy Kilowatt? Nope.

In the late 1880s, Thomas Edison, with his direct–current central station power system, was losing market share to Westinghouse and his alternating–current system. In order to convince people that AC utility service was a menace to public safety, Edison—who was otherwise a staunch opponent of capital punishment—took an active role in promoting the use of the AC–based electric chair for executing criminals. In 1888 Edison provided funding, laboratory research space, and technical assistance to Harold Brown for his experimental AC electrocution of dogs and horses. Then in July of 1889, Edison testified in a New York court that AC was better suited for executing prisoners because it produced a much more intense shock than did DC. Edison also financed construction of the first electric chair and provided assistance to Harold Brown for the surreptitious procurement of a Westinghouse AC dynamo. The first person to be executed by electricity was one William Kemmler. He died in the electric chair of New York’s Auburn penitentiary on August 6, 1890.

Just one battle in the War of the Currents.

For further information on this fascinating story, I highly recommend the book, Executioner’s Current by Richard Moran. Another more detailed, though I found less entertaining account is Edison & the Electric Chair by Mark Essig. One I haven’t had the opportunity to read is Blood and Volts by Th. Metzger.

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