Harold P Brown, Anti AC Crusader

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This is the first in a series of interesting topics to spark conversation over a nice bourbon with friends we are calling them Chats.  
 
Let’s talk about Harold P Brown, he almost brought down an entire industry we could not live without today.
 
Harold was born in 1857 in Wisconsin and graduated from the very first high school in Chicago.  He was going to attend Harvard to study mine engineering, however, the great Chicago fire of 1871 had other plans.  His family was left in financial ruin so Harold stayed in Chicago and started working for various electrical companies to help support his family.
 
Working his way through several companies and gaining knowledge along the way, he eventually started his own electrical consulting company in 1884.  During this time he mostly worked on inventions to improve the current lighting and electrical distribution system.  In 1887, Harold moved to New York to work for the Railroad but shortly would catch the eye of Thomas Edison.
The Letter that Changed Things
In 1888, Harold wrote a letter to the New York Evening Post titled “Death in the Wires”.  It outlining the dangers that the AC (Alternating Current) power system had on the public.  Saying if a telegraph wire were to drop on a power line “wear away the insulation, and set a death trap for the unwary who may be miles away from an electrical lamp”.  
 
The letter went on to say the only reason for using an AC current system was to save money.  The companies did not have to “spend a larger sum of money for the heavier copper wires” which the safer DC (Direct Current) system used.  Ending the letter with a proposed set of safety rules, one, in particular, would practically prohibit the use of AC current.
 
This letter made its way around the industry.  One commentator on these proposed rules categorizing the state of electrical cables in the city streets as “criminally dangerous” and installed in a “reckless manner”.  Then stated about the letter:
 
“It is absurd for Mr. Brown to talk about lighting stations and simple rules and precautions to be enforced therein. No precautions at the station, however valuable they may be in themselves, can render electric lighting safe when the outside circuits are in this condition”
 
Other commentators talked about their experiences and the positive safety records of AC current.  As well as the explosive business expansion happening at the time and the much larger reach of the AC current system.  The comment section was on fire!
Edison Takes Note
Around this same time, Thomas Edison was at war with The Westinghouse Electric Company over the two electrical systems.  It was the “Battle of the Currents”, pitting the DC system from Edison to the AC system of Westinghouse.  You can imagine a lot was at stake.
 
Edison reads the letter and offers Harold a job and some lab space to develop experiments proving AC is more dangerous than DC.  He performed many experiments utilizing dogs as test subjects.  Trying various combinations of voltages, he found it took 1000 volts of DC current to kill a dog but only 300 volts of AC current would do the same.
 
Harold took his experiments to the public, demonstrating the deadly capabilities at Columbia University.  This performance landed him as a consultant on the committee that was developing the Electric Chair for New York State.  Both he and Edison thought this would be a great opportunity to display the dangers of AC to a larger audience. 
The Electric Chair
By this time the electric chair had been in development for around a decade using both AC and DC current.  New York had already passed a bill to replace hanging with electrocution as the main form of capital punishment.  But before the law went into effect the details had to be worked out for the exact parameters that would be used during executions.
 
The Medico-Legal commission, composed mostly of lawyers and doctors, was formed to determine the type of current (AC or DC) and voltage to use.  With Harold’s assistance, they set up a demonstration to kill a horse and two calves by using AC current.  Incidentally, this was performed in a lab owned by Thomas Edison.
 
It was determined that 1500 volts of AC power would be used in official executions.  The commission went on further to determine electrode placement with yet another demonstration of the deadly force of the AC power system.
 
At this point, the New York state death penalty commission was satisfied and wanted to build 3 chairs within the prison system.  The job of finding the AC generators went to, you guessed it Harold P Brown, however, The Westinghouse Electric Company did not want to sell them any generators for obvious reasons.  But with the help of Edison and $5,000, some decommissioned generators were secretly found and ultimately used in the first execution.
So What Happened?
Edison would go on to deny any direct involvement with Mr. Brown, however, private letters would soon become public by the New York Sun newspaper showing there definitely was.  The Sun attacked Brown in this article saying he was not fit to be an expert to the state and called him out for his “crookedness”.  
 
Some in favor of DC current even said the partnership was “distasteful”, especially when they knew their own technology had similar dangers. Later, receipts would be found in the Edison Archive showing the purchase of the executed animals.
 
As you can imagine, and thankfully so, AC power was not prohibited.  Despite the underhanded work of both Edison and Brown, AC current won the war and prevailed.  The nature of electricity has not changed since it was discovered, how we handle it has.  Changes are made every year to regulations regarding AC power systems so a high level of safety can be maintained.
 
Harold P Brown went on to invent a method for applying concrete with compressed air used for lining tunnels along with other innovations involving concrete.  
Extra Credit
The first production electric chair was built by Edwin F Davis, he was known as the “State Electrician” also known as executioner.  How about that for a title?
 
The electric chair was first conceived by dentist Alfred P. Southwick as a way to euthanize stray dogs for the ASPCA in Buffalo NY.  At this time they were only interested in horses and livestock it was not till the turn of the 20th century that they brought dogs and cats under their umbrella.
 
Media never changes, someone would get electrocuted, there would be media outrage, then it went away until it happened again.  The news cycle doesn’t change it only gets shorter. 

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