Alternating current (AC) lights up our homes and workplaces, and powers up our appliances through wall sockets. AC is relatively cheap, and its high voltage allows it to be transported long distances. The other main current, direct current (DC), is relegated mostly to batteries. However, there was a time in the nineteenth century when the issue was still undecided, and powerful interests competed fiercely to decide whether AC or DC would dominate the world.
AC had been invented by Nikola Tesla, and was supported by George Westinghouse, who pushed it as the best means to bring electricity to the masses. On DC’s side was Thomas Edison, who had developed it to power his light bulb. There was serious money at stake, so Edison launched a smear campaign against AC, on grounds that it was unsafe and deadly. He went to great lengths to make his point.
Compared to alternating current, direct current is crappy because it is weaker, and can only be transported short distances. However, Edison had already invested millions in DC, and he was not about to let the upstart AC flush that investment down the drain if he could help it. So when a dentist named Alfred Southwick sought his help to develop a humane method of execution by electrocution, Edison decided to turn AC’s strength into a liability, by highlighting its ability to kill.
He talked Southwick into using AC in what became the electric chair. Also, to cement in the public’s mind the link between AC’s risks and its promoter, George Westinghouse, Edison coined a catchy term for the new method of execution: “Westinghousing”. Edison then went on a whirlwind public tour to demonstrate AC’s deadliness, and used AC to publicly electrocute dozens of dogs, cows, horses, and a circus elephant named Topsy.
4. When America Had Hundreds of Thousands of Child Soldiers
Today, child soldiers are a tragic phenomenon associated mostly with domestic conflicts in the Developing World countries and failed states. However, there was a time when child soldiers did not even raise eyebrows in the US. The most extensive use of American child soldiers occurred in the country’s bloodiest dispute, the US Civil War.
It is estimated that a fifth of all military personnel in the Civil War were under eighteen. More than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen years old or less. There were even cases in which children as young as eight were put in uniform.
3. America’s Child Soldiers Were Often in Even More Danger than the Adults in Uniform
For the most part, child soldiers in the US Army were utilized as drummers, buglers, cooks’ assistants, nurses, orderlies, general gophers, or put to work in other non-combatant positions. However, during the storm of shot and shell as battles raged, Civil War child soldiers were frequently just as exposed to bullets and artillery as were the grown men on the firing line.
In the US Navy, children frequently served as “powder monkeys” in warships. Tasked during combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger during action as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, considering that they were scurrying about carrying sacks of gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment, the little powder monkeys might have been at greater risk than the rest of the crew.
During the Civil War, the military made some nominal effort to keep its child soldiers safe. They were prohibited from fighting on the front lines or being present in the firing line during combat. However, children are children, full of curiosity and frequently heedless of and insensate to danger and mortal risk to life and limb. They often ignored the restrictions.
During the war, there was no dearth of instances in which child soldiers snuck off to the firing lines in order to see for themselves the excitement of battle from up close. In the heat of battle, many picked up rifles and rushed into the maelstrom, fighting and dying alongside the adults.
During the Civil War, there were age restrictions on official enlistment in the military. In the Union, enlistees had to be over 16. However, such restrictions were usually honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Many an under-aged Northern boy, eager to enlist, had little trouble in finding a recruiter willing to sign him up so long as he was willing to put one hand on the Bible, raise the other, and swear that he was “over 16”. Some children ingeniously reconciled their consciences with the lie by writing the number “16” on a piece of paper, and sticking it to the bottom of a shoe, thus enabling them to honestly swear that they were “over 16”.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading