Contrary to Popular Belief, This Famous Inventor Didn't Electrocute Topsy the Elephant
Contrary to Popular Belief, This Famous Inventor Didn’t Electrocute Topsy the Elephant

Contrary to Popular Belief, This Famous Inventor Didn’t Electrocute Topsy the Elephant

Wyatt Redd - October 13, 2017

If you’re a history buff, you may have heard the story of “Topsy” the Elephant. And the story you know probably goes something like this: Thomas Edison, trying to prove that his rival’s “alternating current” was more dangerous than his own form of “direct current,” arranged to electrocute an elephant with AC, proving how dangerous it was compared to DC. So poor Topsy, caught in the “War of the Currents” was electrocuted in front of a crowd of spectators to prove a point. It’s a good story, but the truth is slightly different.

While there was definitely a “War of the Currents” between famed inventors Nikolai Tesla, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison, and while Topsy definitely got electrocuted, there’s little evidence to suggest that Edison arranged the spectacle to prove his point. But there is still a lot of historical value in the story. It tells us a great deal about the early period of electricity. And the story of Topsy the Elephant also reflects the casual cruelty to animals that people practiced. So, what can we really learn from the sad fate of Topsy the elephant?

In the early 19th Century, the world didn’t rely on electricity the way it does today. Most works was performed by human or water-wheel power and people often went to bed as soon as the sun went down. Anyone who wanted to work or socialize into the night had to do so by candlelight. Of course, that all began to change with the invention of the lightbulb. And contrary to popular opinion, the lightbulb was not the work of Thomas Edison. Instead, electric lighting was invented by Englishman Humphrey Davy.

Contrary to Popular Belief, This Famous Inventor Didn’t Electrocute Topsy the Elephant
Topsy the Elephant Being Electrocuted. Odd Salon

That’s not to make light of the work that Thomas Edison did in popularizing electric lights. Edison employed people whose work was invaluable in making lightbulbs practical and affordable for mass use. And while Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb, his work is one of the most significant reasons that electric lighting became as widespread as it is today. And that pattern, where Edison took an existing invention and refined it for mass use, defines much of his career. The practice of making inventions useful for everyone also allowed Edison to position his company at the front of the market.

The influence of Edison’s company, the Edison Illuminating Company, is perhaps most obvious when it comes to electricity. With the first practical light bulb and the infrastructure to extend electric power across the nation, Edison was able to establish something close to a monopoly on electricity. But as with all monopolies, competitors soon emerged to challenge Edison for a share of the market. In response, Edison quickly moved to do whatever he could to discredit and eliminate these competitors. This competition between Edison and the rival electric companies led to the birth of what we today call “the War of the Currents.”

Contrary to Popular Belief, This Famous Inventor Didn’t Electrocute Topsy the Elephant
Nikolai Tesla/ The Odyssey

When Edison began the process of electrifying cities across America, his company was a strong proponent of something called “direct current.” Direct current, or DC, works by directing power continuously across a circuit. It’s a simple way to provide electricity and was well suited to the early days of electric power. But DC had a number of faults. To begin with, there was no way to keep power flowing if there were a break in the cable at any point. Because the electricity flows along a straight path, a block anywhere in the current shut off power throughout the entire system.

In addition, DC delivers a more powerful charge, which meant that it could be more dangerous for people working on the electric wires. So, Edison hired a young Serbian inventor named Nikolai Tesla to help him improve his direct current model. Rather than focusing on how to improve DC, Tesla soon realized that the best thing to do was use another method of power called “alternating current,” or AC. AC worked by alternating the intensity of the current along different circuits.

This provided a number of advantages like safety and the ability to keep electricity flowing when there was a break in the current. And AC could also be extended over long distances much more cheaply than DC, which was vital in bringing electricity to the interior of the nation. But when Tesla brought his idea to Edison, he promptly told Tesla that there was no future in AC. So, two years later, Tesla left Edison’s company and patented AC. Tesla then took his idea to Edison’s biggest competitor, George Westinghouse. Westinghouse’s company, Westinghouse Electric, soon began using the AC model to directly challenge Edison’s control over the electric grid.

Edison, who was nothing if not a shrewd businessman, immediately began looking for ways to regain the edge his company had enjoyed in the market. As Edison soon realized, his DC model wasn’t as good as Westinghouse’s AC model and never could be. So rather than trying to improve his own process, Edison began trying to discredit his competitor by arguing that AC electricity was too dangerous to use in the electric grid. Luckily for Edison, this mission to prove how dangerous DC was happened to come at the same time as a shift in the justice system. Around that time, people were becoming more concerned about the way that criminals were treated.

Edison quickly recognized an opportunity and managed to convince the prison system to begin executing convicted murderers with electricity in order to be more humane. And thanks to Edison’s influence, the first person to be executed in the electric chair died with the help of alternating current. The fact that Edison played a role in the introduction of the electric chair probably explains how he got wrapped up in the legend of Topsy the Elephant. After all, Topsy was another “murderer” who was ultimately executed with electricity. But Edison’s actual involvement in the whole episode was a little less direct than you have probably heard.

Contrary to Popular Belief, This Famous Inventor Didn’t Electrocute Topsy the Elephant
Thomas Edison/ How Stuff Works

Topsy was an Asian elephant who was secretly smuggled into the United States. She was quickly purchased by circus master Adam Forepaugh, who falsely advertised Topsy as “the first elephant born on American soil.” Topsy quickly grew to be ten feet tall and weigh over four tons. And in 1902, Topsy the Elephant made national news when she killed a spectator at Forepaugh’s circus. The incident wasn’t entirely Topsy’s fault; the patron in question had grown angry that Topsy wouldn’t drink the whiskey he offered her and then burnt the tip of her trunk with a cigar, prompting Topsy to crush him to death.

But the story of a killer circus elephant was too valuable not to make use of, and Forepaugh soon began parading Topsy across the country and charging admission to see the “killer elephant.” But after a number of other near-death incidents caused by Topsy’s drunk handlers, Topsy’s owner realized he couldn’t keep her. Instead, he decided to cash in on the Elephant’s notoriety one last time by arranging a public execution. And on January 4, 1903, Topsy was to be executed by due to be strangled with a crane at Luna Park in New York. The cost of admission was 25 cents.

When Edison heard of Topsy’s story, he quickly dispatched some of his employees to capture the incident in the new medium of film. But contrary to the popular story, this seems to have been the limit of Edison’s involvement in the affair. To begin with, the electrocution doesn’t seem to have been Edison’s idea. It was actually part of a broader strategy Topsy’s executioners came up with to handle the problem of killing an elephant. Topsy was poisoned with cyanide-laced carrots, hung from a crane, and electrocuted with 6,600 volts of electricity. And while it seems the electricity was probably what killed her, it was never meant to be a showcase of the dangers of AC.

In addition, Edison was never actually present at Luna Park, which shows that he probably wasn’t that interested in the demonstration. Finally, and most tellingly, by the time Topsy was electrocuted, the “War of the Currents” had been over for almost ten years. Westinghouse had already been awarded the contract to build electrical generators at Niagra Falls, which is largely regarded as the point at which AC current won the battle over DC. So it would have made little sense for Edison to have arranged for Topsy’s execution as part of a fight that he had already lost.

Ultimately, the idea of Edison electrocuting Topsy to prove a point paints a picture as the inventor as unethical and unscrupulous. It falls into the popular pattern of reimagining historical figures as less heroic than they are usually presented. And while Thomas Edison’s brilliance has no doubt been exaggerated in history, he doesn’t seem to be on the hook for Topsy’s death. So while there are a lot of reasons to dislike Thomas Edison, killing an elephant isn’t one of them. And the story shows why you need to take every historical anecdote, heroic or otherwise, with a grain of salt.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

The Real History Behind The Current War – Time Magazine

Battle Of The Currents- AC vs DC

Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point – Wired

Topsy the Elephant Was a Victim of Her Captors, Not Thomas Edison – Smithsonian Magazine

Did Edison really electrocute Topsy the Elephant? – Thomas A. Edison Papers

Who Invented the Light Bulb? A Quick History – Bricsys CAD Blog

Inventing Edison’s Lamp – American History

How George Westinghouse Influenced Electricity – ThoughtCo

Thomas Edison Secretly Financed The First Electric Chair To Destroy His Rival – Business Insider