Nikola Tesla on Edison's "Golden Jubilee" and The Electric Chair - An Engineer's Aspect


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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nikola Tesla on Edison's "Golden Jubilee" and The Electric Chair

In early November of 1929, Nikola Tesla penned a letter to the New York World expressing his frustration and hurt not being invited to the "Light's Golden Jubilee" celebration honoring Thomas Edison on October 21, 1929.

Quoting the The Henry Ford Museum website:
"On October 21, 1929, Henry Ford hosted an elaborate celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, in honor of his friend Thomas A. Edison. Known as Light’s Golden Jubilee, the date marked the 50 th anniversary of Edison’s invention of the electric light. Ford also planned his event as a dedication of his own lasting tribute to Thomas Edison and to American innovation, the Edison Institute of Technology (later renamed Henry Ford Museum) and Greenfield Village. Here, Henry Ford had moved the Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory where the inventor made his discovery so many years before.

The RSVPs for Light's Golden Jubilee began pouring in to Ford Motor Company by early October 1929. Prominent businessmen like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and J.P. Morgan, scientist Marie Curie, inventor Orville Wright, and humorist Will Rogers were among those who enthusiastically accepted Ford’s invitation to be part of the landmark event .

A t 10 o’clock that morning, President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison arrived at Smiths Creek depot at Greenfield Village on a steam- powered locomotive, much like the one on which Edison had sold papers as a youth. They were met by invited guests that numbered more than 500. The crowd roared their approval and congratulations as Edison , Hoover and Ford stepped from the train to begin the day’s festivities."

All of the major scientists of the time were invited to attend the event...except Nikola Tesla, clearly a public snub.

So, Mr. Tesla responded with his letter-to-the-editor. While I couldn't track down the original letter, I found other newspapers reported about and quoted directly from this letter.

Along with Tesla's response to being excluded from the Jubilee celebration, he took the time to express his dismay over the use of the electric chair, calling it "cruel and unusual punishment."

Following are three of the articles about Nikola Tesla's letter.

The Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, USA, Tuesday Evening, November 12, 1929, Pg 8.


Laymen somewhat vaguely connect Nikola Tesla with electricity. The Tesla tube is an easily remembered alliteration.

Mr. Tesla's contributions to electricity, indeed, have been so important that one authority says that "were we to eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn. ...our towns would be dark, our mills dead and idle."

A letter in the New York World praises the pioneer work of Thomas A. Edison, but ranks his electric lamp as of far less importance than Tesla's alternating current generator with its rotating magnetic field, and the letter is signed by Nikola Tesla himself. It is one of those letters that should be written by a man's pupils or associates rather than by the person most concerned, for a scientific man, which Mr. Tesla undoubtedly is, does not need to extol his own accomplishments to the crowd, if his contributions are recognized in the field where his success has laid.

There is in Mr. Tesla's letter a clear note of envy at the publicity received by Edison, who admittedly is greatly advertised. There is one sensational statement in Mr. Tesla's letter. This is that Edison's and his associates' opposition to his (Tesla's) alternating current system led to the adoption of a commercial type of machine for the electrocution of criminals "by which the poor wretches are not despatched in a merciful manner, but are literally roasted alive."

This is not the statement of an irresponsible, but of a noted scientist whose work has been recognized.

Capital punishment by electrocution was attacked soon after its adoption in New York state on the ground that it was a "cruel and unusual punishment" and was therefore unconstitutional. The courts made short shrift of the argument. Mr. Tesla asserts that while an individual suffering from electrocution is bereft all sense of the consciousness of time, he retains a keen sense of pain "and a minute of agony is equivalent to that through all eternity."

There ought not to be doubt about this question. Is electrocution, recently adopted in Illinois, a painless process or is it a monstrously brutal one?

The Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, USA, Thursday Morning, November 14, 1929, Pg 6.


While the world was paying recent tribute to Thomas Edison for his services to humanity few realized that a little old man in New York City was experiencing the pangs of a not entirely unreasonable jealousy. That man was Nikola Tesla, also entitled to the term "wizard" and also one of the big factors in the evolution and development of applied electricity.

Early this month Mr. Tesla emerged from his characteristic reserve to draft a letter to the New York World. It was a mild protest and it was written with due appreciation of his fellow scientist, Mr. Edison. The writer did not descend to any very cheapening evidences of jealousy, but the communication showed that he was deeply hurt by being ignored in the hour of Edison's exclusive glorification.

One cannot read it without a little feeling of sympathy for Tesla who incidentally is still a virile scientific figure, and still engaged in important discoveries and constructive work at the age of 72. The points he makes are entirely too technical for our ordinary minds to discuss intelligently but a few of his statements may be taken for what they are worth. He says in part:
"During the past thirty-five years it (electric lighting) has been almost wholly displaced by a more practical and efficient system based on my rotating magnetic field, a discovery which even hard-headed engineers and patent lawyers have declared to be 'one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind.'"
Further on he quotes Dr. B. A. Behrend, electrical expert, in his work on induction motors as follows:
"Were we to eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla's work the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric trains and cars would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills dead and idle. So far-reaching is this work that it has become the warp and woof of industry."
Sticking up for what he believes to be his rights, Mr. Tesla concludes his column protest with this observation:
"No amount of praise is too much to bestow upon Edison for his vigorous pioneer work, but all he did was wrought in known and passing forms. What I contributed constitutes a new and lasting addition to human knowledge. Like his lamp, my induction motor may be discarded and forgotten in the continuous evolution of the arts but my rotating field with its marvelous phenomena and manifestations of force will live as long as science itself."
It is sincerely to be hoped that, as Admiral Schley said after the naval engagement at Santiago, "There is glory enough for all."

The Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, USA, Friday Morning, November 22, 1929, Pg 6.


It comes as something of a shock to learn that electrocution is not painless, either premeditated, as in the case of criminals, or accidental in everyday mishaps. We have the word of Nikola Tesla for this in a recent interview in the East. He blames the alternating current. In fact, a persons who steps on a live wire, he contends, will probably suffer less than the murderer who dies in the chair. Mr. Tesla is a very temperamental savant and has long been opposed to capital punishment. On that account he feels rather strongly on the subject. Tesla says the ideal way to dispatch a condemned man would be by thunder-bolt, which, though violent, would first cause unconsciousness.

Legislators of various states, he points out, were humane men and adopted the electric chair because they believed it was painless. He is very confident that they were mistaken, and he further declares that the French guillotine or the old-fashioned hemp is a much more pleasant medium for departing this life--if not exactly more pleasant, at least less painful. In view of these disclosures, Montana may feel that it acted wisely in rejecting past proposed legislation to adopt the electric chair for legal executions of condemned men.

It has taken Mr. Tesla a long time to give this information to the public, and it was only given out since he admitted his feelings were hurt when he was ignored in the recent Edison anniversary ceremonies. Along similar lines, he declares that the incandescent light bulb is a "crude makeshift," the rays from which cause bald heads and weak eyes, and that his diffused ray lighting system is much better. The argument of Mr. Tesla about the electric chair would not appeal to the Chinese, who hold to the theory that the criminal should be made to suffer in proportion to the enormity of his crime; thus the very bad offender is not "bumped off" in a jiffy in China, but is made to suffer slow torture, known as "the death of a thousand wounds." As for the accuracy of his assertions about electrocution, one may or may not accept them. so far no one who suffered such a death has ever complained about it and there seems to have been plenty of bald heads and weak eyes before the advent of the incandescent.