Nikola Tesla on Electrical Safety - Newspaper Article from 1896 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Friday, September 20, 2013

Nikola Tesla on Electrical Safety - Newspaper Article from 1896

Stevens Point Daily Journal, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, July 20, 1896, Page 1.

Tesla Tells How to Avoid Danger
in Using Electricity.
Metallic Paint Conducts the Current--It
Is Easy to Set Your House Afire
with Electric Lights--Iron
Buildings Are Safest.
[COPYRIGHT, 1896.]
Electricity has been a great blessing to mankind, but it has also proved a new source of danger, especially in large cities.

That is as fearful as it is wonderful, is a truth that has not escaped the greatest minds in the electrical world. While man, eager to possess such a powerful ally, has welcomed it, not alone into the business world, but into his own home, he has failed to study its varying moods and death-dealing proclivities. True, anyone with average intelligence does not care to tempt fate in the shape of a sizzling live wire, but they are daily running unconscious risks of being ushered across the borderland of eternity through ignorance of the remarkable ways and means by which the electric current may travel. It was in order to gain more knowledge of the hidden dangers, especially in large cities where its very general use has tended to bring about a disregard for its attendant dangers, that the writer called on several eminent electricians. Some difficulty was at first experienced in inducing them to give their views. But when it was explained that the purpose of the article was not to attack, but rather to remove existing dread of electricity by pointing out how to avoid danger in its use the seal of silence was broken. Nikola Tesla, whose fame needs no mention here, was found in his shirt sleeves, bending over an X-ray apparatus in his den of wonders, more properly speaking his laboratory on East Houston street, New York city, when the writer called, and by way of introducing the subject referred to the case of George Collet, of 243 Grand street, of that city, a merchant, an account of whose remarkable
death was telegraphed all over the country. A short piece of gilded molding, acting as a conductor of the fiery fluid, brought about the death of Mr. Collet.

Collet was in the prime of life and enjoying robust health. He was stricken dead while in the act of fixing an arc light, something that he had done many times before without any harmful effects. In this instance, however, he used a strip of molding about five feet long. It was gilded, and the gilt was thoroughly dry, yet the gilt, according to the physicians and electricians who saw the body after death, acted as the messenger of death, by conducting the electricity to his body. The circuit was complete, as Collet was standing on an iron support at the time.

That so simple an agency as dry gilt paint proved sufficient as a conductor of the deadly fluid was a surprise to many, but Nikola Tesla said:

"Every metallic paint is a conductor of electricity, and it is only one of the many dangers to which persons unaccustomed to dealing with that fluid are subject. You cannot call it a new danger, as it has existed of course since electricity was first put into practical use. It is, however, a new instance of fatal results of carelessness in dealing with it."

"Are there any new dangers attending the use of electricity?" he was asked.

"No new dangers, but the ever existing danger of death from that source is being almost daily instanced in one part of the country or another, in some such manner as Collet was killed," he explained.

Killing of Menzie and Woods at Lietz's.
"Even experienced linemen must always be on their guard to preserve their lives. Damp wood is a conductor of electricity, and the damper the wood the greater the danger. The most careful persons in the world in handling electricity are electricians who are constantly experimenting with it. It is their knowledge of the terrific force of it which makes them so cautious.

"You can say," said Mr. Tesla, after a moment's thought and an injunction that his remarks must not be viewed in the light of an alarmist, "that the great minds in the sphere of electricity are constantly seeking to minimize the danger of high voltage in cities. They are trying to render it as harmless as it was in the hands of the Greeks,
for therein lies a discovery that will be as great a boon to mankind as its manifold benefits."

Down in the vast cellars of the Western Union building in New York there are thousands of live wires, the end of every one if exposed more deadly than the sting of any snake, and yet Mr. Tesla declares that there is less danger than there would be in a building where there were perhaps only two or three inoffensive-looking wires.

"Anyone is infinitely more safe in an iron building amid scores of wires, than in a brick or wooden building," he declares, "because the very proximity of so many wires would tend to draw the electric current one from another, and the iron would draw it from all, thus minimizing the danger to any person in a building where electric wires are in use. Death might of course be found in a gilt picture frame, providing the current was strong enough, and the conditions permitted a ground connection. It would be perfectly safe to touch any object that might be charged with electricity, provided the feet did not touch the floor, or that the latter was of dry wood, carpeted or covered with some other non-conductor. But if the floor should be of iron or other metallic substance, or of wet wood, the necessary ground connection would be there, and the current would pass through the body. This is a subject which should be generally taught.

"The newspapers frequently record the action of horses in rainy weather," continued Mr. Tesla, "prancing about in pools of water in the vicinity of subways from whence electricity has escaped in quantities sufficient to charge the water, which, coming in contact with the iron-shod hoofs of the animals, makes them dance. In many of the western cities where electricity is just being introduced into general use for all sorts of purposes, accidents of this character are of common occurrence, and frequently a horse receives a fatal shock."

Of late there has also been a general complaint among persons who are obliged to use the telephone frequently, that in stormy weather especially, they
are always receiving shocks more or less severe. This is especially true of persons who have to use the long-distance telephone. A case was recently noted of a man in Chicago who received a shock at a telephone sufficient to knock him down while he was talking to a man in Philadelphia.

The incident could not be a first accounted for, but he learned later that at the time of his talk there was a violent thunder storm raging in the City of Brotherly Love. Great care should always be taken in using the telephone during a thunder storm.

One of the many dangers, which the public seems oblivious of, is that an electric light can set fire to a curtain or a paper shade almost as quick as a gas jet, if left in close contact. There was a case reported a few months ago in a New England town where a papier mache shade on an electric light caught fire, and falling on the carpet started a blaze which almost destroyed the house, and burned to death a child whose parents had gone out leaving the little one in bed asleep. A patient in the Westchester sanitarium in New York state recently threw a linen handkerchief over an incandescent bulb, and then reclined on a bed with his back to the light to read.

Within a few minutes he smelled smoke, and got up from the bed to go to his window, thinking the scent came from the hall. Upon arising, however, he saw the handkerchief in flames and even as he looked it fell on the table covering and set that afire. Fortunately he was enabled to extinguish the blaze before it had gained any great headway.

The death dealing current claimed two more victims in Philadelphia the other night, at Lietzs' Washington park, Twenty-fourth street and Allegheny avenue. Richard Menzie, aged 20 years, of 730 Allegheny avenue, a visitor to the park, and Albert M. Woods, who conducted a photograph gallery at the place, were almost instantly killed by coming in contact with a wire screen on the building which had been crossed by an electric light wire. Woods, the photographer, lost his life by a most foolhardy action. After he saw Menzies lying on the ground stunned by the screen, he foolishly grabbed the fine wires of the latter and ---- himself killed.