Saturday, December 15, 2007


In the last month or so I have posted a couple of pieces on government interference with industry. One post contained this quote from Thomas Edison:

"Any extension of the Government into business affairs -- no matter what the pretense and no matter how the extension is labeled -- will be bound to promote waste and put a curb on our prosperity and progress." --Thomas Alva Edison
The other post (Its Taxing To Make A Buck) was about GE and other companies trying to get coal fired electrical plants banned in order to profit from the ban. Now what is so ironic about all this is that Edison founded General Electric. What is even more ironic about all this is that Edison was at war with Westinghouse to determine if AC or DC distribution of electricity was to be the favored standard.
Edison carried out a campaign to discourage the use of alternating current, including spreading information on fatal AC accidents, killing animals, and lobbying against the use of AC in state legislatures. Edison directed his technicians, primarily Arthur Kennelly and Harold P. Brown, to preside over several AC-driven executions of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs but also unwanted cattle and horses. Acting on these directives, they were to demonstrate to the press that alternating current was more dangerous than Edison's system of direct current. Edison's series of animal executions peaked with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant. He also tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being "Westinghoused".

Edison opposed capital punishment, but his desire to disparage the system of alternating current led to the invention of the electric chair. Harold P. Brown, who was at this time being secretly paid by Edison, constructed the first electric chair for the state of New York in order to promote the idea that alternating current was deadlier than DC.

When the chair was first used, on August 6, 1890, the technicians on hand misjudged the voltage needed to kill the condemned prisoner, William Kemmler. The first jolt of electricity was not enough to kill Kemmler, and left him only badly injured. The procedure had to be repeated and a reporter on hand described it as "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." George Westinghouse commented: "They would have done better using an axe."
So despite Edison's great rhetoric, I think he really meant that he was against government interference in his business. He was not against using it against his competitors.

You have to keep an eye on these boys.

We are lucky Westinghouse won the battle because the AC system was technically better. Just think of how much it would have delayed progress if Edison had been able to get a national ban on AC electrical transmission.

In a way we are faced with the same prospect. GE wants to get its cheaper competitors banned (fossil fuels) so it can profit from the sales of its higher cost production methods. They aren't doing anything unusual here. Just reverting to their roots.

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Alex Green said...

Which all goes to show that, as in most sports, you need a referee.

Any volunteers?

M. Simon said...

There are always plenty of volunteers. The question is: who can you trust?

M. Simon said...

In our system of government in America there are 535 referees. All bribable.

And even if they were uncorruptible they make mistakes.

There is a better way. In America we have 300 million referees and we let them make their own choices. It is called "the market".