Who invented the electric chair?

It was first used for an execution over a century ago, and is still used in some cases today, but who came up with the idea?

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed

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Who invented the electric chair?
The execution of William Kemmler in 1880 – the first time an electric chair is used. (Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

After witnessing a fatal but accidental electrocution in 1881, New York dentist Dr Alfred P Southwick lobbied for electrocution as a humane capital punishment.

To that end, he modified a dentist’s chair and began experimenting on animals.

The electric chair’s 1890 debut caused outrage as two shocks were needed to kill murderer William Kemmler, but the idea was soon adopted across many states.

In the course of his work, Southwick sought advice from Thomas Edison, whose electrical company championed Direct Current (DC).

Edison secretly arranged for a chair to be built powered by Alternating Current (AC) to scare people into thinking it was more dangerous.

Edison, however, lost the ‘War of the Currents’.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner. For more fascinating questions by Greg, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.

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