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Electrocution is death caused by electric shock, either accidental or deliberate. The word is derived from "electro" and "execution", but it is also used for accidental death. The term "electrocution," coined about the time of the first use of the electric chair in 1890, originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental or suicidal electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for non-judicial deaths due to electric shock, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death from the new commercial electricity. The first recorded accidental electrocution (besides lightning strikes) occurred in 1879 when a stage carpenter in Lyon, France touched a 250-volt wire.
Death can occur from any shock that carries enough current to stop the heart. Low currents (70–700 mA) usually trigger fibrillation in the heart, which is reversible via defibrillator but can be fatal without help. Currents as low as 30 mA AC or 300-500 mA DC applied to the body surface can cause fibrillation. Large currents (> 1 A) cause permanent damage via burns, and cellular damage. The voltage necessary to create current of a given level through the body varies widely with the resistance of the skin; wet or sweaty skin or broken skin can allow a larger current to flow. Whether an electric current is fatal is also dependent on the path it takes through the body, which depends in turn on the points at which the current enters and leaves the body. The current path must usually include either the heart or the brain to be fatal.
Execution by electrocution
Execution by electrocution, using an electric chair, has been employed as an official method of capital punishment in only two countries, the United States and the Philippines, and is now almost obsolete. It was invented in the United States in 1881 as a more humane alternative to hanging. It was promoted by inventor Thomas Edison, who built the first electric chair, and conducted many public tests on animals, using alternating current (AC) electricity. Part of Edison's motivation was to make AC electricity look dangerous in the public eye, to give his competing DC electric distribution system an advantage in the war of the currents. The first person to be executed by electrocution was William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; 1000 volts was applied to his body for 17 seconds, but he was found still to be breathing after it and a second shock of 2000 volts was required to kill him.
The electric chair became the dominant method of execution in the United States around 1900, and remained so until the 1980s, when lethal injection became widely accepted on the grounds that it was more humane. Today in the United States electrocution is only an option in five states (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia) and only as a secondary method, which a condemned prisoner may choose as an alternative to lethal injection. The last use of the electric chair was on January 16, 2013, when Robert Gleason elected to be executed with it in Virginia. The Philippines adopted electrocution in 1924 under US occupation, and used it until 1979.
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- "Electrocute" from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English Language, 2009
- Lee, R.C.; Rudall, D. (1992). "Injury Mechanisms And Therapeutic Advances In The Study Of Electrical Shock". Proceedings of the Annual International Conference of the IEEE 7: pp.2825–2827. doi:10.1109/iembs.1992.593814.