Harold P. Brown

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For other people named Harold Brown, see Harold Brown (disambiguation).

Harold Pitney Brown (September 16, 1857, Janesville, Wisconsin – July 26, 1932, Malden, Massachusetts, VS) was the American credited with building the original electric chair based on the design by Dr. Alfred P. Southwick.[1] He was hired by Thomas Edison to help develop the chair after he wrote an editorial to the New York Post describing how a young boy was killed after accidentally touching an exposed telegraph wire using alternating current. He was awarded the Edward Longstreth Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1899.[2]

Early career[edit]

The first electric chair, which was used to execute William Kemmler in 1890

Prior to working with Edison, Brown labored as a salesperson for the Western Electric Company and the Brush Electric Company, selling electrical devices, most notably Edison’s electric pen. However, the ambitious Brown aspired to be more than a salesman. Edison was his role model. Still, with little formal training in the field of science or invention, Brown failed in securing several patents of his own.[3]

His golden opportunity came during the hey-day of the War of Currents between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). Brown would side with Edison and DC and staked his career on proving that AC was more deadly than DC and thus should not be used as the current of choice for powering electrical devices in homes.[3]


As Brown was beginning his career as a salesman, Edison and his direct current system was competing with the Westinghouse electrical company, which used alternating current. Since Brown's work at the Brush Electric Company depended on DC, he became a leading critic of AC. In a June 1888 letter to the editor of the New York Post, Brown made his views loud and clear:.[3]

The only excuse for the use of the fatal alternating current is that it saves the company operating it [AC] from spending a larger sum of money for the heavier copper wires which are required by the safe incandescent systems. That is, the public must submit to constant danger from sudden death, in order that a corporation may pay a little larger dividend.

A few years prior to Brown's article, New York State in 1886 established a committee to determine a new, more humane system of execution to replace hanging. Neither Edison nor Westinghouse wanted their electrical system to be chosen because they feared that consumers would not want the same type of electricity used to kill criminals in their homes. With Brown increasingly spearheading the claims about the dangers of AC, he also thought the claims could be used as cudgel against accepting the economic advantages of using AC for common consumption.

In order to prove that AC electricity was better for executions, Brown and Edison killed many animals while testing their prototypes. They also held executions of animals for the press in order to ensure that AC current was associated with electrocution. It was at these events that the term electrocution was coined. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey laboratory in 1888.

Though the campaign to discredit the alternating current system failed, the AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Electrocution". Crimemuseum.org. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  2. ^ "Franklin Laureate Database - Edward Longstreth Medal 1899 Laureates". Franklin Institute. Retrieved November 14, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c McNichol, Tom. (2006). AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass