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Electrocution is death caused by electric shock, electric current passing through the body. The word is derived from "electro" and "execution", but it is also used for accidental death. The word is also sometimes used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity. 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.
The health hazard of an electric current flowing through the body depends on the amount of current and the length of time for which it flows, not merely on the voltage. However, a high voltage is required to produce a high current through the body. The severity of a shock also depends on whether the path of the current includes a vital organ. Death can occur from any shock that carries enough sustained current to stop the heart. Low currents (70–700 mA) usually trigger fibrillation in the heart, which is reversible via defibrillator but is nearly always 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 developed throughout the 1880s and first implemented by the state of New York because it was thought to be a more humane alternative to hanging.
The adoption of electrocution as the official method of execution in the United States came after the introduction of very high voltage arc lighting systems with people noticing how high voltage seemed to kill instantaneously without leaving a mark on its victim. An 1881 death of a drunken man who grabbed an arc lighting generator led Buffalo, New York dentist Alfred P. Southwick to develop this phenomenon into a way to execute condemned criminals with him basing his device on form he knew well, a dental chair. In 1886 a three-man committee (which included Southwick) was tasked with coming up with a new form of execution and recommended electrocution via Southwick's electric chair with three such devices set up at three different prisons. This new method passed through the legislature, was signed into law on June 4, 1888, and set to go into effect on January 2, 1889. The new law did not specify the type of electricity, the amount of current, or exactly how it would be supplied since these were still relative unknowns. The design of the chair was finalized by George E. Fell, who had worked with Southwick in animal experiments the early 1880s. Fell had been conducting a further series of animal experiments trying to discern exactly how electricity killed a subject. The New York Medico-Legal Society, an informal society composed of doctors and lawyers, was given the task of determining the type and amount of current and the details of its application. In December 1888 Alternating current in the range of 1000-1500 volts was adopted after the Society's technical consultant, noted anti-AC activist Harold P. Brown, demonstrated the killing power of AC to them, dispatching 4 calves and a lame horse with 750 volts of AC at Thomas Edison's West Orange laboratory. This became a noted event in the AC/DC "war of the currents" between Edison's direct current system and industrialist George Westinghouse's alternating current system. At that time Brown was receiving behind the scenes support from Edison, a collusion where they were trying to portray alternating current as a public menace and the "executioners current". The electric chair was built by Edwin F. Davis, the first "state electrician" (executioner) for the State of New York.
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. Westinghouse funded appeals of prisoners on grounds that electrocution was "cruel and unusual punishment", but the state won the appeals.
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 allowable in only six states (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) and then 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
- "electrocute". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2015-08-22.
- 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: 2825–2827. doi:10.1109/IEMBS.1992.5761711.
- Randall E. Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, Crown/Archetype - 2007, page 171-173
- Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History pages 14-24
- Craig Brandon The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 24
- Richard Moran, Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group - 2007, pages 102-104
- Richard Moran, Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group - 2007, page 4
- Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing USA - 2009, pages 152-155
- Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: an American history, Harvard University Press - 2009, pages 194-195