Harold P. Brown

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For other people named Harold Brown, see Harold Brown (disambiguation).
Harold Pitney Brown
Harold Pitney Brown engineer 1857 1932.png
Born September 16, 1857
Janesville, Wisconsin
Died 1944
Volusia, Florida
Nationality American
Education self-educated
Engineering career
Engineering discipline Electrical engineer
Employer(s) The Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago, Brush Electric Company, Private consultant
Significant awards Edward Longstreth Medal

Harold Pitney Brown (September 16, 1857, Janesville, Wisconsin – 1944 Volusia, Florida)[dubious ] was an American electrical engineer and inventor known for his activism against the use of alternating current for electric lighting in New York City (during the "War of Currents") as well as his involvement in the building of the first electric chair, based on the design by Dr. Alfred P. Southwick.[1] His involvement in these events is controversial since he was working parallel with (or colluded with) Thomas Edison, showing a preference for Edison's direct current power system and advocating for severe restrictions on AC power systems that would put Edison's competitors at a disadvantage.[2]


Harold P Brown was born in Janesville, Wisconsin on September 16, 1857, the son of General Theodore F. Brown and Frances Brown. His family dated back to the Plymouth Colony (Peter Browne being a passenger on the Mayflower)[3] with members participating in the revolutionary war and the War of 1812. His father was in the American Civil War and received an honorary rank of brigadier general for his role in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

Harold P. Brown graduated Chicago High School in 1876 and prepared to enroll in mining engineering courses at Harvard but was unable to since the great Chicago fire of 1871 had left his family in reduced circumstances. After high school he was employed at the The Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago working on development and manufacturing of electrical devices, including Edison’s electric pen duplicating machine, from 1876 to 1879. From 1879 to 1884 he worked for Brush Electric Company in charge of designing and installing their alternating current arc lighting systems. From 1884 to 1887 he operated his own electrical consulting business, Brown Electric Company, where he worked in inventing improved AC arc lighting equipment.

Brown moved to New York in 1887 and worked as consultant for the New York and Westchester Railroad, Edison General Electric, and consulted on the development of the electric chair with Governor David B. Hill and the State of New York. He also did consulting work for the City of Newark, Dayton Ohio Buffalo Electric Rail Line and the Louisville Electric Rail Line. Up through 1912 he invented and manufactured a plastic rail bond electric contact alloy and went on to invent and manufactured a method of applying concrete with compressed air or steam.

Brown was awarded the Edward Longstreth Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1899.[4]

Anti-AC crusade[edit]

Further information: War of Currents
The myriad of telephone, telegraph, and AC power lines over the streets of New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888. A boy killed by a shorted AC line caused by this storm was one of the cases cited by Brown.

After a series of deaths in New York caused by the tangle of pole mounted high voltage (up to 6000 volt) alternating current lines Brown came to public prominence when he wrote a letter to the New York Post on June 5, 1888 describing the overhead lines as a public menace stating:

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.

His crusade brought him to the attention of inventor Thomas Edison who was becoming engaged in a propaganda campaign against alternating current companies including Westinghouse Electric Company in what would come to be called the War of currents. Edison lent Brown the uses of his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory to prove his claims against alternating current.

After much experimentation killing a series of dogs Brown held a public demonstration on July 30 in a lecture room at Columbia College[5] where he demonstrated that up to 1000 volts of DC would not kill a dog while 300 volts of AC would kill. He went on to support legislation to control and severely limit AC installations and voltages (to the point of making it an ineffective power delivery system). The legislation was unsuccessful but another bill to move AC lines underground in New York City, put forward before Brown's campaign, passed in 1889 after a further series of highly publicized deaths that year caused by alternating current.

Electric chair[edit]

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

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 and the apparently lethal aspects of high voltage electric current had caught their attention as a possible method. 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 saw the that an AC powered electric chair would further show the public the dangers of the current.

Brown would go on to help develop the electric chair, again with the help of Edison's laboratory. Brown did further animal testing to develop the prototype. Some evidence shows he also seemed to be colluding with Thomas Edison and Westinghouse's chief AC rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, to surreptitiously acquire three Westinghouse AC generators to power the electric chair.[6] The AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889.

Brown would continually claim he had no actual association with Edison although an August 1889 New York Sun story published letters stolen from Brown's office that seemed to show Brown was receiving directions from, and being paid by, the Edison company as well as Thomson-Houston, including the story on the acquisition of the Westinghouse AC generators.[6][7]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Electrocution". Crimemuseum.org. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  2. ^ Jill Jonnes, Empires Of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, And The Race To Electrify The World, Random House - 2004, page 165-169
  3. ^ John William Leonard, Winfield Scott Downs, M. M. Lewis, Who's who in Engineering, Volume 1, page 196 - Brown, Harold Pitney
  4. ^ "Franklin Laureate Database - Edward Longstreth Medal 1899 Laureates". Franklin Institute. Retrieved November 14, 2011. 
  5. ^ Howard B. Rockman, Intellectual Property Law for Engineers and Scientists, John Wiley - 2004, page 469
  6. ^ a b Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing - 2005, pages 190-195
  7. ^ James F. Penrose, Inventing Electrocution, inventionandtech.com